On 27 February, Belarus is to hold a referendum on the implementation of the country’s new constitution. Official Minsk positions the “restart” of the Basic Law as a peaceful way to resolve the crisis that engulfed the country after the 2020 presidential election. Moscow is also well disposed towards this step. However, it would be naive to think that Lukashenka’s constitutional reform will liberalise the dictatorial regime or give the political opposition a chance. The logic of Minsk in many ways resembles Russia’s “zeroing out,” which legitimised the stay of Vladimir Putin in power until 2036. In addition to political “plastic surgery,” the draft of the new constitution of Belarus is notable for not containing articles on the country’s nuclear-free status (clearly enshrined in the current version). And this is not a coincidence or negligence of drafters. Lukashenka himself spoke about the possibility of deploying Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus last year, saying that it was possible if NATO moved missiles from Germany to the east. This thesis was later confirmed by Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei.
The Belarusian dictator is prone to all sorts of outrageous statements, but now it seems to be a very likely scenario. These intentions can be confirmed by at least three arguments. The first one is the already mentioned constitutional amendments. The second one is that the West, in particular the United States, takes this probability quite seriously. The possible deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus is being discussed at the U.S. Department of State. Lukashenka allowed himself an irritated remark: “They came to our diplomats in New York and intimidate us: ‘If you allow Putin and Russia, allow to do this, we will impose sanctions. If you return nuclear weapons to Belarus, we will do this and that.’ You know, a kind of mentoring tone towards Belarus.” The third argument is Russia’s behaviour: Moscow has recently been trying to threaten to deploy nuclear missiles in Cuba or Venezuela. This is, of course, the ultimate threat that the Kremlin can make against the West, while the immediate threat will be the creation of bases with weapons of mass destruction in Belarus.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine also assessed such a threat. “If Belarus deploys nuclear weapons in its territory, then these nuclear weapons will be stationed close to the EU border, close to the border of NATO member states. This will be proof of what we have been saying all along, that action is needed to prevent such scenarios. And if we had been heard back then, in 2014, we might not have had such a situation in Belarus now. We would not have observed the accelerated creation, accelerated integration into the union state, and would not have faced the prospect of deploying nuclear weapons in Belarus. I emphasise once again that, in the end, this decision will be made by Russia and Belarus. But the truth is that the West will no longer have the leverage to change this position, to change this situation,” the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine told Radio Liberty in an interview.
For NATO member states, the emergence of Russian nuclear weapons will be another sign of a return to the Cold War and the arms race. Moscow’s action involves counteracting the North Atlantic Alliance: reorganising the missile defence system, reviewing the balance of power in the region. This is will surely exacerbate defence spending discussions within NATO. To some extent, this will strengthen the importance of Ukraine as a springboard for deterring Russia. If Moscow sets a precedent in Belarus, it will have a tool to restore the Soviet Union. Thirty years ago, the renunciation of nuclear status was a prerequisite for recognising the independence of the Soviet republics. To date, the creation of Russian missile bases could be a factor in the complete return of countries into Moscow’s orbit. A nuclear arsenal is a much more reliable tool than a loyal dictatorship. If Belarus has Russian nuclear weapons, the name of the country’s president is a secondary issue as the state will definitely remain under the Kremlin’s protectorate. Subsequently, the missiles can be deployed in Armenia or Kazakhstan, and thus Moscow will delineate the borders of the USSR 2.0. They will find the arguments: protection from Azerbaijan’s attack or international terrorism.
Nuclear weapons in Belarus may even be the subject of bargaining over Russian military build-up near the Ukrainian border: Moscow may withdraw them inland, but deploy missiles in Belarus. Such evil will be “sold” to the West as a lesser one compared to a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine.