Belarus on Sunday signaled that it would renounce its non-nuclear status, following the launch of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from the former Soviet nation last week.
Authorities in the country — ruled by Moscow-backed strongman Alexander Lukashenko for nearly three decades — said the move was backed by a referendum.
According to the Belarus Central Elections Commission, some 78.63% of the eligible voting population took part in the vote, with 65.16% in favor of a new constitution that will shed the country’s non-nuclear status and give Lukashenko the opportunity to run for two additional terms in office.
But Western leaders will not recognize the legitimacy of Sunday’s vote. In a statement from January, the US mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) described the referendum as “neither a viable — nor credible — path forward for Belarus.”
The vote follows a years-long violent crackdown by the Lukashenko regime against his domestic political opponents, following the disputed presidential election in 2020 which was marred by fraud and triggered mass protests.
What this could mean for Russia: Belarus' new constitution could theoretically allow Moscow to place nuclear weapons on its neighbor's territory for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, when Minsk gave up its stockpile and became a nuclear-free zone.
The amendments and additions to the constitution passed in the referendum will come into effect in 10 days' time, according to Lukashenko’s office.
Lukashenko and Putin: Addressing journalists at a polling station in Minsk on Sunday, Lukashenko said he could ask Russian President Vladimir Putin to “return the nuclear weapons” Belarus gave away if the West transfers any nuclear weapons to Poland or Lithuania.
"If America or ... France, two nuclear powers, start transferring nuclear weapons to Poland or Lithuania, on our borders ... I will go to Putin so that he will return to me the nuclear weapons that I, without any special conditions, gave to them,” Lukashenko said.
In his on-camera remarks, Lukashenko also accused the West of “pushing Russia to ignite World War III,” before warning that “a nuclear war would end the world.”