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 massive 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, which saw cruise missiles destroy buildings, bridges and power stations — as well as kill civilians — 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.”
The Kremlin has stoked growing nuclear fears as its military retreats on the battlefield and disquiet grows at home. Putin proclaimed the annexation of four Ukrainian regions last month and suggested he was prepared to protect that territory by any means necessary.
Russian state television commentators have at times openly suggested Moscow use nuclear weapons to cement its grip over these newly claimed territories, often nodding to the formal tenets of the country’s nuclear doctrine — that it reserves the right to use nuclear force in response to direct attacks on its territory.
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 — no matter how limited.
“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.”
Keir Simmons reported from Astana, and Matt Bodner reported from London.