Nuclear tensions ramped up in Eastern Europe on Sunday, as Belarus changed its constitution to renounce its non-nuclear status. The move, approved by a national referendum, came the same day as Russian President Vladimir Putin placed his own country’s nuclear forces on high alert.
The amendment, approved by 65.2 percent of voters, according to Russian media, paves the way for nuclear weapons to be stationed in Belarus for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Polina Sinovets, the head of the Odessa Center for Nonproliferation in Ukraine and an associate professor in international relations, called the move a symbolic gesture that aimed to “show NATO the possibility of Russian nuclear deployments in Belarus.”
“By deploying its nukes in Belarus, Russia will show that now we are definitely living in the new Cold War,” she told VICE World News. “But I still highly doubt the practical role of such nukes, which will only [be used] if Russia is directly attacked by NATO on its own territory.”
Sunday’s poll triggered anti-war protests across Belarus, resulting in the arrests of at least 290 people. Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, a staunch ally of Moscow, has supported the invasion, allowing Russian troops to enter Ukraine through the country’s southern border.
“If you [the West] transfer nuclear weapons to Poland or Lithuania, to our borders, then I will turn to Putin to return the nuclear weapons that I gave away without any conditions,” Lukashenko said Sunday at a polling station.
Lukashenko also warned that the war in Ukraine would become a “meat grinder,” as Belarusian troops seemed poised to join the invasion. Media reports this weekend quoted Ukrainian state security and an anonymous U.S. official as saying Belarusian special forces were seen loading onto planes to be deployed to the besieged Ukrainian capital Kyiv.
Putin placed his own nuclear forces on high alert on Sunday, citing tough sanctions by Western nations and “aggressive statements” by NATO as justification.
“Western countries aren’t only taking unfriendly actions against our country in the economic sphere, but top officials from leading NATO members made aggressive statements regarding our country,” Putin said in a televised speech.
Western nations have refused to recognise the results of Sunday’s referendum, which also places more power into the hands of Lukashenko’s All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, as well as granting him lifetime immunity from prosecution if he leaves office.
“The new constitution is mostly aimed to fix the Lukashenko permanent presidential status, as recent elections first proved that it may probably change very soon,” said Sinovets, of the Odessa Center for Nonproliferation in Ukraine.
Major protests followed the 2020 national elections, won by a landslide for Lukashenko but widely condemned as rigged by international observers.
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