Russia has the right to deploy nuclear weapons in the Crimean peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in March, a top Russian official said Monday.
“Crimea was not a non-nuclear zone in an international law sense but was part of Ukraine, a state which doesn't possess nuclear arms,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview with Interfax news agency. “Now Crimea has become part of a state which possesses such weapons in accordance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
“In accordance with international law,” he added, “Russia has every reason to dispose of its nuclear arsenal ... to suit its interests and international legal obligations.”
Russia annexed Crimea following a disputed regional referendum after thousands of Russian troops in unmarked uniforms seized the peninsula.
The Russian action triggered rebellions in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas coal region that continue today, with pro-Russia gunmen controlling sizable parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and of the border between Russia and Ukraine.
Ukraine, which accuses Russia of invading its territory and backing militants in the east, has demanded that Moscow withdraw its troops and military hardware from the east and return Crimea.
The Kremlin claims Crimea is legally part of Russia, denies any presence of its troops in mainland Ukraine and in turn blames Kiev for unleashing a war on its own people struggling for wider autonomy.
In his state of the nation address Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged that Crimea would forever stay part of Russia, backing his nation’s claim to the peninsula with a reference to Viking Prince Vladimir’s baptism in Crimea in the 10th century, which led to the spread of Christianity to Russia.
Lavrov's statement on Monday was yet another message to Ukraine and the rest of the world that Russia will never hand the region back, said Alexander Golts, a leading Russia defense and political expert.
“There is absolutely no military sense in deploying nuclear weapons in Crimea,” Golts, deputy editor in chief of Yezhednevny Zhurnal, a popular liberal online publication, said in an interview with The Times. “Lavrov has brought up this nuclear weapons issue to demonstrate that the Kremlin considers Crimea such an inalienable part of Russia that it may choose to do with it whatever it wants, including the deployment of nukes.”
Russia can't move its strategic nuclear forces around the country without officially verifying this process with the United States unless it wants to withdraw from the 2010 New START treaty, Golts said.
“In 1994, Presidents Boris Yeltsin and George Bush Sr. both pledged they were removing tactical nuclear weapons from military units to be kept in special storage bases from then on,” he said. “There are no such bases or installations in Crimea.”
Lavrov's comments are designed for the most part for “brainwashing the public at home into believing Russia is surrounded by enemies,” said Yuri Butusov, a top Ukrainian political and military expert.
“Nowadays even the efforts of the Russian Foreign Ministry seem to be aimed at making the Russian people think that they are living in a besieged fortress,” Butusov, editor in chief of Censor.net, an online publication, said in a phone interview from Kiev. “How else can the Kremlin explain the crashing ruble and the soaring prices?”