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Belarus launches nuclear drills a day after Russia announces them amid tensions with West

Belarus has launched drills using missiles and warplanes that have the ability to carry tactical nuclear weapons, a day after Russia publicly announced plans to conduct similar drills.

Belarus on Tuesday launched drills involving missiles and warplanes capable of carrying tactical nuclear weapons, which close ally Russia has deployed there amid tensions with the West over Ukraine.

The Belarusian maneuvers began a day after Russia announced plans to hold similar drills simulating the use of battlefield nuclear weapons in what it cast as a response to statements by Western officials signaling possibly deeper involvement in the war in Ukraine. It was the first time such an exercise had been publicly announced by Moscow.

RUSSIA ANNOUNCES NUCLEAR DRILLS IN RESPONSE TO 'PROVOCATIVE' COMMENTS BY WESTERN OFFICIALS

Belarus' Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin said a unit of Iskander short-range missiles and a squadron of Su-25 fighter jets will take part in the drills.

The maneuvers, held jointly with Russia, began as Russian President Vladimir Putin was inaugurated to a fifth term on Tuesday, vowing to ensure Russia's security.

Last year, Russia moved some of its tactical nuclear weapons into Belarus, which also borders Ukraine and NATO members Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has relied on close ties with Russia and provided his country as a staging ground for the war in Ukraine.

Moscow has emphasized that the tactical nuclear weapons deployed to Belarus remain under Russian military control.

Unlike nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles that can destroy entire cities, tactical nuclear weapons intended for use against troops on the battlefield are less powerful. Such weapons include aerial bombs, warheads for short-range missiles and artillery munitions.

The deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, which has a 1,084-kilometer (673-mile) border with Ukraine, would allow Russian aircraft and missiles to reach potential targets there more easily and quickly if Moscow decides to use them. It also extends Russia’s capability to target several NATO allies in Eastern and Central Europe.

Both Putin and Lukashenko said that the Russian nuclear weapons' deployment to Belarus was intended to counter perceived Western threats.

Lukashenko on Tuesday cast the drills as "exclusively defensive," arguing that the Russian nuclear weapons are intended to deter any potential aggression against Belarus. "This is a weapon of deterrence, a defensive weapon," Lukashenko said.

The Belarusian leader said the drills will involve the delivery of tactical nuclear weapons from storage to military units where they will be mounted on missiles and attached to warplanes. The missile units will practice covert deployment to firing positions to simulate a response to an attack on Belarus, he said.

Belarus' opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced to leave the country under official pressure after challenging Lukashenko in an August 2020 presidential vote, met on Tuesday with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and denounced the Russian nuclear weapons' presence in Belarus.

"Nuclear weapons turn Belarus and Belarusians into targets," she said. "The Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus raise a direct threat to lives and health of citizens of all Europe."

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