Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko — Russia’s staunch ally — said he did not expect the war in Ukraine to “drag on this way.”
“I want to stress one more time: I feel like this operation has dragged on,” he said in an interview in Minsk, accusing Ukraine and the United States of fueling the war.
The Belarusian leader, whose support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion has made him a target of more Western sanctions, allowed Russian troops to assemble for joint military drills in the Eastern European country in February, with Belarus serving as a staging ground for the war.
Lukashenko, who served in the Soviet Army and opposed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, became the first president of the Republic of Belarus in 1994. His nearly three-decade rule has been plagued by vote tampering, human rights abuses and efforts to consolidate his power.
The Belarusian president was under Western sanctions before Russia invaded Ukraine, in part for allegedly rigging the 2020 election to hold onto power and violently cracking down on demonstrators who protested the outcome. International rights groups have documented thousands of arbitrary arrests and received reports of widespread torture and mistreatment of detainees.
Last May, Lukashenko sent a fighter jet to ground a commercial plane carrying an opposition journalist through Belarusian airspace, prompting a fresh wave of international reproach and sanctions. In response, Lukashenko deliberately directed migrants from Iraq and sub-Saharan Africa to the European Union’s borders, in what Lithuania’s president called a “hybrid attack.”
Belarus’s relationship with Russia eased the impact of Western sanctions imposed on Belarus. Putin has continued to back his ally, and the Belarusian economy relies heavily on Russia.
Lukashenko cast himself as pivotal to talks between Moscow and Kyiv, which have yet to yield an agreement as fighting rages in eastern Ukraine.
“We have done and are doing everything now so that there isn’t a war,” Lukashenko told the AP. “Thanks to yours truly, me that is, negotiations between Ukraine and Russia have begun.”
Lukashenko described the use of nuclear weapons as “unacceptable” but added that he could not answer as to whether the Kremlin had such plans.
“Not only is the use of nuclear weapons unacceptable because it’s right next to us — we are not across the ocean like the United States. It is also unacceptable because it might knock our terrestrial ball flying off the orbit to who knows where,” the AP report quoted him as saying. “Whether Russia is capable of that — is a question you need to ask the Russian leadership.”
He also called Putin his “big brother” and said the Russian president doesn’t have “closer, more open or friendlier relations with any of the world leaders other than the president of Belarus,” according to the AP.
But Minsk’s relationship with Moscow has been more complicated, historically. Putin has pressured Belarus to form a unified state with Russia, but Lukashenko has resisted these efforts. Relations between Putin and Lukashenko had deteriorated before Lukashenko turned to Moscow for support after the 2020 election and the resulting protests.
The latest drills in Belarus appear routine, according to Britain’s Defense Ministry, which said Thursday that it did not anticipate a threat, after Belarus announced that it was testing the military’s response to crises and counterthreats.
Washington also said earlier that it saw no signs of Belarus intending to get involved directly in Ukraine. “I don’t think we have a firm, clear assessment of the announcement of this exercise,” a U.S. defense official told reporters on the condition of anonymity under terms set by the Pentagon. “It could just be exercises.”
Lukashenko has said he does not plan to send his troops across the border into Ukraine to fight alongside Moscow’s forces. Some Belarusians who oppose his 28-year rule have joined the battle against Russian troops in Ukraine.
“We do not threaten anyone and we are not going to threaten,” the Belarusian president told the AP on Thursday. “To unleash some kind of a conflict, some kind of war here in the West is absolutely not in the interests of the Belarusian state. So the West can sleep peacefully.”
Andrew Jeong and Amar Nadhir contributed to this report.