Zelensky accuses Moscow of "intimidating Ukraine" and announces the downing of 36 marches. Wagner withdraws from Bachmut

Russia deploys tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. Swedish consulate closes and expels diplomats

Shoigu and Khrenin shake hands after signing an agreement to deploy Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus. AFP

Russia on Monday signed an agreement to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, keeping arms control in Moscow's hands, saying it would close the Swedish consulate and expel diplomats under reciprocity. As the Wagner armed group began handing over the eastern Ukrainian city of Pakhmut to the Russian military, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of continuing to try to "intimidate" his country through its attacks, announcing the downing of 36 drones on Wednesday night.

In detail, Russia and Belarus signed yesterday an agreement to formalize the procedures for the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory, which will keep arms control in Moscow's hands.

The move formalized the agreement, reached earlier by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

The signing of the deal comes as Russia prepares for a long-awaited counteroffensive from Ukraine.

Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin, in Minsk, said during a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu: "The deployment of non-strategic nuclear weapons is an effective response to the aggressive policy of countries that are not friendly to us."

"In the context of a very sharp escalation of threats on the western borders of Russia and Belarus, a decision has been taken to take countermeasures in the military-nuclear sphere," Shoigu said.

The Belarusian Defense Ministry said the agreement referred to a special storage facility on the territory of the Republic of Belarus.

Russia said yesterday it would close the Swedish consulate in St. Petersburg, close its consulate in Gothenburg and expel five Swedish diplomats, under reciprocity, after Stockholm expelled five Russians last month.

Stockholm announced the expulsion of diplomats last month over espionage concerns, which the Russian Foreign Ministry called an "openly hostile move".

Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström said in a statement that the news was "deeply regrettable and represents further evidence of Russia's negative political development and international isolation."

On the ground, the Wagner armed group began yesterday to hand over the city of Pakhmut in eastern Ukraine to the Russian army, after announcing over the weekend that it had taken control of the devastated city.

The commander of the Wagner armed group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, declared in a video distributed by his press office: "We are in the process of withdrawing our units from Bachmut. Between now and the first of May, the majority of them (units) will return to rear bases.

In Kiev, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of continuing to try to "intimidate" his country through overnight attacks, announcing the downing of 36 drones on Wednesday night.

Zelensky said via Telegram that Moscow "continues to try to intimidate Ukraine" and launched 36 rallies overnight "but none of them reached their goal," thanking his country's air defenses.

The Ukrainian air force, in turn, announced that Russia launched Iranian-made Shahid 131 and Shahid 136 drones from the north and south.

Ihor Guvkva, the president's senior adviser on diplomatic affairs, said his country would begin its anticipated counteroffensive as soon as possible as soon as it obtained the necessary weapons and equipment from allies. On the other hand, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) announced yesterday the arrest of Ukrainian "saboteurs" for planning to target Russian nuclear plants.