The US is downplaying the threat of Russian nuclear strikes after President Vladimir Putin announced he would station nuclear weapons in neighbouring Belarus.
Russia’s latest move was described by an adviser to Ukraine’s president, Oleksiy Danilov, as making Belarus a “nuclear hostage”.
It also triggered a response from NATO, which criticised Mr Putin’s “dangerous and irresponsible” rhetoric.
But the threat of nuclear war has been played down by the US, and a Ukrainian defence ministry adviser told the BBC it would not change the outcome of the war.
“They cannot win this war because it is for them unsustainable, it is unwinnable, [and] they cannot defeat Ukraine because we have been living with the hypothetical threat of a possible nuclear strike from day one of the large-scale invasion,” he said.
Mr Putin revealed Moscow’s plan on Saturday (local time), announcing Russia would retain control over any weapons stationed in its neighbour’s borders.
Mr Putin likened it to the US stationing its weapons in Europe, while insisting that Russia would not violate its 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, and Ukraine called for a meeting of the UN Security Council in response.
While Washington played down concerns, NATO said the Russian president’s non-proliferation pledge and his description of US weapons deployment overseas were way off the mark.
“Russia’s reference to NATO’s nuclear sharing is totally misleading. NATO allies act with full respect of their international commitments,” a NATO spokesperson said in emailed comments to Reuters on Sunday.
“Russia has consistently broken its arms control commitments, most recently suspending its participation in the New START Treaty,” the unnamed spokesperson said.
New START caps the number of strategic nuclear warheads that the US and Russia can deploy, and the deployment of land- and submarine-based missiles and bombers to deliver them.
Experts said Russia’s move was significant since it had until now been proud that unlike the US, it did not deploy nuclear weapons outside its borders.
It may be the first time since the mid-1990s that it has done so.
Washington appeared to see no change in the potential for Moscow to use nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine, and it and NATO said the news would not affect their own nuclear position.
Analysts at Washington’sd Institute for the Study of War said the risk of escalation to nuclear war “remains extremely low”.
But the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons called Mr Putin’s announcement an extremely dangerous escalation.
Mr Putin said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had long requested the deployment. There was no immediate reaction from Mr Lukashenko.
Mr Putin on Sunday also denied Moscow was creating a military alliance with Beijing and instead asserted that Western powers are building a new “axis” similar to the partnership between Germany and Japan during World War Two.
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, abetted by Western powers menacing Russia.
War grinds on
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.
Ukrainian presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak said Russian forces had also destroyed two apartment buildings in a missile strike on the eastern city of Avdiivka in the Donetsk region. He said there were no casualties.
Meanwhile Russian authorities said a Ukrainian drone caused an explosion that injured three people in a town far from the two countries’ border.
The explosion occurred on Sunday afternoon in the town of Kireyevsk, in the Tula region about 300 kilometres from the border with Ukraine and 175 kilometres south of Moscow.
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