President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus said on Tuesday that the country has started to receive nuclear weapons from Russia, a long-threatened provocation and the latest sign of the worsening relationship between Russia and the West.
“We have rockets and bombs, we received from Russia. A bomb three times more powerful than Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Mr. Lukashenko said in Russian in an interview with Russian state television.
Mr. Lukashenko’s claim could not be independently verified. For months, he and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, a close ally, have talked publicly about plans to move tactical nuclear weapons — short-range weapons designed for use in battle — into Belarus. That would put such weapons closer to the war in Ukraine, but would also position them closer to NATO members like Poland.
The U.S. government estimates Russia has about 2,000 tactical weapons, which have lower explosive power than strategic weapons designed to destroy entire cities far from the battlefield.
There was no immediate response from White House to Mr. Lukashenko’s claim. On Monday, the National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, said the Biden administration had seen no evidence of changes in Russia’s nuclear deployments that would force the United States to change its posture with respect to nuclear weapons. He said the “constant rhetoric” from Mr. Lukashenko “is in keeping with reckless and irresponsible ways of talking about nuclear capabilities.”
Mr. Lukashenko’s statement that the weapons were already arriving appeared to contradict remarks by Mr. Putin when the two leader met in Sochi, Russia, last week.
At the time, Mr. Putin said that Russia would start deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus immediately after storage facilities were made ready on July 7 and 8, according to a Kremlin translation of the conversation between the two leaders.
Mr. Putin has raised the prospect of resorting to nuclear weapons several times since he ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. U.S. officials have repeatedly condemned Mr. Putin’s remarks as dangerous saber-rattling but they have also said the risk of nuclear escalation remains low.
In March, Mr. Putin said that he would be able to position nuclear weapons in Belarus by the summer, a claim analysts said was probably bluster to put pressure on the West to halt its support of Ukraine. Mr. Putin said that Moscow would remain in control of the weapons placed in Belarus.