Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko would face “massive disobedience” if he decided to send troops to fight in Ukraine alongside Russian forces, according to the exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Speaking in Davos, where she seeks to bolster international support for her country’s opposition, Ms Tsikhanouskaya said that while Minsk was already helping the Kremlin by allowing Russian troops to train and use the country’s military infrastructure, the Lukashenko regime was weaker and more unstable than the West could perceive.
“Lukashenko is already fully participating in the war,” she told the Financial Times on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum. “But the fact that our troops have not been sent to Ukraine is not because Lukashenko doesn’t want to participate. He knows Belarusians don’t see Ukrainians as enemies.”
She added: “If Lukashenko gives the order to participate, or even if he declares mobilisation, which would be the first sign of getting involved, what would happen? Massive disobedience, strikes and people fleeing Belarus as fast as they can. That is why I doubt Lukashenko is going to give this order.”
Ukrainian officials have warned for months that Moscow is dragging Belarus towards opening a new front to the north, which could force Kyiv to divert resources from its efforts to push back Russian forces in the east and south of the country. However, Ms Tsikhanouskaya said she believes that northern Ukraine is now “well mined” and that local forces there are prepared for any Russian attack.
In October, Mr Lukashenko sent troops close to the border with Ukraine after accusing Kyiv and its allies of preparing an attack against Belarus. Russia and Belarus are holding joint air training exercises this week.
On February 24th last year, Moscow sent thousands of Russian troops across the Belarusian border to try to seize Kyiv and fired missiles from Belarusian air bases against Ukrainian targets. Russia has deployed Iran-made Shahed-136 kamikaze drones to Belarusian air bases, according to Ukrainian military intelligence.
But Ms Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced into exile in Lithuania after Mr Lukashenko cracked down on mass protests and the opposition in 2020 after fraudulent elections, believes that even the Kremlin has little interest in unsettling the Belarusian regime by getting it to fight in Ukraine.
“This status quo now in Belarus – whereby Lukashenko controls repression and detains 10-15 people every day – it is comfortable for Putin,” she said. “The Kremlin can get its launching pads for missiles. Putin uses Belarus’s military centres and infrastructure for [his] own purposes and uses Belarus as a loophole for sanctions. They have a symbiotic relationship. Putin understands that if Lukashenko sends troops, there will be massive turbulence in society and it would be a problem for his troops in Belarus.”
She and her team are doing “everything we can” to avoid Belarusian soldiers from taking part, she said – including teaching Belarusians to use VPNs to circumvent state propaganda and translating Ukrainian news. Belarusians “don’t believe in propaganda but they need to find alternative sources of information,” she said.
Tsikhanouskaya said European and international leaders lacked a clear strategy on Belarus. “We don’t need Himars,” she said, referring to the long-range rocket systems. “We need assistance to partisans and to civil society ... It seems to us that the world has a strategy on Ukraine but that it overlooks Belarus. I want to be clear that I fully support the assistance to Ukraine,” she said, but allowing Belarus to sink deeper under Russian control opens up a “threat to our neighbouring countries”.
She said western sanctions against the Belarusian regime were being evaded and she urged the West to target judges and prosecutors. Tsikhanouskaya, who is to be tried in absentia for treason in Minsk this week, alongside other opposition leaders, said she expected to be sentenced to “years and years in jail”. Her husband Sergei, whom she replaced as a presidential candidate when he was arrested, was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2021 for inciting “mass disturbances”.
“Prosecutors are not looking for proof, they just know the years in prison they should give,” she said.
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023