Turkey Hardens Criticism of Russia as Ukraine Conflict Intensifies

As Russia intensifies its assault on Ukraine, Turkey is hardening its criticism of Russia and heeding Kyiv’s calls for support – moves that some analysts suggest could threaten Turkey’s attempts to maintain good ties with both Moscow and Kyiv. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul.

UN General Assembly Holds Historic Session on Ukraine

Ukraine and Western states appealed to the international community Monday to support a draft resolution at the United Nations General Assembly condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and calling for an immediate cease-fire as Moscow’s forces stepped up their bombardment of the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.

“We are today at a crucial and historical moment,” European Union Ambassador Olof Skoog told member states on behalf of the 27 EU members. “Too many times in the past the international community has been blind or too slow in front of unfolding tragedies. Entire generations in many places around the world have paid and are still paying the price of inaction. We can’t make the same mistake again: We have to take action.”

The West and Ukraine framed the crisis before the body as an existential threat to the principles of the United Nations, the charter on which it was founded in 1945, and the international rules-based order.

“Now it is time to act, time to help Ukraine, that is paying the ultimate price for freedom and security for itself and of the world,” Ukraine envoy Sergiy Kyslytsya said. “If Ukraine does not survive, international peace will not survive. If Ukraine does not survive, the United Nations will not survive — have no illusions. If Ukraine does not survive, we cannot be surprised if democracy fails next.”

Uniting for Peace resolution

The General Assembly is meeting under what is known as the Uniting for Peace resolution. It allows special meetings of the entire membership to be called when the U.N. Security Council is deadlocked on an issue and cannot exercise its mandate to maintain or restore international peace and security — in this case, because of Russia’s veto.

Although the council in practice has been divided on many issues, Uniting for Peace has been invoked fewer than a dozen times since it was adopted in 1950, according to the Security Council Report, which tracks U.N. meetings. The last time was 40 years ago, in 1982, concerning Israel.

The debate is likely to continue through Wednesday, as more than 100 countries have asked to take the floor. The United States is scheduled to speak toward the end of the debate, closer to the introduction of a draft resolution strongly condemning the Russian invasion and calling for a cease-fire and the withdrawal of Moscow’s troops. Its language mimics the one that Russia vetoed in the Security Council on Friday.

A two-thirds majority of voting assembly members is needed to adopt the resolution.

Russia

Russia’s envoy, Vassily Nebenzia, said Moscow’s actions, which he said were made in self-defense, had been “distorted.” He also tried to paint Moscow’s invasion as a defense of the principles of the U.N. Charter.

“We are protecting ourselves from a nationalist threat, but Russia is also seeking to uphold the purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter on the soil of Donbas and Ukraine, ensuring that the main goal of the United Nations is upheld — namely to prevent succeeding generations from a scourge of war,” Nebenzia said.

He denied that Russian troops were targeting civilians.

“We constantly hear lies, fakes about indiscriminate shelling of Ukrainian cities, hospitals, schools, kindergartens,” Nebenzia said. “The Russian army does not pose a threat to the civilians of Ukraine, is not shelling civilian areas.”

China

China was the only major Russian ally to speak Monday morning. The situation has evolved to a point that China does not wish to see, Ambassador Zhang Jun said.

“The Cold War has long ended,” he said. “The Cold War mentality based on bloc confrontation should be abandoned. Nothing can be gained from stirring up a new Cold War, but everyone will stand to lose.”

“It is our consistent and unequivocal position that all countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity should be respected, and that the purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter should be upheld,” the Chinese envoy added.

Other allies, including Syria, Belarus, Venezuela and North Korea, are scheduled to speak during the debate.

Peace talks amid refugee exodus

As delegates took to the podium, Russian and Ukrainian delegations were meeting in a border town in Belarus for the first direct talks to halt the fighting.

“This offers a ray of hope,” Abdulla Shahid, the president of the General Assembly, said. “We pray that these talks will calm down tempers and pave way to peace.”

The U.N.’s Human Rights Office said Monday that more than 400 civilian casualties have been reported, including more than 100 deaths. It said the real figure could be much higher as many reported casualties have yet to be confirmed.

Meanwhile, civilians continue to flee to safety. The U.N. refugee agency says the numbers are changing by the hour, but already more than a half million people have already crossed Ukraine’s borders, mostly toward Poland.

Some reports have emerged that non-white refugees have encountered difficulty accessing transport to leave and discrimination at the Polish border. Ambassador Krzysztof Szczerski said that was not true.

“This is a complete lie and a terrible insult to us,” he said.

The Polish envoy said his government had organized trains to bring the elderly and mothers with children to Poland, sent aid convoys, and prepared hospital beds for the wounded and sick. In the past 24 hours, the first refugee babies had been born in Polish hospitals, he said.

Monday afternoon, the U.N. Security Council will hold another meeting on the situation, this time to discuss the growing humanitarian crisis. U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths and the High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi are both expected to deliver updates to the council.

France and Mexico are circulating a draft resolution calling for safe and unhindered humanitarian access, which will likely be put to a vote on Tuesday.

Ukraine Crisis Shapes French Presidential Race 

France is gearing up for April presidential elections like no other — with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shaping the campaign, and President Emmanuel Macron yet to enter the race. That’s expected to change within days, or hours — as the deadline for registering is Friday (March 4).

French President Emmanuel Macron seems to be everywhere these days — from Moscow in an unsuccessful bid for peace, to Brussels to hash out European Union sanctions against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He is everywhere that is, except the campaign trail.

At Paris’ annual agricultural fair Saturday — a mandatory stop for presidential candidates to pat cows and shake hands— Macron said nothing about his reelection plans. He warned instead that war was returning to Europe.

But his silence does not seem to be hurting. The Ukraine conflict appears to be burnishing his credentials as a wartime president. Recent polls show Macron’s popularity on the rise. With roughly one-quarter of likely votes, he is now a comfortable six or seven points ahead of Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally, and Valerie Pecresse of the center-right Les Republicains.

Political analyst Jean Petaux says during a crisis, French tradition is to rally behind France’s diplomacy and its president, to project a strong and united front overseas.

That is a frustrating position to be in, if you are one of France’s other two-dozen plus presidential candidates, spanning the far left to the far right.

Some tried unsuccessfully to capitalize on Macron’s failed diplomacy with Russia, portraying him as naive and ineffective.

They also have bigger headaches. France’s left and its far right are splintered. Many candidates still need the mandatory endorsements from elected officials to make the ballot. And the shadow of the Ukraine conflict is shaping the race in ways they didn’t expect.

Some presidential hopefuls are quickly distancing themselves from allegedly pro-Russian positions in the past — which their rivals are pouncing on. “Shame on them,” candidate Pecresse proclaimed at an election rally, demanding several competitors, including Le Pen and another far-right hopeful, Eric Zemmour, be disqualified.

Newcomer Zemmour is especially feeling the heat. He has criticized NATO and suggested France should not take in Ukrainian refugees.

All this infighting is good news for Macron. He’s standing above the fray and earning a wave of political endorsements. But with his campaign expected to kick off in Marseille Saturday, President Macron will soon become candidate Macron… with all the pluses and the perils that it brings.

US Suspends Operations at Embassy in Belarus

The U.S. Department of State Monday announced it has suspended operations at the U.S. embassy in Minsk, Belarus, and authorized the voluntary departure of non-emergency employees and family members at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Russia’s capital, Moscow.

In a statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the State Department took the steps due to security and safety issues stemming from “the unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces in Ukraine.”

He said the department continually adjusts its posture at embassies and consulates throughout the world based on the local security environment, and the health situation.

Blinken said, “We ultimately have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens, and that includes our U.S. government personnel and their dependents serving around the world.”

Separately, the United States updated its travel advisories for Belarus and Russia to Level 4-“Do Not Travel” status, citing Russia’s military attack on Ukraine. Russia has held troop drills in Belarus, using it as a staging ground to target Ukraine from the north.

Earlier in February, the U.S. embassy in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, relocated operations to the western city of Lyiv amid the Russia-Ukraine tensions.

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse. Jamie Dettmer also contributed to this report.

Russia Facing World Cup Exile After ‘Unacceptable’ FIFA Plan  

Russia’s future in the World Cup teetered on a knife-edge Monday after FIFA plans to allow them to play on neutral territory were dismissed as “unacceptable” by rivals, plunging the qualifying process for football’s showpiece event into chaos.

Governing body FIFA warned that they were considering the ultimate sanction against Russia as punishment for their bloody invasion of Ukraine.

