Alexander Lukashenko can boast of belonging to the small club of global tyrants who still call Russian President Vladimir Putin an ally. But by allowing Putin’s war against Ukraine, the Belarusian dictator has in effect ceded control of his country to the Kremlin, believes Belarusian opposition leader in exile Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Lukashenko denies that its armed forces operate in Ukraine or that he plans to go to war on the side of Russia. But the Belarusian army is now indirectly under the control of the Kremlin, Tsikhanouskaya said in an interview with the Guardian.
“It seems to us that Lukashenko no longer controls our army, the only thing he controls is the repression against the Belarusian people,” she said. “We see signs of the military occupation of Belarus.”
A US defense briefing last week raised concerns that the deployment of Belarusian troops inside Ukraine was imminent – which would represent a major escalation in the war. Pictures indicating a buildup of Belarusian forces near the Ukrainian border has also emerged on social media.
Tsikhanouskaya said Putin’s goal was “to put blood on the hands of Belarusian soldiers, to link the Lukashenko regime to this war, to make it an accomplice”.
She began calling on Belarusian troops to refuse to fight in Ukraine or to desert and switch sides once there, rather than obey “criminal orders”. Belarusian soldiers, many of whom are conscripted, are ill-prepared, demoralized and scared, she said.
“We are trying to persuade Belarusian troops not to participate. We communicate with mothers of soldiers, trying to persuade them not to let their children participate in this war.
Belarus has become a launching pad for Russian ballistic missile strikes on Ukraine and for the February 24 invasion by Russian ground troops. Moscow moved around 30,000 of its troops to Belarus in the weeks leading up to the assault, ostensibly for “military training”.
Four days into the invasion, Lukashenko revoked his country’s post-Cold War constitutional neutrality after a held referendum gave him permission to house not only Russian forces permanently, but weapons as well. Russian nuclear weapons, withdrawn from the country after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The new Belarusian military doctrine appears to remove any facade of independence remaining in Minsk. Moreover, the decision to abandon its status as a nuclear-weapon-free zone and to allow Russia to place nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil triggers an immediate strategic alert for the west. It also coincided with Putin’s announcement on February 28 that he was putting Russia’s nuclear force on high alert.
“If Putin wants to take control of the whole territory of Belarus tomorrow, he could do it,” Tsikhanouskaya said. The Minsk regime’s suppression of all civic or political activity allows Russian troops to use the territory of Belarus as Putin wants, to the point of intervening in its political life “at any time”, she said. said. “Lukashenko is a puppet. Putin controls the country through him.
Tsikhanouskaya and his campaign comrades, many of whom have been imprisoned or silenced, now have a dual mission: to oppose the Minsk regime and to mobilize Belarusians to oppose or even sabotage the war in Ukraine through a campaign of civil disobedience.
“Our fight has doubled – we have two fronts, against the regime and to prove that we are not on the side of war,” she said. Protestsnow rare in Belarus, broke out in Minsk against the war last week, leading to hundreds of arrests.
Tsikhanouskaya has no doubt however that there will be a groundswell against the invasion. “A Belarusian war resistance movement has started in the country, and it will grow,” she said.
Tsikhanouskaya wants Western governments to urgently see Ukraine and Belarus as strategically linked: thwarting Putin’s assault on Ukraine also requires pursuing his accomplice in Minsk. In video messages of support for Ukraine, she wears a T-shirt with the slogan “Glory to Ukraine, long live Belarus”.
Ukraine and Belarus are integral parts of Putin’s imperial vision, she said, with their destinies now intertwined. “The Kremlin’s intention is to restore our former Soviet Union countries to a huge empire.”
Forced to take refuge in Lithuania after running against Lukashenko in the August 2020 presidential elections, rigged in her favor, Tsikhanouskaya, a former teacher, now proclaims herself the legitimate leader of Belarus. European governments have refused to recognize Lukashenko as president since 2020.
She previously avoided framing Belarus’ democratic struggle in geopolitical terms; his target was Minsk, not Moscow. Since February 24, this has changed dramatically. “Lukashenko dragged us into this conflict and this war. We must be on the side of people who are fighting for their independence.
Lukashenko’s collaboration with the war complicated the lives of many who fled Belarus after 2020 and found themselves “enemies” in parts of Eastern Europe.
Yet Belarusian volunteers are already fighting in Ukraine to support the resistance, Tsikhanouskaya said. “We are starting the training of Belarusian forces that will fight together with Ukraine against two dictators: Putin and Lukashenko.”
Some analysts believe that Lukashenko’s support for the war in Ukraine will hasten his downfall. But Tsikhanouskaya is also aware of the immediate peril for Belarusians if Putin wins in Ukraine and manages to survive an international economic blockade.
“We don’t know what kind of deal Lukashenko has with the Kremlin. But it will be a different reality for Belarus. I don’t even want to imagine the result if Ukraine falls, it will be a disaster not only for Ukraine and Belarus but for the democratic world. This will untie the hands of the Kremlin in the future.
But she sees a change in the popular mood in Russia. “The Kremlin is under enormous pressure from within Russia. People in Russia are not going to be happy with the situation. Russia and the Kremlin are not the same thing.
EU last week imposed sweeping new sanctions against individuals with ties to the Belarusian regime, as well as a ban on most industrial exports, including potash and fertilizers. But Tsikhanouskaya said the remaining gaps must be filled, even if it causes pain for ordinary Belarusian citizens.
She wants to see Belarusian judges who have incarcerated political prisoners for draconian prison terms targeted. “These people are doing horrible things and enjoying total impunity inside Belarus.”
In December, her human rights activist husband Syarhei, detained since 2020, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for defying Lukashenko and inciting the biggest protests in Belarusian history.
News of the Russian attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant evoked troubling personal memories for Tsikhanouskaya. She grew up in an area of Belarus that suffered the radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
“It’s horrible for me personally. When I heard this news, I was just praying. Chernobyl is still remembered. It cannot be repeated in our region, but it seems [that] in its race for power, the Kremlin does not pay attention to the suffering of the people.
“Look around what’s going on, we don’t know where their red lines are, or even if they have any red lines.”