Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has said the Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Moscow from Ukraine in 2014, is legally Russian territory in a reversal of his public stance on the territorial dispute over the Black Sea region.
Belarus is a close ally of Russia but did not recognise the peninsula as Russian after Moscow seized it in a move that drew condemnation and economic sanctions from the West.
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Most of the world still recognises the territory as Ukrainian, and Kyiv wants it back.
But in an interview on Tuesday with Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency, Lukashenko said Crimea was “de facto Russian”.
“After the referendum, Crimea also became de jure Russian,” Lukashenko told RIA.
In 2014, Russia’s vote saw a huge majority supporting Crimea joining Russia, but was dismissed by Kyiv and the West.
Lukashenko said he was waiting for Moscow to invite him to the peninsula, and that any visit would signal Minsk’s recognition of Crimea as a part of Russia.
Ukraine warns Minsk against recognition
Lukashenko’s remarks angered Ukraine.
“The potential recognition of the occupied Crimea by Belarus will be a point of no return in our bilateral relations, and we will act respectively,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters as he arrived for the second day of talks with his NATO counterparts in the Latvian capital, Riga.
“Because for us, Crimea is not a field for compromises,” he said.
Despite Belarus’s close relations with the Kremlin, the former Soviet republic struck a neutral public stance in 2014 as Russia seized Crimea and backed separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine. The conflict has killed 14,000 people, according to Kyiv, and is still simmering.
But Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has grown increasingly close to Moscow since huge protests erupted last year following a disputed election in which he won a sixth term.
Financial and political backing from Moscow helped him survive the protests. Russia has also supported Lukashenko in the months-long migration crisis which has seen thousands of migrants and refugees enter Belarus and head towards its borders with European Union member states Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.
Lukashenko pledges to make Ukraine ‘ours’
Lukashenko told RIA Novosti on Tuesday that his country was ready to support Russia over Ukraine.
Kyiv and Western authorities have raised concern about Russia’s alleged plans to invade its neighbour following a troop build-up along the shared border in recent weeks.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Kyiv needs direct talks with Moscow to end the tensions and put a stop to the war in the country’s east.
But Russia denies any involvement in the conflict and accuses Ukraine, the United States and NATO of destabilising behaviour in the region. Moscow has also dismissed suggestions of an imminent incursion into Ukraine as false and inflammatory.
Lukashenko said that Minsk would stand squarely behind its ally in the face of any aggression from Kyiv amid the tensions.
“I will do everything to make Ukraine ours. It is our Ukraine,” he said.