Belarus's authoritarian leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has said that his country would be willing to host Russian nuclear weapons if NATO moved similar U.S. equipment from Germany to Eastern Europe.
In an interview on November 30, Lukashenka also for the first time recognized Moscow-occupied Crimea as part of Russia, adding that he planned to visit the peninsula with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Lukashenka has leaned on ally Russia for support amid rising tensions with the West over his crackdown on the country's pro-democracy movement in the wake of last year's disputed presidential election.
Asked in an interview about a recent statement by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Lukashenka said he would invite Russia to position nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil.
Earlier this month, Stoltenberg said that U.S. nuclear weapons on a base in Germany could be moved further east if Berlin's new government dropped out of a nuclear-sharing deal -- a move that would anger Russia.
'Germany can, of course, decide whether there will be nuclear weapons in your country, but the alternative is that we easily end up with nuclear weapons in other countries in Europe, also to the east of Germany,' Stoltenberg said.
In reaction, Lukashenka told Dmitry Kiselyov, the head of the Russian state TV network Rossia Segodnya, 'Then I will propose to Putin to return nuclear weapons to Belarus,' adding, 'We, on the territory of Belarus, are ready for this."
He said that Belarus had maintained infrastructure for nuclear weapons, which were withdrawn after the 1991 Soviet collapse.
SEE ALSO: Merkel Urges EU Unity On Russia, Assures Poland, Ukraine Amid Border Tensions
NATO allies were concerned Germany's incoming government, composed of the Social Democrats, Greens, and Free Democrats, would get rid of about 20 U.S. B-61 atomic gravity bombs located on German soil.
But under a coalition agreement reached last week, Germany will not ask the United States to remove its nuclear bombs as some allies had feared, although the issue could come up again in the future.
Russia and Belarus have a so-called union agreement that envisages close political, economic, and military ties, but for years Lukashenka had refrained from deepening ties and ceding sovereignty even as he relied on cheap energy and loans from Moscow.
Analysts now say that Belarus and Russia are advancing the union agreement as the Kremlin seeks to use Lukashenka's vulnerability to extract tough concessions.
The European Union and United States have placed sanctions on Lukashenka's regime over the brutal crackdown on the country's pro-democracy movement in the wake of last year's disputed election.
Tensions with the West have escalated further since the summer over allegations Minsk is orchestrating a migrant crisis on the border of Poland and fellow EU members Latvia and Lithuania.
SEE ALSO: EU Readies More Belarus Sanctions Over Migrant Crisis, Document Reveals
In the interview with Rossia Segodnya, Lukashenka for the first time said he considers Crimea part of Russia both de facto and de jure.
'We all understood that de-facto Crimea is Russia's Crimea. After a referendum Crimea has become Russia de-jure as well,' Lukashenka said.
Russia forcibly annexed Ukraine's Black Sea region of Crimea in 2014 after it staged a referendum condemned by Kyiv and the West as illegal following protests that ousted Ukraine's pro-Russian leader.
Lukashenka has been under pressure to publicly back Russia's position on Crimea but until now had refrained from stating Crimea belongs to Russia.
The Belarusian strongman added he planned to visit Crimea and his trip would amount to recognition of the peninsula as Russian territory.
'We have a certain agreement with Putin that we will visit Crimea,' Lukashenka said. 'This is my Crimea, too.'
With reporting by AP and AFP
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036