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Ukraine is urging the United Nations (UN) to call an emergency Security Council meeting to condemn what the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry is calling “nuclear blackmail” on the part of the Kremlin.
According to a statement issued by the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry on Sunday, “Ukraine expects effective measures to counter the Kremlin’s nuclear blackmail by the United Kingdom, China, the USA, and France, in particular, as permanent members of the UN Security Council.”
“We demand to immediately convene an extraordinary meeting of the UN Security Council for this purpose,” the statement added.
The request from Ukraine came in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin announcing over the weekend that Russia has made an agreement with neighboring Belarus to place tactical nuclear weapons on its territory, which Ukraine views as a serious escalation aimed at not only Ukraine but also its Western allies.
Putin attempted to justify the move by claiming that it was needed to counter NATO, saying, “We are doing what they have been doing for decades.” It is likely that Putin was referring to the tactical nukes that the U.S., and therefore NATO, have had placed in Turkey, across the Black Sea from Russia’s southern border, for decades. The nuclear weapons in Turkey are part of a “nuclear sharing” policy between NATO allies.
Putin claimed that Russia could have nukes stationed in Belarus by the summer, but numerous analysts believe that to be unlikely. Regardless, many in the West viewed the claim as the Kremlin’s determination to use Russia’s nuclear arsenal to pressure Ukraine’s Western allies to shy away from supporting Kyiv.
Putin’s remarks were condemned by Western leaders as being irresponsible, even though many in the West doubt that Russia will make changes to the way it deploys nuclear weapons.
Amid other claims, Putin has stated that 10 Belarusian aircraft have been retrofitted to carry Russian nuclear weapons and also noted that a storage facility for the weapons would be ready by July 1.
Analysts have been quick to point out that even if Putin followed through on his remarks and did transfer some of Russia’s nuclear warheads to Belarus, it would not significantly alter the Russian nuclear threat as it already has the ability to target a large range of territory from within its borders.
There is also the ongoing history of Western allies having U.S. tactical nuclear weapons stationed in a host of European countries, which Russia has long condemned, so Putin’s insistence that the warheads are being repositioned to counter NATO is by far more of an excuse than it is a credible reason.
On Monday, Russia and Belarus launched joint aerial exercises in Belarusian airspace. The exercises are expected to last a full 2 weeks, ending on February 1. It is a worrisome sign for neighboring Ukraine as its war with Russia enters a full year next month.
Due to accusations from Kyiv that Belarus is about to join Russia in its war against Ukraine, Minsk called the drills “defensive in nature” in an attempt to downplay joint exercises that are being taken as an escalation by Ukraine. Minsk has also referred to the exercises as “technical drills.”
An Al Jazeera correspondent in Moscow noted that ” We all know that last month President Vladimir Putin went to Minsk, where he met his counterpart [Alexander] Lukashenko, where they agreed that Russia will provide the Belarusian air force with training to be able to use what they described as aircraft that could carry unconventional weapons.”
The correspondent added, “there are many concerns with the role Belarus is playing with respect to the war, whether this is going to have [an] impact.”
While there have been numerous reports over the last few weeks of heavy Russian equipment being transported by train into Belarus, the Pentagon said last week that it had yet to observe any Russian troop movements in Belarus that would suggest that Moscow and Minsk are planning new attacks on Ukraine.
The joint air force exercises being conducted over the next two weeks are set to include joint air patrols, airborne operations, action to support ground forces, transport flights, and air reconnaissance. It is unknown how many aircraft will be involved in the drills.
In anticipation of the joint exercises, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko visited a military base where Russian troops are stationed 10 days ago.
At the time of Lukashenko’s visit, a defense ministry official said, “At this stage, units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation are ready to carry out tasks as intended.” Lukashenko has also previously referred to Moscow’s war in Ukraine as part of Belarus’s “common cause” with Russia.
While the buildup of forces in Belarus for the joint exercises holds the attention of NATO and its Western allies, Kyiv has maintained a position that Russia is using Belarus as a staging ground to launch drones in its continued attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure.