Belarus has announced a constitutional change revoking the country’s non-nuclear status. This followed a referendum on the question of nuclear weapons, in which the government claims the majority voted to change the country’s stance. The announcement paves the way for Belarus to deploy Russian nuclear weapons.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has been trying to tread a fine line between Moscow and the West for the last ten years. Ever since Belarus agreed in principle to form a Union State with Russia in 1999, the two countries have been trying to negotiate the precise nature of their relationship. Lukashenko has held out the prospect of closer integration with Russia in order to exact financial support and fuel subsidies, all while attempting to maintain a degree of independence. Belarus is constitutionally a neutral nation, and did not recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
But the country’s ability to maintain a neutral stance has been undermined by elections in August 2020, in which Lukashenko claimed victory in spite of credible allegations of rigging and ballot stuffing. Belarus consequently needed Russian support more than ever, and it began a gradual rapprochement with the Kremlin, starting with joint military drills in Belarusian territory, and culminating in the use of Belarus’ border as a launch pad for the invasion of Ukraine. Lukashenko also agreed for 30,000 Russian troops to be permanently stationed in Belarus.
The announcement that Belarus can now host nuclear weapons has given rise to speculation that it could become home to a Russian missile base. There is currently no indication from Belarusian officials that the country wants to permanently host Russian nuclear weapons, but it is conceivable that temporary weapons could be stationed there. This marks a new era in Russo-Belarusian relations – one in which Belarus acts as a Russian vassal state.
The move has grave implications for the future of European security. With Belarus obedient to Russia and every indication that Moscow intends to turn Ukraine into a puppet state, the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are now surrounded to the east, south and west by Russian-friendly states. Lying between Russia and its European exclave of Kaliningrad, the three republics now comprise a vulnerable corridor. The Baltic states are linked to the rest of the EU only by the 65 km of border shared by Lithuania and Poland, known as the Suwalki Gap.
Belarus has faced Western sanctions alongside Russia for its role in the invasion of Ukraine. The sanctions target officials who have enabled the war with Ukraine, as well as structurally significant institutions.