Russia has begun deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, the country’s authoritarian ruler, Alexander Lukashenko, said on Thursday.
After a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko stated the number of weapons and their storage locations had been decided.
But Lukashenko did not give details: “I will not talk about the number and the deployment,” he added.
The Belarusian president said Putin made concrete decisions and signed a decree to that effect. According to earlier information, the weapons are to be stationed on the border with Poland.
Meanwhile, in another prisoner exchange with Russia, 106 Ukrainian soldiers had been freed, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said.
“It is very important that there was no information about many of these 106 people at all – they were considered missing,” Zelensky said in his nightly address. “But we found them. We brought them back home.”
The soldiers had been fighting in the Bakhmut regions. Among them were officers, soldiers and sergeants, Zelensky said.
Earlier, presidential adviser Mykhailo Podoliak confirmed the long-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive against Russian troops was under way.
“The counteroffensive has been going on for days,” he said during an interview with Italian television on Wednesday evening.
The adviser went on to say that Ukraine did not want to attack Russian territory.
Addressing the Italian journalist, he said: “We are using the weapons you gave us to destroy Russian positions in Moscow-occupied territories, Donbass and Crimea included.”
If F-16 fighter jets were delivered, Ukraine’s airspace could “finally” be closed, Podoliak said.
However, the jets are not “miracle weapons,” said US Chief of Staff Mark Milley on Thursday after a meeting of the international group coordinating arms deliveries to Ukraine.
“Sometimes things get labelled as, you know, ‘this is gonna be the magic weapon,’” said Milley after the Ukraine Defence Contact Group meeting.
But, he added, “there are no magic weapons” – not the F-16s or other weapons.
US President Joe Biden cleared the way for a coalition of allies to supply Ukraine with the fighter jets at the most recent G7 summit of democratic leaders in Japan last week.
He gave the green light for Ukrainian pilots to start being trained on the jets.
Milley called the decision on the fighter jets a “hardcore military analysis” which weighed costs, benefits and risks.
Meanwhile, troops from the Wagner Group of Russian mercenaries have begun withdrawing from positions in Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine to rest and prepare for their next deployment, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a video report.
Russian regulars are to take over the ruined city completely by June 1, Prigozhin said, with two experienced Wagner mercenaries remaining in the city to support the Russian army.
Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar confirmed that Wagner troops were being replaced by Russian regulars in the suburbs of Bakhmut, but added that Prigozhin’s mercenaries were still in the city itself. Ukrainian forces remained in control of suburbs in the south-west of Bakhmut, she said.
Russian forces were using artillery to halt advances by Ukrainian troops on the flanks and were gathering additional troops, she said. Maliar added that Russian advances in different directions had been repelled.
It is often not possible to independently verify such claims from the war zone.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday praised Germany’s increased military aid to Ukraine during an online meeting of the international group coordinating arms deliveries to the embattled country.
“Germany pledged to provide Ukraine with more Leopard tanks, ammunition, combat drones, and more, in a package worth nearly $3 billion.
That reflects Germany’s drive to meet Ukraine’s near-term needs, and Germany’s investment for the long haul,” Austin said during his opening remarks of the Ukraine Defence Contact Group meeting.
The German government promised Ukraine the arms package in mid-May shortly before a visit to Germany by Zelensky.
The military aid package includes the delivery of 20 more Marder infantry fighting vehicles, 30 Leopard-1 tanks and four IRIS-T-SLM air defence systems.
The Ukrainian military said it fended off all Russia’s latest overnight drone attacks on the country, which has been fighting against a full-scale Russian invasion for more than 15 months.
“A one hundred per cent result. 36 out of 36,” wrote the commander of the Ukrainian Air Force, Mykola Oleshchuk, on Telegram on Thursday, praising the Ukrainian air defences for their work.
Meanwile, the Kremlin has accused Ukraine of plotting to attack high-voltage power lines at two nuclear power plants in northern Russia.
“In fact, the hostile actions of the Kiev regime against our country continue,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday, according to Russian news agency Interfax.
He was commenting on reports from Russia’s FSB domestic intelligence agency on the arrest of two men who allegedly wanted to blow up high-voltage power lines to nuclear power plants to put the facilities out of operation.