TALLINN, Estonia -- Russian strategic nuclear weapons might be deployed to Belarus along with part of Russia's tactical nuclear arsenal, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said Friday, ramping up his rhetoric amid tensions with the West over the Kremlin's war in Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced last week that his country plans to deploy tactical, comparatively short-range and small-yield nuclear weapons in Belarus.
The strategic nuclear weapons such as missile-borne warheads that Lukashenko mentioned during his state-of-the nation address would pose an even greater threat, if Moscow moves them to the territory of its neighbor and ally.
Belarus was a staging ground for Russian troops to launch their invasion of Ukraine a little over 13 months ago. Lukashenko, in office since 1994, delivered his annual address amid escalating tensions over the conflict in Ukraine.
Both he and Putin have alleged that Western powers want to ruin Russia and Belarus.
“Putin and I will decide and introduce here, if necessary, strategic weapons, and they must understand this, the scoundrels abroad, who today are trying to blow us up from inside and outside," the Belarusian leader said. "We will protect our sovereignty and independence by any means necessary, including through the nuclear arsenal.”
While Putin emphasized that Russia will retain control over the tactical nuclear weapons stationed in Belarus, Lukashenko charged that he also will have a say.
“Don’t say we will just be looking after them, and these are not our weapons," he said. "These are our weapons and they will contribute to ensuring sovereignty and independence.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Friday denounced Putin's plan to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus as a reflection of Russia's battlefield setbacks and its increasing global isolation. Zelenskyy argued that it also means Lukashenko has yielded completely to Moscow's control, adding: "I think he no longer decides which weapons are located on his territory.”
Putin has said that construction of storage facilities for tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus will be completed by July 1 and added that Russia has helped modernize Belarusian warplanes to make them capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
While the deployment of Russian short-range tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus would put them closer to potential targets in Ukraine and NATO members in Eastern and Central Europe, it wouldn't make much sense for the Kremlin to station any of its strategic nuclear-tipped missiles on Belarusian territory. Those missiles have intercontinental range and can reach a target anywhere around the world from their positions in Russia.
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced to leave Belarus under official pressure after challenging Lukashenko in the 2020 presidential election that the opposition and the West rejected as rigged, denounced Lukashenko's push for Russian nuclear weapons as a betrayal of national interests.
“The deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus put the lives of Belarusians in serious danger and turns our country into a potential target for strikes, including nuclear strikes at the whim of the two dictators,” Tsikhanouskaya told The Associated Press.
Russia's political and economic support helped Lukashenko survive months of major opposition protests, and he has grown increasingly dependent on the Kremlin.
Earlier in the address, Lukashenko called for a cease-fire in Ukraine. A truce must be announced without any preconditions, and all movement of troops and weapons must be halted, he said.
Ukraine's presidential adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, quickly dismissed the proposal, saying that any cease-fire would allow Russia to stay in the occupied territories.
“This is totally inadmissible,” he tweeted.
Belarus and Russia have intensified their military cooperation since the start of the Ukraine war. Moscow has kept its troops and weapons in Belarus, although no Belarusian troops have participated in the fighting.
Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan all relinquished Soviet nuclear weapons, which were left on their terrotories after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Under the so-called Budapest Memorandum that accompanied giving up the weapons, Russia, the United States and Britain agreed to respect the territorial integrity of those countries.
Ukraine has repeatedly complained that Russia's 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and the 2022 invasion violate that agreement.
Lukashenko said Friday that he didn't want to lose his country's nuclear weapons, but was pressured into doing so by then Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
Speaking about the possible deployment of Russian strategic nuclear weapons to Belarus in Friday's speech, Lukashenko said that a week ago he ordered his military to immediately put the former base for Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles in order to make it ready for use.
“It's a highly technologically sophisticated structure,” he said.
“All the infrastructure has been created and is standing ready,” Lukashenko declared. “I'm sure that those measures will help sober up all those hawks across the ocean and their satellites for a long time ahead and force them to reckon with our people if they don't understand different language.”
Follow AP's coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine