Lukashenko tries to weather Putin’s simmering war in Ukraine – POLITICO

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Alexander Lukashenko is Europe’s longest-serving non-royal ruler – and he hopes to hold out despite supporting Russia’s now-faltering war on Ukraine.

Russia’s February 24 invasion was launched in part from Belarusian territory – a launching pad for troops aiming to capture Kyiv from the north. Belarus provided logistical support and air bases, but never deployed its forces to join the fighting.

Russian troops have since withdrawn from northern Ukraine and mostly disappeared from Belarus – clearing the way for Lukashenko to try to return to his tried and true method of staying in power by balancing the Kremlin against the West.

He is putting out feelers to see if his sanctioned regime can play a role in eventual peace talks that end the war in Ukraine.

“Without Belarus there can be no negotiations,” said Lukashenko called Last month. “There must be no separate agreements behind Belarus.”

It’s a terrible idea, said Pavel Latushko, former Belarusian ambassador to Poland, France and Spain and now an exiled opposition leader. He said Lukashenko was trying to “be legalized in the eyes of the international community.”

“This should not be allowed under any circumstances,” Latushko told POLITICO. “It would be perceived as a betrayal by the Belarusian population and would send a very demotivating message to civil society that it is impossible to replace [a] Dictatorship with democracy.”

Lukashenko’s ability to placate more powerful neighbors was tested by the war.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin was building up troops in Ukraine ahead of the invasion, Lukashenko first said they were part of military exercises and would be going home soon, before changing course and saying they would be staying much longer.

With the invasion underway, he paid a visit to the Kremlin and pedantically explained to Putin why an invasion was necessary – a phenomenon that produced Dozens of memes mocking his subservience to the Russian leader.

While trying to please Putin, who is providing the political and financial support that will allow Lukashenko to stay in power, the Belarusian leader also dodged pressure to send his small army into combat.

War is not popular at home. according to a opinion poll According to independent Belarusian sociologist Andrei Vardomatsky, two-thirds of the country opposes the use of Belarusian infrastructure for Russian military operations in Ukraine, 11 percent support the invasion of Belarusian troops into Ukraine, and 50.4 percent disapprove of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

contradiction at home

Although street protests almost immediately lost momentum in late February, opposition leaders urged supporters to engage in acts of sabotage, such as disrupting rail services carrying supplies to Russian troops.

In March, an opposition supporter was seriously injured in a police crackdown on attempted railway sabotage.

“The harsh arrests of the criminals had a fairly effective and sobering effect,” said Belarusian Interior Minister Ivan Kubrakov told Lukashenko last month, who reported on what he called “terrorist attacks” on railway infrastructure.

“I have enough strength and wealth and the guys who will stand by me and we will behead anyone who wants to disturb the peace and tranquility in our country,” Lukashenko replied.

The Belarusian parliament also approved amendments to the penal code that would punish “attempted acts of terrorism” with the death penalty.

The extent and effectiveness of such resistance and sabotage efforts are difficult to independently assess; According to the opposition, it was possible to obstruct rail traffic, although the network was not paralysed.

Lukashenko is also trying to use the sanctions imposed on his regime to create a feeling that the country is under threat and aims to strengthen his position of power; He has ruled Belarus since 1994.

“We just have to work hard and stop complaining about sanctions,” he said called last week, adding: “We have to be careful not to get into trouble. The most important thing is to avoid war.”

His government has been under sanctions for years, but the scale increased after the crackdown following the fraudulent 2020 presidential election, compounded when the country illegally diverted a plane to land in Minsk to arrest an opposition figure last year and then reached new degrees of severity after the invasion of Ukraine.

“We are once again increasing our sanctions against the Kremlin and its collaborator, the Lukashenko regime,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called after the start of the war.

Now Lukashenko is trying to bring some daylight between Minsk and Moscow.

Despite tightening the law against protests, Lukashenko has also transferred some political prisoners from prison to house arrest and allowed visa-free entry into Belarus from Lithuania and Latvia. A migration crisis provoked by Lukashenko, who encouraged people to fly to Minsk and try to enter the EU, has eased.

Diplomatic feelers

On March 6, almost immediately after Russian troops withdrew from northern Ukraine, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makey sent an e-mail Letter to some of his EU colleagues, in which he “categorically” dismissed “all suggestions that Belarus is somehow involved in the hostilities in Ukraine”.

He also demanded “[availing] us of the diplomatic toolbox to restore dialogue.”

Latushko said Makei’s letter should be met with “freezing silence.”

The letter was sent to Germany, France, Austria and Hungary, the opposition said. But the reaction was muted.

A French diplomat told POLITICO that France does not recognize the results of the 2020 presidential election, demands the release of all political prisoners and urges Belarus to stop using its territory in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

A spokesman for Austria’s Foreign Ministry confirmed receipt of the letter and said Vienna “is in the process of discussing it with its partners in the EU”. The Hungarian Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Latushko warned that Belarus is likely to return to previous efforts to swap political prisoners for sanctions relaxation, and that Lukashenko’s diplomats are also spinning the line that “the only person who can save Belarus and protect it from Russia is Lukashenko.”

“It’s an attempt to regain legitimacy, lift sanctions and carry on as usual.” called Franak Viačorka, adviser to opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Lukashenko tries to weather Putin's simmering war in Ukraine - POLITICO

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