A senior US defense official called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “cavalier” language around the nuclear missile systems pledged to Belarus “quite irresponsible”.
“Our strategic forces are always watching in that regard,” the official said in a background interview with reporters. “We definitely take that seriously and have taken that threat seriously from the start.”
Here’s the full quote:
“Sure, every time someone uses the word nuclear, you worry. Frankly, it seems quite irresponsible of a national leader to talk about the use of nuclear weapons and do so in a generally arrogant way. In terms of my concerns, other than the fact that they’re talking about, again, I mean the way that Putin statement was, hey, we’re going to give them Iskanders, and oh, by the way, they can hold nuclear weapons. And everyone takes that very seriously when you use that language. So we definitely take that seriously and have taken that threat seriously from the start. And as you know, our strategic forces are always monitoring that.”
Some more context: Russia will transfer nuclear Iskander-M missile systems to Belarus in the coming months, Russian President Vladimir Putin told Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Saturday at a meeting in St. Petersburg.
“In the coming months, we will transfer the Iskander-M tactical missile systems to Belarus, which, as you know, can use both ballistic and cruise missiles, both in conventional and nuclear versions,” Putin told Lukashenko, according to the Kremlin. †
In a transcript of the meeting, Lukashenko expressed to Putin his “stress” and concern over what he claimed are flights by the United States and NATO planes “training to carry nuclear warheads” close to the border with Belarus.
Lukashenko asked Putin to consider “a mirrored response” to the flights or to convert Russia’s Su-35 fighter jets, currently deployed in Belarus, to “carry nuclear warheads”.
Putin replied that while it is possible to match US flights, “it is not necessary”, suggesting that because the Belarus military has a large number of Su-25 aircraft that can be converted to nuclear-capable instead.
“This modernization is to be carried out at aircraft factories in Russia, but we will agree with you how to do it. And accordingly, start training the flight crew,” Putin said.
The Iskander-M is a Russian-built short-range ballistic missile system capable of carrying conventional or nuclear warheads with a maximum range of up to 500 KM (310 miles), according to Janes Defense.
The weapon uses both optical and inertial guidance systems to hit its targets, hitting them with a range of warheads, such as cluster munitions, vacuum bombs, bunker busters and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) warheads, according to the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.
The Iskander-M was first used in 2008 during the Russia-Georgia conflict, when the Russian military used it to hit targets in Gori, the alliance said.
Mariya Knight and Jonny Hallam contributed to this report