However, after three days of silence, they stopped short and ordered Russia to play home internationals at neutral venues where their national flag and anthem would be banned.

Russian teams would be known as the Football Union of Russia.

FIFA said dialogue with other sports organizations to determine additional measures “including potential exclusion from competitions” would continue.

However, within minutes of the announcement, the Polish FA insisted they would not play Russia in a scheduled World Cup play-off, regardless of the venue.

“Today’s FIFA decision is totally unacceptable,” tweeted Polish FA president Cezary Kulesza.

“We are not interested in participating in this game of appearances. Our stance remains intact: Polish National Team will NOT PLAY with Russia, no matter what the name of the team is.”

Poland is due to play in Moscow on March 24 with the winners to host either the Czech Republic or Sweden five days later.

The draw for the World Cup finals, to be staged in Qatar in November and December, is on April 1.

Sweden and the Czech Republic followed suit.

“We have previously made it known that we do not want to face Russia under these circumstances [following the invasion] and this remains the case until further notice,” said Swedish FA president Karl-Erik Nilsson.

‘Displeased’ with FIFA

He added he was “displeased” with FIFA’s decision.

The Czech FA added: “There will be no change in the Czech national team’s standpoint.”

In response, FIFA said in a statement that it had “taken good note of the positions expressed via social media by the Polish Football Association, the Football Association of the Czech Republic and the Swedish Football Association.”

“FIFA will remain in close contact to seek to find appropriate and acceptable solutions together,” it said.

French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet led calls on Sunday for Russia to be kicked out of the World Cup.

“The world of sport, and especially football, cannot remain neutral. I certainly would not oppose the expulsion of Russia,” Le Graet told Le Parisien newspaper.

France are the World Cup holders after winning the 2018 tournament which was hosted by Russia.

The English FA said their national teams would not play any games against Russia “out of solidarity with Ukraine and to wholeheartedly condemn the atrocities being committed by the Russian leadership.”

The Welsh FA said they too would join a boycott as it “stands in solidarity with Ukraine and feels an extreme amount of sadness and shock to the recent developments in the country.”

‘Football Stands Together’

European governing body UEFA on Friday stripped the Champions League final from Saint Petersburg’s Gazprom Arena on May 28 and switched it to the Stade de France in Paris.

At Wembley on Sunday, Chelsea skipper Cesar Azpilicueta and Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson carried flowers in Ukraine’s yellow and blue colors before kick-off in the League Cup final.

Both teams stood for a minute’s applause, while a scoreboard message in yellow and blue blazed “Football Stands Together” and Liverpool and Chelsea fans were seen with Ukraine flags.

One banner in blue and yellow read “You’ll never walk alone” in reference to Liverpool’s terrace anthem.

Chelsea also said they were “praying for peace” after owner Roman Abramovich’s decision to hand over control of the Premier League club.

The Russian-Israeli billionaire announced on Saturday that he was handing the “stewardship and care” of Chelsea to the trustees of the club’s charitable foundation. But he will remain as owner.

There was no mention in his statement of the crisis in Ukraine.

Chelsea released a 24-word statement on their website Sunday but omitted any reference to Russia or its president, Vladimir Putin.

“The situation in Ukraine is horrific and devastating,” the statement said. “Chelsea FC’s thoughts are with everyone in Ukraine. Everyone at the club is praying for peace.”

It is understood that Abramovich, who allegedly has links to the Kremlin, took the decision to step aside in order to protect Chelsea from reputational damage as the war rages in Ukraine.

Sporting anger wasn’t just limited to football.

In Cairo, Ukraine on Sunday withdrew from the world fencing championships to avoid facing Russia, downing their swords and displaying protest signs saying “Stop Russia! Stop the war!” and “Save Ukraine! Save Europe.”

Swimming’s governing body FINA cancelled the world junior championships in Russia due to take place in August and said no other events will be held in the country “if this grave crisis continues.”

Swimming Australia on Monday welcomed the cancellation and said it would be boycotting all competitions in Russia.

Ruble Plummets as Sanctions Bite, Sending Russians to Banks

Ordinary Russians faced the prospect of higher prices and crimped foreign travel as Western sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine sent the ruble plummeting, leading uneasy people to line up at banks and ATMs on Monday in a country that has seen more than one currency disaster in the post-Soviet era.

