Belarus approved a new constitution on Sunday, Feb. 27. This might seem insignificant amid the crisis in neighboring Ukraine, but it could impact both Ukraine and the entire region.
In December 2021, President Alexander Lukashenko proposed four significant changes to the country’s constitution that would extend his 28-year rule for another decade, exempt the president from future prosecution, create an unelected committee that could facilitate a pro-Russian regime and, most significantly, eliminate the constitutional restriction against operating or hosting nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil.
According to the Belarus Central Election Commission (BCEC), 65.2% of voters approved the constitutional changes. Many western nations have previously declared that they would not recognize the new constitution, but that response seems irrelevant and inconsequential at this point.
Outside a polling station on Sunday, Lukashenko repeated his Nov. 30 threat arguing, “If you [NATO] 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.”
It is unclear if or when Russia would deploy nuclear weapons to Belarus. While Putin put Russia’s nuclear weapons on high alert on Sunday, leaders of Ukraine and Russia agreed to meet in Belarus on Monday to see if a diplomatic agreement could be reached. At the end of the day, both sides only agreed to continue the dialogue.
The new constitution marks a significant shift for Belarus, which signed the Budapest Memorandum of Agreement on Security Assurances in 1994, agreeing to give up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons in exchange for assurances that it would not be attacked. Hosting nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil is clearly a violation of the agreement.
The push to change the Belarusian constitution goes back to at least the nation’s 2020 presidential campaign. On Aug. 9, 2020, Lukashenko declared victory over Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and the BCEC declared Lukashenko the winner with 80% of the vote.
Public protests against the election results followed the declaration, which the government responded to by arresting or detaining thousands of citizens and several opposition leaders either disappeared or were killed.
European nations sanctioned Belarus for human rights violations, leading Lukashenko to look to Putin for support. Russia offered military assistance for the crisis and later approved a $1.5 billion loan following a meeting with Lukashenko in September 2020.
Around the same time, Lukashenko and Putin hinted at constitutional changes. It was assumed that Russia wanted to limit the president’s power and install a proxy government. Since then, Belarus has leaned heavily on Russia to subvert sanctions and quell internal protests.
In late September 2021, Lukashenko called for a constitutional change to protect Belarus from the West. When he was asked in November about the possible deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons housed in Germany to Eastern Europe, Lukashenko boldly declared, “I would offer Putin to return nuclear weapons to Belarus.” On Dec. 27, he released proposed changes to the constitution and set Feb. 27 as the date to vote.
Putin’s Feb. 24 threat to release “consequences greater than any you have faced in history,” and Russia placing its nuclear forces on high alert the very same day Belarus held a referendum about nuclear weapons, does not seem coincidental.
It is also unlikely that Putin did not know the referendum was scheduled for the same week as his invasion. Moscow is sending a clear message about its resolve.
Putin has been very clear that he does not want NATO to have a chance to put weapons on the Russian border. This is a last-ditch effort of a crumbling regime to regain former glory.
Granted, Russia under Putin is still a significant threat. There are still 6,200 nuclear weapons within its borders, and there is nothing scarier than a bully who seems willing to do anything to hold on to power.
Regardless of how long the Ukrainian conflict lasts, or how it is resolved, this is our reality. So, it’s time to start thinking about how to prevent the next conflict.
To do so, we need to avoid the mistakes we made during the Cold War. It was not the size of our armed forces that led to the end of the USSR. It was economic pressure and everyday citizens of the USSR realizing what freedom looks and feels like.
They learned this from interactions with the strong democracies of the West, so we need to set aside our “America First” mentality and stand together as a people, displaying what freedom and equality looks like.
We need to step up and believe the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”