Russia is moving its tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, Vladimir Putin has said.
The president said an unspecified number of warheads would be sent to the country – one of its few allies – from as early as next month.
It comes as Kremlin forces reel against a ferocious, long-awaited counter-offensive by Ukraine.
Belarus – near the Ukraine border and in Nato’s back yard – is one of Moscow’s few friends.
Putin made his announcement as he met the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, in southern Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi.
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Putin told his ally: “Everything is going according to plan,” a Kremlin transcript said. “Preparation of the relevant facilities ends on July 7-8, and we will immediately begin activities related to the deployment of appropriate types of weapons on your territory.”
Some said Putin was sabre-rattling, but others warned that amid rising desperation, he could use nuclear weapons.
Retired brigadier general Kevin Ryan, a former US defense attache to Moscow, said: “It is becoming clear, in my view, that the only way Russia can meet escalation with escalation is by introducing nuclear weapons.”
Ukraine’s army launched savage attacks on Russian forces in the southern Zaporizhzhia region of the country yesterday.
Occupying Kremlin forces were pounded overnight by advancing Kyiv troops, backed by tanks, artillery and drones.
There were also intensified exchanges on the eastern front in the Donetsk region, including the heavily besieged city of Bakhmut.
An unverified video from Moscow sources was said to show Ukrainian tanks hit as they ran into a Russian minefield.
Speaking as he returned from visiting the flooded Kherson region following the Russian dam destruction, President Volodymyr Zelensky admitted there were “very tough battles” going on.
He added: “But there is a result, and I am grateful to everyone who ensures this result. I thank each of our warriors.” Ukraine said Russian forces were currently “in active defense” in Zaporizhzhia and advances were being made around Bakhmut.
Military experts believe the fightback will be focused on Zaporizhzhia – home to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant and in an area controlled by Russia.
They say Kyiv is trying to regain access to the Sea of Azov, splitting the region’s occupying forces in two. It is believed this will eliminate a land bridge to Crimea, the southern peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.
Kremlin forces seized most of the Zaporizhzhia region soon after Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine last February.
Ukraine has been planning a counter-offensive for months, but it has waited to train troops and to receive advanced military equipment from Western allies. Meanwhile, two people were killed as Russian shelled a hospital in the Zaporizhzhia region.
Kremlin forces also launched fresh cruise missiles and drone strikes. Falling debris killed at least one person in Zhytomyr, to the west of Kyiv.
A civilian was killed and three hurt in Zvyahel, in the Zhytomyr area. Eight others were injured in a six-hour missile attack in Ukraine’s Cherkasy region.