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War in Ukraine

Don't back Putin into a corner, Belarusian leader warns as nuclear fears grow

Russia has nuclear weapons for a reason and crossing Putin’s “red lines” in Ukraine would be a mistake, the strongman and close Kremlin ally said in an interview with NBC News.
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ASTANA, Kazakhstan — Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has a warning for the West: Do not push Russian President Vladimir Putin into a corner.

Russia has nuclear weapons for a reason and crossing Putin’s “red lines” in Ukraine would be a mistake, the strongman and close Kremlin ally said in an exclusive interview Friday.

“If you back a person or a country into the corner, there is only one way out — forward,” Lukashenko told NBC’s Keir Simmons on the sidelines of a regional summit of post-Soviet leaders in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. “That’s why don’t cross red lines, you cannot cross them.” 

Asked if his Russian counterpart was prepared to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, Lukashenko struck an apocalyptic tone, but also downplayed the possibility of nuclear arms use as not necessary and suicidal.

“If there is, God forbid, an attack on the territory of the Russian Federation, Russia can, if necessary, use all kinds of weapons,” he said. “Never, never has President Putin or the Russian leadership set a goal to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.”

Lukashenko instead pointed to this week’s deadly barrage of Russian missile strikes against civilian and critical infrastructure in Ukraine as an example of what Moscow is prepared to do if backed into a corner.

The strikes were presented by the Russian government as retaliation for last weekend’s blast that damaged a key bridge to annexed Crimea.

“You probably noticed that was powerful, but it’s not everything,” Lukashenko said of the Russian response. “Russia, and I know this for sure, possesses the most modern weapons. And you don’t need nuclear weapons. Russia will cope without them.”

Lukashenko joined Putin and other leaders representing the Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS, in Kazakhstan on Friday. Speaking to reporters at the summit, Putin announced that his controversial decision last month to call for “limited” mobilization — effectively a chaotic nationwide military draft in practice — has mustered more than 200,000 troops to join what the Russian president still insists on calling a “special military operation.”

Putin said that the remaining 100,000 troops he wants called up will be mobilized within the next two weeks, perhaps signaling an end to a process that helped fuel rare domestic unrest and criticism of the Kremlin. However, the actual wording of the order is vaguely worded and many in Russia fear a broader effort to bolster the country’s forces in Ukraine. 

Putin also suggested some restraint after recent signs of escalation in the conflict, saying that further waves of attacks like the one Lukashenko described in the interview were not needed for now. 

But the war, and Belarus’ role in it, are far from over. 

Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin shake hands during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow
Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin.Alexander Nemenov / AFP via Getty Images file

When Putin launched his full-scale invasion, Belarus served as a critical launch point for the operation. Russian troops, who both leaders had loudly insisted for weeks were only deployed to the country for exercises, poured across the border and toward the capital, Kyiv, from the north.

In recent weeks, as Russia faced a series of critical setbacks on the battlefields of southern and eastern Ukraine, observers have worried that Lukashenko might be preparing his military to join the fight.

“You say that he is not winning this war, but neither are you,” Lukashenko said. “50 countries right now are practically fighting a war with Russia on the territory of Ukraine. There is also no victory on your side. Therefore, we need to look for ways out of this situation.”

When asked about speculation that he was preparing to send troops into Ukraine, the Belarusian president again walked a cautious line: highlighting the non-military support Belarus has provided , but insisting he will keep his soldiers out of it. 

“We support Russia in every possible way. Our support lies in the fact that our Western borders with Poland and Lithuania were not violated, so Russian troops were not stabbed in the back via Belarus. That’s how it has been since the very beginning.” 

Lukashenko admitted that Belarusian support for the war has expanded since February, but again highlighted that it remains a limited player in the operation. Belarus cares for Russia’s wounded and takes on Ukrainian refugees.

“This is our role,” he said, “but we are not killing anyone there, and we are not planning to kill anyone there. No one is asking us to do so.” 

The Kremlin has stoked growing nuclear fears as its military retreats on the battlefield and disquiet grows at home. But the Belarusian leader instead suggested that the nuclear tension was politically motivated by the West and Ukraine, and that Russia has no interest in escalating the conflict to the level of a nuclear exchange.

“This would be the end of our planet,” Lukashenko said.

“If nuclear weapons are used even by one country, it will cause a chain reaction. Russia understands this well. And no one, I want to underscore this, I know it for sure from President Putin himself, no one has set a goal of using nuclear weapons.”

Instead, Lukashenko said, “we need to look for ways to find a peaceful solution to this conflict. It would be beneficial for everyone, including the U.S.”

Lukashenko’s relationship with Putin has gone through many phases over the years. 

At times, he has played the role of a messenger, sending signals to the West or reinforcing Putin’s position in high-stakes games of brinksmanship with the U.S. and Europe. 

“Speaking about my personal relationship with President Putin, it was not always cloudless,” Lukashenko said. “We have argued, sometimes we’ve quarreled, but always we have been the utmost close friends and reliable partners.” 

Putin is largely seen as rescuing Lukashenko’s regime from unprecedented protests in 2020 after he kept power following a widely discredited election.

“No one else has the same level of relations as those that exist between the presidents of Belarus and Russia,” he said. “Lately, not only has our relationship intensified and strengthened, but we have absolute trust in each other. That’s why we have practically no problems.”

Keir Simmons and Natasha Lebedeva reported from Astana, and Matt Bodner reported from London.