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'Powerless' Lukashenko Can't Stop Kremlin Amid Nuclear Concerns: Ex-General

Newsweek 3/28/2023 Nick Reynolds
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (right). © Vladimir Astapkovich/Gavriil Grigorov/Newsweek Photo Illustration/Getty Images Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (right).

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko could be "powerless" against mounting Russian pressure to allow the use of nuclear weapons the Kremlin plans to store within their borders against Ukraine, a former U.S. General told Newsweek.

Over the weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced plans to station nuclear weapons within the borders of his country's closest European ally for the first time in decades, providing the Kremlin with another strategic hedge against neighboring Ukraine as the Russian war effort has begun to stall entering the war's second year.

The move—seen by most observers as a hollow gesture by Russia to pressure the west to capitulate to the country's terms for a ceasefire—was nonetheless decried by officials in Ukraine, who said the Kremlin was taking Belarus as a nuclear "hostage" in what they described as an unambiguous escalation of tensions in Eastern Europe.

"I think that this entire development is an information operation by the Kremlin, to remind us all that Russia has nuclear weapons because they know that so many in the West have a visceral overreaction each time this comes up," retired General Ben Hodges told Newsweek. "It causes us to stop, hesitate, before doing what we need to do to ensure Ukraine wins."


However, the move is more significant in the fact that it ties Belarusian leadership even closer to Putin—and could leave Lukashenko susceptible to his political opposition.

Shortly after the announcement by the Kremlin, exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya claimed on Twitter that the act of placing nuclear weapons in Belarus was an "unacceptable development" that could make Belarus a "potential target for preventive or retaliation strikes" by Ukrainian forces.

Such a decision, some observers claim, could only indicate Lukashenko was either forced into the decision by Russia or made a deal with Putin to try and remain in power as the Kremlin seeks to solidify its influence in Eastern Europe.

"The Russians claim that Lukashenka has long sought the emplacement of their nuclear weapons on Belarus's territory," Rajan Menon, director of the Grand Strategy program at Defense Priorities and the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Chair Emeritus in International Relations at the City College of New York, told Newsweek.

"But of course Lukashenka would never admit to being coerced if that's what really happened, which means we may never know the backstory," he added. "As to Russian influence in Lukashenka's Belarus, it is unquestionably substantial. Putin's phone will be the one Lukashenka calls if he faces another grass-roots uprising."

Ahead of Lukashenko's planned March 31 address to the nation, some observers believe Lukashenko could have no choice in the matter—even if it is just a ploy by the Kremlin to put pressure on the west—further tying him and his country to Russian control.

"It does weaken Lukashenko's position even more," Hodges said. I'll be waiting to see how the opposition in Belarus reacts, beyond the statements they've already made. Just like Putin is clearly the junior partner to President Xi, Lukashenko is the very junior partner to Putin."

The U.S. government is already taking steps to court the opposition.

On Monday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met yesterday with Tsikhanouskaya to underscore U.S. support for Belarusian people's pursuit of "a sovereign and democratic future, including free and fair elections as well as human rights protections," according to a readout of the meeting released Tuesday.

"The United States, together with its allies and partners, will continue to hold the Lukashenka regime accountable for its actions," the State Department wrote in a press statement describing the meeting.

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