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This is what is at stake in Ukraine, according to a woman helping lead the fight for the freedom of her own country, Belarus. It was bad enough for those who felt their election was stolen in 2020 and who saw their uprisings crushed. Now many Belarusians worry their country may be dragged directly into Russia’s war with Ukraine.
Russian troops may be using her country as a staging ground for attacking Ukraine, but opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya says she is working behind the scenes to make sure Belarusian troops don’t join the battle.
“Right after the war started, we launched a huge program to show the truth about the situation in Ukraine, because on state TV, propaganda TV, they don’t show anything about the war. We started to explain to our soldiers, our military officers, that people are dying there,” Tsikhanouskaya tells Fox News. “We are also communicating with the mothers of soldiers, explaining to them the situation.”
Belarus’ armored personnel carriers (APCs) during joint exercises of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus as part of an inspection of the Union State’s Response Force, Feb. 17, 2022, at a firing range near the town of Osipovichi outside Minsk. (Maxim Guchek/Belta/AFP via Getty Images)
Tsikhanovskaya said many men of recruitment age have simply fled Belarus to avoid possible deployment to Ukraine.
She said her people have told others that in the event Belarusian men are forced to go to Ukraine one day, they should switch sides on the ground and fight with the Ukrainians.
Tsikhanouskaya believes while the KGB forms a tight core around Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, the military is much less loyal.
Russian President Vladimir Putin enters the hall to address Tokyo 2020 Paralympic medalists during a meeting at the Grand Kremlin Palace. (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
Lukashenko is one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s few allies at this point, the other part of his coalition waging war on Ukraine. Tskikhanouskaya explains why she believes he is a danger not only to his own people and Ukraine, but also to the world.
“Dictators are always dangerous because they are unpredictable. They don’t respect any international laws. They don’t respect diplomacy,” she says.
But she also feels that beneath the tough-guy outer image, there are cracks.
“What we have to understand is he is fragile, and we have to use this moment of his weakness in order to fight,” she says.
With the war going on – and people from Minsk to Moscow unhappy about it – Tsikhanouskaya sees a moment of opportunity. But she is not deluded about the path ahead for those who want to protest. It used to seem to many that Lukashenko copied Putin’s template of running his country with an iron fist. Now, Tsikhanouskaya concedes Putin may be taking inspiration from Lukashenko when it comes to handling unrest. In Belarus, people were arrested for flashing or sporting red and white, the symbolic colors of the 2020 street protests, even if only on their socks. In Russia, police have reportedly gone so far as to arrest people holding little placards adorned with two clusters of stars – stars in the exact number of letters it would take to spell out “No War.” The signs don’t actually say anything. It’s a sort of rebels’ Morse code.
Russian President Vladimir Putin stands in a hall prior to a meeting with his Belarus counterpart at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 11, 2022. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)
Lukashenko, in a Putinesque move, just held a referendum on a new constitution. Changes approved include removing the nuclear-free status of the country – in other words, if Minsk wants a weapon on its territory, it has cleared one hurdle to housing one. Tsikhanouskaya acknowledges this does not mean he is planning to go nuclear. But it’s scary. “Demoralizing,” she says.
For now, Tsikhanouskaya wants to make sure that despite all obstacles, Belarus ends up on the right side of the wall many expect to go up.
“Our task is when the Iron Curtain goes up between East and West, our country will be on the right side of it,” she says.
The world may not have noticed, but protesters have come out again in Belarus of late, and she says 800 have been detained. Many were badly beaten, she says, and went to hospitals after being released.
“Our task is to continue to fight, to prepare our people for strikes,” Tsikhanouskaya says. “We understand that our economic situation is worsening as well, and we hope that people will take this chance to do everything possible.”
She hopes the West won’t forget to keep the pressure on the Belarus regime as it continues to twist the screws on Russia. Meanwhile, Tsikhanouskaya urges maximum cohesion among partners.
“I really believe the important thing is the unity of the democratic world,” she says. “I am really proud that democracy answered with such strong and tough measures towards dictatorships. I am sure the dictators did not expect such a strong response.”