A top security adviser to the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Sunday that Russian plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus would destabilize that country, which he said had been taken “hostage” by Moscow.

President of Russia Vladimir Putin announced the decision on Saturday, sending a warning to NATO about its military support for Ukraine and escalating a conflict with the West.

While the move was not unexpected and Putin said it would not violate nuclear non-proliferation pledges, it is one of Russia’s most outspoken nuclear signals since launching the invasion of Ukraine 13 months ago.

Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine Oleksiy Danilov speaks to the media in Kyiv, Ukraine on February 23, 2022.

Press Service of the President of Ukraine | Reuters

Oleksiy Danilov, head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, called it “a step towards internal destabilization of the country,” adding that it maximizes what he called the level of “negative perception and public rejection” of Russia and Putin in Belarusian society.

“(K)remlin took Belarus nuclear hostage,” he wrote on Twitter.

Putin likened his plans to the US placing its weapons in Europe and said Russia would not transfer control of the weapons to Belarus.

“We are not handing over (the weapons). And the US is not handing over (them) to its allies. We are basically doing the same thing as they have been doing for a decade,” Putin said.

However, this may be the first time since the mid-1990s that Russia has based such weapons outside the country. Experts told Reuters the development was significant because Russia has so far prided itself on not deploying nuclear weapons outside its borders, unlike the United States.

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

“By making a statement about tactical nukes in Belarus, he admits he is afraid of losing and all he can do is scare tactics,” tweeted Mykhailo Podolyak.

Washington, the world’s second nuclear power, downplayed concerns over Putin’s announcement and the potential for Moscow to use nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine.

“We have seen no reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture, nor any indication that Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon. We remain committed to the collective defense of the NATO alliance,” a senior US administration official said.

The official noted that Russia and Belarus had been talking about the transfer of nuclear weapons for some time.

Tactical nuclear weapons refer to those used for specific gains on a battlefield rather than those with the capacity to obliterate cities. It is unclear how many such weapons Russia has given it, 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 with no intention of following through,” it wrote.

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

“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,” Twitter said.

Putin condemns a “Western axis”

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 to Ukraine last year and the two nations stepped up joint military training.

Putin also denied on Sunday that Moscow was creating a military alliance with Beijing, arguing instead that Western powers are building a new “axis” similar to the partnership between Germany and Japan during World War II.

“That’s why Western analysts… are talking about the West starting to build a new axis similar to the one created in the 1930s by the fascist regimes in Germany and Italy and militarist Japan,” Putin said.

This was a reprisal of a theme he has often used in his portrayal of the Ukraine war – that Moscow is fighting a Ukraine in the grip of supposed Nazis, backed by Western powers that threaten Russia.

Ukraine – which was part of the Soviet Union and itself suffered devastation at the hands of Hitler’s forces – rejects these parallels as false pretexts for an imperialist war of conquest.

On the battlefield, Ukraine has shown more optimism in recent days about the brutal months-long battle for the eastern city of Bakhmut.

Bakhmut is a major Russian target as it seeks to fully capture Ukraine’s industrialized Donbas region. At one point, Russian commanders expressed confidence that the city would soon fall, but such claims have subsided amid heavy fighting.

Ukrainian forces have succeeded in blunting Russia’s offensive in and around Bakhmut, where the situation is stabilizing, commander-in-chief General Valery Zaluzhniy said on Saturday.

The General Staff said on Sunday that Ukrainian forces had repulsed 85 Russian attacks in the past 24 hours in several parts of the eastern front, including the Bakhmut area.