TALLINN, Estonia -- An opposition leader in exile from Belarus said Tuesday that her country's soldiers should lay down their arms if they are deployed to Ukraine under pressure from Russia.
Russia used Belarus as a staging ground for troops and weapons when it invaded Ukraine eight months ago. Concerns persist that the authoritarian president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, might agree to send his own troops south into Ukraine.
Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has been in exile in Lithuania since 2020, said the leadership of Belarus has become a hostage of powerful allies in Moscow who provide political and economic support. She opposes the direct involvement of Belarus in the war.
“If it happens that under pressure, under threats, Belarusian troops will be deployed, we're urging our soldiers to lay down their arms, join the guerillas, change sides, join the Ukrainian military,” Tsikhnouskaya said during a visit to Estonia.
Moscow has pumped billions of dollars into shoring up the Soviet-style, state-controlled economy of Belarus with cheap energy and loans. Lukashenko, who has been president since 1994, survived the largest mass protests in the country’s history following a 2020 presidential election that the opposition and the West denounced as rigged.
Tsikhanouskaya ran against Lukashenko in that election, and many believed she won. She was forced to leave Belarus under pressure from the government.
"Lukashenko, of course, is very dependent on the Kremlin, because it is the Kremlin that helped him in 2020 to hold on to power, and right now he is paying his debt to the Kremlin,” Tsikhanouskaya told The Associated Press.
Lukashenko has publicly supported Russia’s attack on Ukraine, drawing international criticism and sanctions against Minsk. Still, he has repeatedly rebuffed speculation that Belarus would send its own soldiers to fight alongside Russia.
Earlier this month, however, Belarusian authorities announced the establishment of a joint “regional grouping of troops” with Russia and said some 9,000 Russian soldiers would be stationed in Belarus.
Tsikhanouskaya said there currently was no evidence of a planned Belarusian deployment in Ukraine. The 1,000-kilometer Belarus-Ukraine border has been mined, she pointed out, and “the Ukrainian forces are also prepared for the possible offensive” from Belarus.
She also spoke out against Belarus storing Russian nuclear weapons — a possibility Lukashenko also has mentioned.
“A possible scheme they have is following: if the irrational thinking of Putin, all of the sudden, leads to doing this terrible thing with terrible outcome, it will be done from the territory of Belarus, (so Putin can) demonstrate that ‘I’m not alone like this, I have an ally,’" Tiskhanouskaya predicted.
In the meantime, hundreds of Belarusians volunteered to fight in Ukraine as part of the Kastus Kalinousky regiment. A separate guerilla movement in Belarus has disrupted the movement by rail of Russian military equipment.
“A guy who in 2020 took his shoes off to stand on a bench (during a demonstration) is fighting in the Kalinousky regiment now,” Tsikhahouskaya said. “We see that Belarusians are not all that patient... But I remain committed to peaceful change.”
Tsikhanouskaya has formed a Cabinet in exile, and two former high-level security officials joined it. She invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to form “an alliance with the democratic Belarus” but has not yet received a response.
Still, Tsikhanouskaya said, one “should view Belarus as occupied territory."
“Now is not the time to compare our pains," Tsikhanouskaya said. “We are now in the same boat. Of course, the situation is completely different; there is ... a terrible war there while in Belarus there are political and military repressions. But we draw on the fact that Russia considers neither Ukraine, nor Belarus sovereign independent states."
Lukashenko harshly suppressed mass antigovernment protests triggered by his 2020 reelection. Police arrested 35,000 people and brutally beat scores. Tsikhanouskaya told the AP that 150,000-200,000 Belarusians have left the country, and 1,349 political prisoners are currently behind bars.
They include the co-winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, Ales Bialiatski, founder of Belarus' most prominent human rights group, and opposition politician Siarhei Tsikhanouski, who is Tsikhanouskaya’s husband.
Follow AP's coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine