A referendum in Belarus this week will bind the country more firmly to Russia and ensure President Lukashenko’s reign for the foreseeable future, barring any unforeseen circumstances in a country where elections are neither free nor fair.
Less noticeably, the referendum will also provide Russia the legal framework to station nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil, resulting in one of the most significant reshufflings of nuclear weapons in Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The referendum comes at a precarious time for Mr. Lukashenko, dubbed by the American and European press as Europe’s last dictator — a sobriquet that he seems to relish.
The Belarusian strongman has walked a fine line between Moscow and Brussels since his succession to the presidency in 1994.
Waffling between closer ties with Europe and submission to Russia, Mr. Lukashenko played both sides off each other and managed to retain a degree of independence from the Kremlin while also courting the European Union.
Recently, however, Mr. Lukashenko has become a thorn in President Putin’s flesh, executing an erratic and unhinged foreign policy. It seems Mr. Lukashenko must now pay the Russian piper.
The director of strategy, technology, and arms control for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, William Alberque, explained to The New York Sun that “a series of crises are raging in Belarus.”
These include widespread protests over Belarus’s fraudulent 2020 presidential election, soaring COVID-19 case numbers and deaths, last year’s refugee crisis on the Polish border, and the kidnapping of a Belarusian activist from a government-hijacked international flight.
These crises that Mr. Lukashenko himself manufactured are causing problems for his regime and are issues that “really put him in a weaker position, vis-à-vis Russia.”
Given the amount of support Mr. Lukashenko needed from Russia to extricate himself from his blunders and shore up his power at home, “the bill came due,” Mr. Alberque explained, adding: “I think Putin said to him bluntly, ‘Okay, I need some changes now.’”
These include a raft of amendments to the Belarusian constitution that would curb the parliament’s powers and provide a pathway for Mr. Lukashenko to rule indefinitely.
The weightiest provision would allow Belarus to host nuclear weapons on its soil for the first time since the mid-1990s.
Buried within the referendum’s text is a clause that would provide a legal pathway for a significant shakeup of Russia’s nuclear posture and bring nuclear-capable Russian aircraft and ballistic missiles to Ukraine’s and deeper into NATO territory.
Following the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan surrendered nuclear weapons inherited from Soviet stockpiles back to Russia in exchange for security guarantees from the world’s other nuclear powers.
After the peaceful transfer of weapons, Belarus became a constitutionally mandated nuclear-free state that expressly forbade stationing nuclear weaponry within the country’s borders. Today, the Belarusian constitution reads: “The Republic of Belarus aims to make its territory a nuclear-free zone, and to make the state neutral.”
In a striking move, the referendum’s proposed text eliminates this clause entirely.
In its place, the proposed text reads, “The Republic of Belarus excludes military aggression against other states from its territory.”
Danger for both Ukraine and NATO lurks behind this seemingly peaceable façade.
Mr. Alberque explained that Russian and Belorussian military exercises often involve joint drills focused on repelling an outside aggressor “that’s being funded and controlled by the West.”
“Belarus is saying, ‘If we go to war with Ukraine, if we go to war with a NATO ally, it would not be because it’s a war of aggression, it’s a war of defense.’”
Although Kaliningrad, the country’s westernmost point, already hosts a great arsenal of Russian weaponry, the ability to station nuclear-capable bombers and ballistic missiles in Belarus would expand Russia’s nuclear-strike capabilities.
Soviet-era nuclear facilities in Belarus are “several hundred kilometers to Kaliningrad’s south,” Mr. Alberque explained, adding that if rearmed, Russia’s nuclear umbrella would move further into the Mediterranean and expand coverage over southeastern Europe.
Nuclear-capable aircraft and ICBMs in Belarus would “reduce launch time, detection ability, and defense capabilities,” and thus shorten Ukraine and NATO’s decision-making response window.
During the referendum’s public comment period, approval stood at an astoundingly suspicious 99.25 percent. Yet fair or fudged, the proposed provisions are likely to pass.
Mr. Alberque explained that in exchange for Mr. Lukashenko’s longevity, Russia and Belarus will need to be seen “as a bloc, two countries completely in an alliance, an alliance that will not diverge politically or militarily.”
In the future, he said Russia will be able to “ratchet up pressure in certain situations. And should they choose to, maintain pressure not just during this crisis with Ukraine, but whenever they want, for perpetuity.”
Image: President Lukashenko at Minsk, Belarus, January 28, 2022. Pavel Orlovsky/BelTA pool photo via AP