Alexander Lukashenko can boast membership of the tiny club of world tyrants who still call the Russian president Vladimir Putin an ally. But in enabling Putin’s war on Ukraine, the Belarusian dictator has in effect ceded control of his country to the Kremlin, the exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya believes.
Lukashenko denies that his armed forces are operating in Ukraine or that he plans to enter the war on Russia’s side. But Belarus’s military is now indirectly under Kremlin control, Tshikhanouskaya said in an interview with the Guardian.
“It seems to us that Lukashenko is not controlling our military any more, the only thing he is controlling is repression against the Belarusian people,” she said. “We see signs of the military occupation of Belarus.”
A US defense briefing last week raised fears that the deployment of Belarusian troops inside Ukraine could be imminent – which would represent a major escalation of the war. Images indicating a build-up of Belarusian forces near the Ukrainian border have also appeared on social media.
Tshikhanouskaya said Putin’s aim is “to put blood on the hands of Belarus soldiers, to connect Lukashenko’s regime to this war, to make it an accomplice”.
She has started appealing to Belarus troops to either refuse to fight in Ukraine or to desert and switch sides once there, rather than obey “criminal orders”. Belarusian soldiers, many conscripted, are ill-prepared, demoralized and frightened, she said. “We are trying to persuade Belarusian troops not to participate. We are communicating with mothers of soldiers, trying to persuade them not to let their children go to this war.”
Belarus became a launchpad for Russian ballistic missile strikes on Ukraine and for invading Russian ground troops on 24 February. Moscow moved an estimated 30,000 of its troops into Belarus in the weeks preceding the assault, officially for “military training”. Four days after the invasion began, Lukashenko revoked his country’s post-cold war constitutional neutrality after a staged referendum gave him clearance to host not just Russian forces permanently but Russian nuclear weapons, removed from the country after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The new Belarus military doctrine appears to remove any remaining facade of independence in Minsk. Moreover, the move to abandon its nuclear-free status and allow Russia to place nuclear weapons on Belarus soil raises an immediate strategic alarm for thewest. It also coincided with Putin’s 28 February announcement that he was putting Russia’s nuclear force on alert.
“If Putin wants to take control of the entire territory of Belarus tomorrow he could do it,” Tshikhanouskaya said. The Minsk regime’s suppression of any 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 moment”, she said. “Lukashenko is a puppet. Putin controls the country through him.”
Tsikhanouskaya and her fellow campaigners, many of whom have been jailed or silenced, now have a twin mission: oppose the regime in Minsk and mobilize Belarusians to oppose, and even sabotage, the Ukraine war via 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, flared in Minsk against the war last week, leading to hundreds of arrests.
Tsikhanouskaya wants western governments urgently to see Ukraine and Belarus as strategically linked: thwarting Putin’s assault on Ukraine also requires going after his accomplice in Minsk. In video messages of support for Ukraine she wears a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Glory to Ukraine, long live Belarus”. Ukraine and Belarus are together integral to Putin’s imperial vision, she said, their fates now interdependent. “The Kremlin’s intention is to return our past Soviet Union countries to be one huge empire again.”
Forced to seek refuge in Lithuania after standing against Lukashenko in presidential elections in August 2020, which were rigged in his favour, Tsikhanouskaya, a former teacher, now calls herself the legitimate leader of Belarus. European governments have refused to recognize Lukashenko as president since 2020.
She previously avoided framing Belarus’s democracy struggle in geopolitical terms; its focus was Minsk not Moscow. Since 24 February that has changed dramatically. “Lukashenko dragged us into this conflict and this war. We have to be on the side of people fighting for their independence.”
Lukashenko’s collaboration with the war has complicated life for many who fled Belarus after 2020 and find themselves cast as “enemies” in some parts of eastern Europe. Yet Belarusian volunteers are already fighting in Ukraine to support the resistance, Tsikhanouskaya said. “We are starting the formation of Belarusian forces that will fight together with Ukraine against two dictators: Putin and Lukashenko.”
Some analysts believe Lukashenko’s support of the war in Ukraine will expedite his fall. But Tsikhanouskaya is also aware of the immediate peril for Belarusians if Putin prevails 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 want to even imagine the outcome if Ukraine falls, it will be a disaster not only for Ukraine and for Belarus but for the democratic world. It will untie the hands of the Kremlin in the future.”
But she sees a shift in the popular mood within Russia. “The Kremlin is experiencing enormous pressure from inside Russia. People in Russia are not going to be happy about the situation. Russia and the Kremlin are not the same thing.”
The US last week imposed sweeping new sanctions against individuals with links to the Belarus regime, as well as banning most industrial exports, including potash and fertilizer. But Tsikhanouskaya said remaining loopholes must be filled, even if that causes pain for ordinary Belarus citizens. She wants to see Belarus judges who have incarcerated political prisoners for draconian jail terms targeted. “These people do horrible things and have complete impunity inside Belarus.” In December her human rights campaigner for her husband Syarhei, detained since 2020, was given an 18-year sentence for challenging Lukashenko and inciting the biggest demonstrations in Belarus’s history.
News of the Russian attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant evoked disturbing personal memories for Tsikhanouskaya. She grew up in a region of Belarus that suffered radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. “It is horrifying for me personally. When I heard this news I was just praying. We still remember Chernobyl. It can’t be repeated in our region, but it seems [that] in its striving for power the Kremlin doesn’t pay attention to people’s suffering. Look around at what is happening, we don’t know where their red lines are, or even if they have any red lines.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism