The presence of tens of thousands of Russian troops inside Belarus, which the West fears could be used to invade Ukraine, represents a threat to Belarusian independence, the country’s exiled opposition leader said Wednesday.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who the West believes was the true winner of August 2020 presidential elections that kept autocratic leader Alexander Lukashenko in power, said her country now needed to fight “for our independence” as well as “against dictatorship.”
She also expressed horror that a referendum in Belarus this weekend could give Lukashenko the legal means to house Russian nuclear weapons in the country.
Lukashenko was prepared to sacrifice the country’s sovereignty because he was “grateful” for the Kremlin’s support in the aftermath of the 2020 vote that prompted mass protests, said Tikhanovskaya, who now lives in Lithuania.
Tikhanovskaya said she believed there were now some 30,000 Russian troops in Belarus — ostensibly there for carrying out military drills — as well as even more units of military hardware.
The military exercises were supposed to end last weekend but Minsk then announced that the troops would remain to carry out more manoeuvres for an unspecified duration.
The Ukrainian capital of Kyiv lies just 150 kilometres (90 miles) south of the Belarusian border, while the northern Ukrainian city of Chernigiv is a mere 60 kilometres (40 miles) east of Belarus.
‘Threat to Europe’
Tikhanovskaya urged Western powers to denounce the February 27 referendum on constitutional reform called by Lukashenko, who has been in power for almost three decades and is accused of brutally repressing the 2020 post-election protests.
Opposition activists say there are now over 1,000 political prisoners in Belarus.
Tikhanovskaya said the most concerning aspect of the referendum was proposed changes to Belarus’ neutrality that would allow it to house Russian nuclear weapons.
Lukashenko had already raised the prospect earlier this month that Belarus could host nuclear weapons.
“All countries must declare they do not accept any result of this referendum, it is illegitimate. If something happens with a nuclear weapon, Lukashenko will bear all the responsibility,” said.