Russia's nuclear rhetoric 'dangerous,' NATO says, after Putin talks of deployment deal with Belarus

NATO on Sunday criticized Russia for its "dangerous and irresponsible" nuclear rhetoric, a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia would station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.

Kyiv denounces plan to station tactical nuclear weapons in neighbouring country

Two men watch a screen as they sit at a table.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko appear together in Moscow on Feb. 19 as they observe training launches of ballistic missiles. (Aleksey Nikolskyi/Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)

NATO on Sunday criticized Russia for its "dangerous and irresponsible" nuclear rhetoric, a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia would station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.

"NATO is vigilant, and we are closely monitoring the situation. We have not seen any changes in Russia's nuclear posture that would lead us to adjust our own," a NATO spokesperson said.

"Russia's reference to NATO's nuclear sharing is totally misleading. NATO allies act with full respect of their international commitments. Russia has consistently broken its arms control commitments, most recently suspending its participation in the New START Treaty."

A top security adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Sunday that Russia's plan announced on Saturday would destabilize Belarus, which he said had been taken "hostage" by Moscow.

Ukraine's government on Sunday called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to "counter the Kremlin's nuclear blackmail."

Although the move was not unexpected and Putin said it would not violate nuclear non-proliferation promises, it is one of Russia's most pronounced nuclear signals since the beginning of its invasion of Ukraine 13 months ago.

Oleksiy Danilov, head of Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council, called it "a step toward internal destabilization of the country," adding it maximizes what he called the level of "negative perception and public rejection" of Russia and Putin in Belarusian society.

"The (K)remlin took Belarus as a nuclear hostage," he wrote on Twitter.

Putin says U.S. guilty of similar action

Putin likened his plan to the U.S. stationing its weapons in Europe, and said Russia would not be transferring control of the weapons to Belarus.

He announced it in a television interview that aired on Saturday, saying it was triggered by a U.K. decision this past week to provide Ukraine with armour-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium.

"We are not handing over [the weapons]. And the U.S. does not hand [them] over to its allies. We're basically doing the same thing they've been doing for a decade," Putin said.

However, this could be the first time since the mid-1990s that Russia has based such weapons outside the country. Experts told Reuters the development was significant, since Russia had until now been proud that unlike the United States, it did not deploy nuclear weapons outside its borders.

Another senior Zelenskyy adviser on Sunday scoffed at Putin's plan, saying the Russian leader is "too predictable."

"Making a statement about tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, he admits that he is afraid of losing & all he can do is scare with tactics," Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted.

A man sits in a chair.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, seen in Kyiv on Feb. 16, says Russia's president is 'afraid of losing' the war in Ukraine and therefore is using scare tactics by announcing plans to station tactical, or non-strategic, nuclear weapons in Belarus. (Efrem Lukatsky/The Associated Press)

Washington, the world's other nuclear superpower, played down concerns about Putin's announcement and the potential for Moscow to use nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine.

U.S. downplays threat

John Kirby, spokesperson for the National Security Council, said in an interview on CBC's Rosemary Barton Live on Sunday that the U.S was aware of the reports but that the situation has not fundamentally shifted. 

"We're watching this closely. We've seen those reports. I can tell you that we've seen nothing that would indicate Mr. Putin is preparing to use tactical nuclear weapons ... and I can tell you that we haven't seen anything that would cause us to change our own strategic nuclear deterrent posture," Kirby said.

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Tactical nuclear weapons refer to those used for specific gains on a battlefield rather than those with the capacity to wipe out cities. It is unclear how many such weapons Russia has, given it is an area still shrouded in Cold War secrecy.

Analysts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said on Saturday that the risk of escalation to nuclear war "remains extremely low."

"ISW continues to assess that Putin is a risk-averse actor who repeatedly threatens to use nuclear weapons without any intention of following through," it wrote.

However, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons called Putin's announcement an extremely dangerous escalation.

Risk of 'catastrophic' consequences

"In the context of the war in Ukraine, the likelihood of miscalculation or misinterpretation is extremely high. Sharing nuclear weapons makes the situation much worse and risks catastrophic humanitarian consequences," it said on Twitter.

Putin said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had long requested the deployment. There was no immediate reaction from Lukashenko.

While the Belarusian army has not formally fought in Ukraine, Minsk and Moscow have a close military relationship. Minsk allowed Moscow to use Belarusian territory to send troops into Ukraine last year and the two countries stepped up joint military training.

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EU urges Belarus not to host weapons as fighting rages

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Sunday urged Belarus not to host Russian nuclear weapons, saying it could face further sanctions if it did.

"Belarus hosting Russian nuclear weapons would mean an irresponsible escalation and threat to European security. Belarus can still stop it, it is their choice. The EU stands ready to respond with further sanctions," Borrell said in a tweet.

On the battlefield, Russian forces hit military targets in Kharkiv, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, causing significant Ukrainian casualties, Russia's defence ministry said on Sunday.

Russia's TASS news agency cited a law enforcement source and the emergency services as saying on Sunday that a Ukraine-operated drone had caused an explosion in the centre of the Russian town of Kireyevsk in the Tula region, hurting three people and damaging three residential buildings.

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Russia has said in the past that Ukrainian drones have flown into its territory and caused damage to civilian infrastructure, an assertion Kyiv denies.

Ukrainian presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak said Russian forces had destroyed two apartment buildings in a missile strike on the eastern city of Avdiivka in the Donetsk region. He said there were no casualties.

Ukraine's General Staff said on Sunday Ukrainian forces had repelled 85 Russian attacks over the past 24 hours across the eastern front, including the Bakhmut area, the scene of brutal fighting in the last few months.

With files from The Associated Press and CBC News