The European Union has warned that Belarus could start hosting Russian nuclear weapons after a “very dangerous” decision at a referendum to drop the country’s non-nuclear status.
“We know what does it mean for Belarus to be nuclear. It means that Russia will put nuclear weapons in Belarus and this is a very dangerous path,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Monday.
The move by Belarus came as the country was being condemned internationally for being used as a launchpad by Russian forces to attack neighbouring Ukraine.
Borrell slammed the “fake referendum” on constitutional changes. The amendments allow the country to host nuclear weapons and Russian forces permanently. It also extended the rule of leader Alexander Lukashenko.
About 800 people were reportedly arrested after the vote sparked the biggest protests in months and thousands took to the streets in Belarus.
The vote to change the constitution was passed by 65 percent, according to official data.
Lukashenko has launched a ferocious crackdown on opponents since mass protests erupted after he claimed victory at an election in 2020 called fraudulent by the West.
The Belarusian leader, who has been in power since 1994, has shifted decisively towards Moscow after Russian President Vladimir Putin helped prop up his rule.
EU sanctions on the way
The EU is set to impose a new host of tough sanctions on Belarus as Minsk has facilitated Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine by acting as a staging post for forces involved in the assault.
Western allies fear the constitutional shift from Belarus – which neighbours three EU and NATO countries – could now bring more Russian nuclear weapons closer to their border.
Russia has the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons and a huge cache of ballistic missiles.
Putin ordered his nuclear forces on high alert on Sunday in a move the West said was “totally unacceptable”.
Meanwhile, the United States shuttered its embassy in Minsk and allowed non-emergency employees and family members to depart the embassy in Moscow.
“We took these steps due to security and safety issues stemming from the unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces in Ukraine,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
A photo posted on Twitter by US Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher on Monday showed mission staff lowering the American flag. All American staff have departed Belarus, Fisher tweeted.
The US relocated its embassy operations in Ukraine from the capital Kyiv to the western city of Lviv two weeks ago as Russian forces amassed at Ukraine’s borders.