Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko provided vital support for Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s invasion of Ukraine and is now helping Moscow to bring Europe to the “brink of nuclear war,” Belarus’ top opposition leader and pro-democracy activist warned this week on a visit to Washington.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is widely seen to have won a 2020 election against Mr. Lukashenko but fled following a post-vote crackdown, expressed her concerns amid widening concern over Mr. Putin‘s plan to base Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.
Mr. Putin declared over the weekend that the weapons will soon be in place. Many analysts are describing the move as the latest Cold War-style escalation between the Kremlin and the West.
Ms. Tsikhanouskaya told an event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute and the International Republican Institute on Monday evening that U.S. officials should be warier of Mr. Lukashenko‘s role. She asserted that he relishes his reputation as “Europe’s last dictator” and that Moscow is using him as a puppet.
Mr. Lukashenko, who has held power in Belarus for nearly 30 years, has been “Putin‘s enabler from the outset of the Russian invasion,” she said. He offered up Belarusian territory as a staging ground for Russian forces despite polling that shows some 86% of Belarusian citizens reject the war, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya said. So far, however, Belarusian troops have not taken part in the invasion.
“He is now a war criminal like just his master,” she said, adding that Mr. Lukashenko has recently signed away more of the country’s sovereignty “by allowing the Russians to build nuclear missile silos on our soil.”
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“Lukashenko is helping Russia in taking Europe to the brink of nuclear war,” she said.
Russian officials said the decision to position the nuclear weapons in Belarus did not violate Moscow’s commitments under existing agreements, but Mr. Putin‘s announcement follows Russia‘s decision to suspend participation in the New START pact.
The moves have sparked widening international concern, particularly in Europe, where lower-yield Russian nuclear weapons — viewed as more likely to be used — may now be deployed closer than ever to NATO allies Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
NATO has criticized Mr. Putin‘s plan. Ukrainian officials warn it’s likely to stoke internal destabilization in Belarus. “The Kremlin took Belarus as a nuclear hostage,” tweeted Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council.
China has also expressed concern. The South China Morning Post has reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping and Mr. Putin vowed during their meeting last week that neither Beijing nor Moscow would station nuclear weapons abroad.
However, specific details of the vow have not been verified.
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When asked Monday about Mr. Putin‘s move, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning suggested it violates a separate informal agreement among nuclear-armed nations. “In January last year, the leaders of the five nuclear-weapon states released a joint statement, in which they affirmed that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought and stressed the importance of the avoidance of war between nuclear-weapon states and the reduction of strategic risks,” Ms. Mao told reporters in Beijing.
The Biden administration has thus far taken a low-key response to Mr. Putin’s announcement, saying it does not change the balance of forces in the Ukraine fight. National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson told CNN: “We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture, nor any indications that Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon.”
Belarus and Russia, meanwhile, appear to be attempting to downplay the developments. Officials from the Lukashenko government said Monday that Mr. Putin‘s plan would not violate international agreements, according to Russia‘s official TASS news agency.
During an interview broadcast on Russian television over the weekend, Mr. Putin said the tactical nuke deployment will be made in response to increasing NATO weapons flows to Ukrainian forces. He specifically cited Britain’s recent announcement to provide Kyiv with munitions containing depleted uranium.
The British Defense Ministry last week said it will provide Ukrainian forces with the special armor-piercing rounds, which were first developed by the U.S. during the Cold War to destroy Soviet tanks.
Ms. Tsikhanouskaya called on Washington to pay closer attention to the Lukashenko government’s deepening alliance with the Kremlin.
“You must delegitimize Lukashenko more and more,” she said.
The opposition leader gained international recognition in 2020, when she ran for president against Mr. Lukashenko after her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular opposition blogger, was jailed in a government crackdown on dissent. She has continued her activism from Poland and Lithuania, heading a Belarusian democratic government in exile.
In her remarks in Washington on Monday, she called on the West to officially recognize the exile government, adding, “A free and democratic Belarus is the ultimate sanction on Russia‘s sick imperial fantasies. … If we don’t win now, then Europe will not be free and the Iron Curtain will fall once more.”
Her visit to Washington comes as the Biden administration convenes its second annual Summit for Democracy, a gathering of world leaders and activists. Administration officials say the summit aims to promote unity in the face of rising autocracy and authoritarianism.
Ms. Tsikhanouskaya pushed back against the notion promoted recently by some U.S. lawmakers that the Biden administration should focus more exclusively on countering China and not be distracted by Russia‘s war in Ukraine.
“Such powerful countries as America cannot be concentrated on one issue only — on China for example — because there are countries who are now fighting for the same values that Americans cherish,” she said.
Ms. Tsikhanouskaya, who also testified Tuesday alongside Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on U.S. support for democracy and human rights, warned that dictatorships are unifying and coordinating policy at an alarming rate.
“In front of the noses of powerful countries, dictators are being united,” she said in her remarks Monday evening. “This process might seem unnoticed until they are too big and too strong and now when we see how dictators are uniting — China, Russia, the Belarusian regime, Iran — I think that democratic countries should pay attention to this development.”
“Tyranny or dictatorships is like cancer. Until you cut out the last cell of this disease, it will spread more and more, and then it will be too late to heal this disease,” she said.
• Mike Glenn contributed to this article.
• Guy Taylor can be reached at email@example.com.
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