The Russian currency plunged about 30% against the U.S. dollar Monday after Western nations announced moves to block some Russian banks from the SWIFT international payment system and to restrict Russia’s use of its massive foreign currency reserves. The exchange rate later recovered ground after swift action by Russia’s central bank.  

People wary that sanctions would deal a crippling blow to the economy have been flocking to banks and ATMs for days, with reports in social media of long lines and machines running out.  

Moscow’s department of public transport warned city residents over the weekend that they might experience problems with using Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay to pay fares because VTB, one of the Russian banks facing sanctions, handles card payments in Moscow’s metro, buses and trams.  

A sharp devaluation of the ruble would mean a drop in the standard of living for the average Russian, economists and analysts said. Russians are still reliant on a multitude of imported goods and the prices for those items are likely to skyrocket. Foreign travel would become more expensive as their rubles buy less currency abroad. And the deeper economic turmoil will come in the coming weeks if price shocks and supply-chain issues cause Russian factories to shut down due to lower demand.  

“It’s going to ripple through their economy really fast,” said David Feldman, a professor of economics at William & Mary in Virginia. “Anything that is imported is going to see the local cost in currency surge. The only way to stop it will be heavy subsidization.”

The Russian government will have to step in to support declining industries, banks and economic sectors, but without access to hard currencies like the U.S. dollar and euro, they may have to result to printing more rubles. It’s a move that could quickly spiral into hyperinflation.  

The ruble slide recalled previous crises. The currency lost much of its value in the early 1990s after the end of the Soviet Union, with inflation and loss of value leading the government to lop three zeros off ruble notes in 1997. Then came a further drop after a 1998 financial crisis in which many depositors lost savings and yet another plunge in 2014 due to falling oil prices and sanctions imposed after Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.

Russia’s central bank immediately stepped in to try to halt the slide of the ruble. It sharply raised its key interest rate Monday in a desperate attempt to shore up the currency and prevent a run on banks.  

The bank hiked the benchmark rate to 20% from 9.5%. That followed a Western decision Sunday to freeze Russia’s hard currency reserves, an unprecedented move that could have devastating consequences for the country’s financial stability.  

It was unclear exactly what share of Russia’s estimated $640 billion hard currency pile, some of which is held outside Russia, would be paralyzed by the decision. European officials said that at least half of it will be affected.

That dramatically raised pressure on the ruble by undermining financial authorities’ ability to support it by using reserves to purchase rubles.  

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the new sanctions that included a freeze on Russia’s hard currency reserves as “heavy,” but argued Monday that “Russia has the necessary potential to compensate the damage.”

The central bank ordered other measures to help banks cope with the crisis by infusing more cash into the financial system and easing restrictions for banking operations. At the same time, it temporarily barred non-residents from selling the government obligations to help ease the pressure on the ruble from panicky foreign investors trying to cash out of such investments.  

The steps taken to support the ruble are themselves painful since raising interest rates can hold back growth by making it more expensive for companies to get credit.

The ruble sank about 30% against the U.S. dollar early Monday but steadied after the central bank’s move. Earlier, it traded at a record low of 105.27 per dollar, down from about 84 per dollar late Friday, before recovering to 98.22.

Sanctions announced last week had taken the Russian currency to its lowest level against the dollar in history. 

Sporting Sanctions Can Land Significant Blow on Putin, Say Experts

Russia hosting the 2018 World Cup, the scandal-plagued 2014 Winter Olympics and Gazprom’s sponsorship of the Champions League were powerful tools for the country’s global image and gained Vladimir Putin prestige amongst the Russian population.

However, the Russian president’s decision to invade Ukraine has resulted in destroying the warm global afterglow and experts believe it could cost him dearly internally.

Saint Petersburg has already been stripped of hosting this year’s Champions League final with Gazprom’s reported 40-million-euro ($45 million) a year sponsorship deal with UEFA also in doubt. 

The Russian Formula One Grand Prix has been cancelled and there are calls for the country’s football team to be expelled from the 2022 World Cup play-offs. 

“Sport has always had a tremendous impact on society,” Michael Payne, former head of marketing at the International Olympic Committee (IOC), told AFP. 

“The South African sports boycott over apartheid probably had as much or greater impact than economic sanctions, over forcing regime policy change.”

For Hugh Robertson, Chairman of the British Olympic Association (BOA), a blanket sports ban could affect Putin’s standing domestically.  

“Sport is disproportionately important to absolutist regimes,” he told AFP. 

“The potential inability to compete would hit Russia hard.”

Payne, who in nearly two decades at the IOC was widely credited with transforming its brand and finances through sponsorship, said Putin risked his standing with his own people. 

“Putin may not care what the rest of the world thinks of him, but he has to care what the Russian people think of him,” said the Irishman.

“Lose their support and it is game over -– and the actions of the sports community has the potential to be a very important influencer towards the Russian people.”

‘A greater good’ 

Prominent Russian sports stars have not been shy in voicing their disquiet over Putin’s invasion.

Andrey Rublev, who won the Dubai ATP title on Saturday, veteran Russian football international Fedor Smolov, United States-based ice hockey great Alex Ovechkin and cyclist Pavel Sivakov, who rides for the Ineos team have all expressed a desire for peace. 

“Russian athletes speaking out to their national fan base, will only serve to further prompt the local population to question the actions of their leadership, and undermine the local national support for the war,” said Payne. 

However, another former IOC marketing executive Terrence Burns, who since leaving the organization has played a key role in five successful Olympic bid city campaigns, has doubts about their impact.

“You are making the assumption that Russian people actually see, read, and hear ‘real news’,” he told AFP. 

“I do not believe that is the case. The Government will portray Russia as a victim of a great global conspiracy led by the USA and the West. 

“It is an old Russian trope they have used quite effectively since the Soviet days.”

Burns says sadly the athletes must also be punished for their government’s aggression.

“I believe that Russia must pay the price for what it has done,” he said.

“Sadly, that has to include her athletes as well. 

“Many people, like me, believed that by helping them host the Olympics and World Cup could somehow open and liberalize the society, creating new paths of progress for Russia’s young people. Again, we were wrong.”

Robertson too says allowing Russians to compete when Ukrainians are unable to due to the conflict is “morally inconceivable.” 

Payne says individual sports have to look at a bigger moral picture than their own potential losses over cutting Russian sponsorship contracts. 

“The sports world risks losing far more by not reacting, than the loss of one or two Russian sponsors.” 

Former British lawmaker Robertson, who as Minister for Sport and the Olympics delivered the highly successful 2012 London Games, agrees. 

“The sporting world may have to wean itself off Russian money,” said the 59-year-old.

“Over the past few days, it has become apparent that political, economic and trade sanctions will hurt the West as well as Russia, but this is a price that we will have to pay to achieve a greater good.”

For Robertson sport could not stand idly by in response to Russia’s invasion. 

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine will impact sport but the consequences of inaction, or prevarication, will be far more serious.” 

Euro Backlash as FIFA Refuses to Expel Russia From Football

FIFA drew a swift backlash from European nations for not immediately expelling Russia from World Cup qualifying Sunday and only ordering the country to play without its flag and anthem at neutral venues under the name of its federation — the Football Union of Russia.

Protesting against FIFA’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Poland said it would still refuse to play the country in a World Cup playoff semifinal, which is scheduled for March 24.

“Today’s FIFA decision is totally unacceptable,” Polish football federation president Cezary Kulesza tweeted. “We are not interested in participating in this game of appearances. Our stance remains intact: Polish National Team will NOT PLAY with Russia, no matter what the name of the team is.”

 

The unanimous ruling by the FIFA Bureau, featuring the six regional football confederation presidents, said the Russian flag and anthem can’t be associated with the team playing as “Football Union of Russia (RFU).”

“FIFA will continue its ongoing dialogue with the IOC, UEFA and other sport organizations to determine any additional measures or sanctions,” FIFA said in a statement, “including a potential exclusion from competitions, that shall be applied in the near future should the situation not be improving rapidly.”

The decision adopts the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling before the invasion of Ukraine, punishing Russia’s cover-up of the investigation into state-sponsored doping. It meant the Russians had to compete at the last two Olympics as the ROC team. FIFA had stalled implementing the ban on Russia competing under the country’s name until a potential qualification for the World Cup.

The winner of the Russia-Poland playoff is due to host Sweden or the Czech Republic on March 29 to decide who advances to the Nov. 21-Dec. 18 World Cup in Qatar.

Swedish federation president Karl-Erik Nilsson, the senior UEFA vice president, told the website Fotbollskanalen that he was not satisfied with the FIFA decision with a “sharper stance” expected. The Czechs said the FIFA compromise did not change their decision not to play Russia.

FIFA said it had engaged with the three associations and would remain in “close contact to seek to find appropriate and acceptable solutions together.”

Separately, the English Football Association announced that its national teams would refuse to play Russia for the “foreseeable future.” Russia has qualified for the Women’s European Championship which is being hosted by England in June.

The English FA said the decision was taken “out of solidarity with the Ukraine and to wholeheartedly condemn the atrocities being committed by the Russian leadership.”

The RFU’s president is Aleksandr Dyukov, who is chief executive of a subsidiary of state-owned energy giant Gazprom and also sits on the UEFA executive committee.

In France, the football federation president Noël Le Graët told the Le Parisien daily Sunday that he was leaning toward excluding Russia from the World Cup.

“The world of sport, and in particular football, cannot remain neutral,” said Le Graët, who sits on the ruling FIFA Council and has recently been a close ally of the governing body’s president, Gianni Infantino.

A strict reading of FIFA’s World Cup regulations would even make the Polish, Swedish and Czech federations liable to disciplinary action and having to pay fines and compensation if they wouldn’t play Russia.

In 1992, however, FIFA and UEFA removed Yugoslavia from its competitions following United Nations sanctions imposed when war broke out in the Balkans.  

The FIFA Bureau, which is chaired by Infantino, includes UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin.

As Russia’s war on Ukraine entered a fourth day on Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin temporarily lost his most senior official position in world sports. The International Judo Federation cited “the ongoing war conflict in Ukraine” for suspending Putin’s honorary president status.

The Russian president is a keen judoka and attended the sport at the 2012 London Olympics.

There was an abrupt resignation Sunday from the Russian who is president of the European Judo Union, with Sergey Soloveychik referencing the “heartache that we see the people in brotherly countries die” but backing his country.

“No one doubts that my heart belongs to judo,” he said. “But it is equally true that it belongs to my homeland, Russia. We, judoka, must always be loyal to our principles.”

In Putin’s other favorite sport, ice hockey, Latvian club Dinamo Riga withdrew Sunday from the Russian-owned and run Kontinental Hockey League citing the “military and humanitarian crisis.”

Belarus Votes to Give Up Non-nuclear Status

Belarusians voted Monday to allow the country to host nuclear weapons and Russian forces permanently, results showed, part of a package of constitutional reforms that also extended the rule of leader Alexander Lukashenko.

The referendum was held Sunday as the ex-Soviet country’s neighbor Ukraine is under attack from Russian troops and delegations from Moscow and Kyiv are expected to meet for talks on the Belarusian border.

Central Election Commission head Igor Karpenko said 65.16% of referendum participants voted in favor of the amendments and 10.07% voted against, Russian news agencies reported.

According to Karpenko, voter turnout stood at 78.63%. 

To come into force, the amendments need to receive at least 50% of the vote with a turnout of over half the electorate.

Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, promised the referendum in the wake of historic protests against his disputed re-election in 2020.

By amending the constitution Lukashenko, 67, follows in the footsteps of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who in 2020 oversaw a vote on constitutional changes that made it possible for him to remain in power until 2036.

The constitutional changes also grant immunity to former leaders for crimes committed during their term in office.

Russia is a key ally of Belarus and last week Lukashenko allowed Russian troops to use Belarusian territory to invade Ukraine from the north. 

Belarus inherited a number of Soviet nuclear warheads following the break-up of the USSR in 1991, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative think tank, which it then transferred to Russia.

Lukashenko first floated possible changes after a presidential vote in August 2020 sparked unprecedented demonstrations that were met with a brutal crackdown.

He claimed a sixth term in the vote and imprisoned leading opposition figures, while his main rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was forced to seek refuge in neighboring Lithuania.

The amendments would reinstate presidential term limits — previously ditched by Lukashenko — to two five-year terms, but they would only apply to the next elected president.

Were Lukashenko to put himself forward as a candidate for re-election in 2025, he could remain in power for an additional 10 years.

Tikhanovskaya’s office in Lithuania has hit out at the vote, saying that a sweeping crackdown on any dissenting voices since the 2020 election made any real discussion of the proposals impossible.