Russia and Belarus signed a pact Thursday allowing Moscow to relocate an undisclosed number of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus as Russia's invasion of neighboring Ukraine enters its 16th month.
The Kremlin says it will maintain control of the shorter-range warheads to be transferred to its ally. It was not announced when the weapons would be sent there but Russian President Vladimir Putin has said storage facilities in Belarus would be completed by July 1.
The U.S. and Western allies have often warned Russia against the use of tactical nuclear warheads in the Ukraine conflict but also said at times they do not believe Moscow was on the verge of doing so.
Tactical nuclear weapons are intended for use in killing enemy troops and destroying armaments on the battlefield. They can be deployed for relatively short-range attacks and have a much lower yield than nuclear warheads fitted to long-range strategic missiles that can wipe out whole cities.
Both Belarusian and Russian officials characterized the transfer of the tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus as a response to Ukraine's much-anticipated counteroffensive to try to retake Russian-controlled territory in eastern and southern Ukraine.
Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin, in Minsk at a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, said, 'Deployment of nonstrategic nuclear weapons is an effective response to the aggressive policy of countries unfriendly to us.'
Shoigu said, 'In the context of an extremely sharp escalation of threats on the western borders of Russia and Belarus, a decision was made to take countermeasures in the military-nuclear sphere.'
Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya blasted the new agreement.
'We must do everything to prevent Putin's plan to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus, as this will ensure Russia's control over Belarus for years to come,' Tsikhanouskaya told The Associated Press. 'This will further jeopardize the security of Ukraine and all of Europe.'
Some material in this report came from The Associated Press.