Putin's Ally Lukashenko Faces 'Last Fight' in Belarus: Opposition Leader

Belarusian partisans stand ready to overthrow dictator Alexander LukashenkoVladimir Putin's key ally—when Ukraine defeats Russia's invasion, Belarus' exiled opposition leader has told Newsweek.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya suggested guerrilla tactics used to disrupt Russian forces welcomed into Belarus by Lukashenko could help dissidents prepare the "last fight" for the country, which made international headlines over protests at a rigged 2020 elections.

"[Lukashenko] understands that more and more people are against him because he is selling our independence," Tsikhanouskaya said at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit in the Danish capital on Friday.

"I'm sure that when we feel this moment, at the weakest point of the regime, people will rise up again," said Tsikhanouskaya, whose opposition movement has been reporting defections among law enforcement and military personnel since 2020's mass protests.

"People are ready to go out on the streets again, but they have to know that it will be the last fight that will lead us to victory. Because now rallies are not effective. Rallies bring us more political prisoners, more torture, more terror, and that's it."

Pro-democratic guerrillas sabotaged Belarusian railway infrastructure—both physically and using cyber measures—to hinder the Russian invasion plan, Tsikhanouskaya explained.

Putin and Lukashenko meet in Sochi Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia on May 23, 2022. RAMIL SITDIKOV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

"Belarusian people shared information about Russian troops, about missiles, with the Ukrainian army," she said. "So most of the Russian troops have been withdrawn from Belarus."

There are only between 2,000 and 3,000 Russian soldiers left in Belarus, she said, as Moscow's focus turned to eastern Ukraine. Newsweek has contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry to request comment.

But Lukashenko is cracking down. His rubber-stamp parliament passed new legislation in May making sabotage punishable by death. Several have already been captured.

"Those people are real heroes," Tsikhanouskaya said. "They know what terms they could be sentenced to if they are captured...and their fate in Belarusian prisons is dreadful."

"All those acts of sabotage, the aim is to disrupt logistics, it is not to harm people. Not one victim happened because of this sabotage."

"If there will be another wave of Russian troops in our country, this will be repeated."

Belarusian men are learning combat skills on military bases in Poland and Czech Republic, said the opposition leader, who urged other European Union and NATO nations to help train motivated Belarusian volunteers.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya at CDS in Copenhagen, Denmark
Leader of the democratic movement in Belarus Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is pictured during the Copenhagen Democracy Summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, on June 10, 2022. PHILIP DAVALI/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images

The democratic opposition, Tsikhanouskaya said, is still cultivating agents within law enforcement and the military. "Most of our contacts are within," she explained. "It's necessary to have people inside the country; revolution is impossible to do from exile."

While their comrades engage in domestic sabotage, other dissidents are honing combat skills in Ukraine. "The Belarusian battalions are defending not only Ukraine, but also Belarus," Tsikhanouskaya said. "The regime is extremely afraid of those people."

Belarus has became a hub for thousands of dead and wounded Russian troops returning across the border, casualties of Ukraine's fierce resistance.

Minsk last week launched fresh military drills along the Ukrainian border; however, Lukashenko has appeared more uncertain about Russia's war in recent weeks.

"I feel like this operation has dragged on," he told the Associated Press at the start of May, in comments widely interpreted as an attempt to distance himself from the Kremlin.

Tsikhanouskaya said her adversary is trapped.

"He's looking for a way out," she said. "For sure, at the beginning, he wanted to be on the side of the winner. He was sure that this blitzkrieg would succeed."

"He changed his rhetoric immediately," Tsikhanouskaya said. "He wanted to untie his boat from the Russian ship."

Lukashenko now appears to be trying to use the war—and possible future peace—as a way out of crippling economic sanctions and political isolation. "There can be no negotiations without Belarus," Lukashenko said in April.

'Sanctions Should Be Mirrored'

The dictator, his top officials, and key Belarusian businesses and institutions are already under stringent American and EU sanctions. But, Tsikhanouskaya warned, her adversary was "an experienced dictator who knows how to circumvent sanctions.

"It's important to understand that Russia and the Belarusian regime use each other to circumvent sanctions that are imposed on one country, but not imposed on the other. All the sanctions should be mirrored."

The looming global food crisis—caused by Russia's naval blockade of the Black Sea—offers Minsk another lever. Lukashenko has offered to allow Ukrainian grain to transit Belarus to reach Baltic Sea ports, but only if Minsk is allowed to export its own goods.

"Now he's again blackmailing Western countries with this food security problem," Tsikhanouskaya said who says the only way to solve it is to reopen Ukraine's ports—cutting Lukashenko out of the talks.

She added: "His political future—and his future as a person—depends a lot on the outcome of the war."

Newsweek has contacted the Belarusian government to request comment.

Iskander missile damage in Kyiv Oblast Ukraine
A destroyed house in a residential area after being hit by an Iskander missile on March 11, 2022 in Baryshivka, Ukraine. Russia has fired hundreds of missiles at Ukraine from Belarusian territory. Anastasia Vlasova/Getty Images