Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya Opens Door to Violent Resistance in Belarus

  • "People are becoming more aggressive, and it would not be honest to stop this."
  • If Ukraine wins, "the Belarusian military will change sides for sure."
  • "Lukashenko is not Belarus."

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the Belarusian pro-democratic opposition in exile, has told Newsweek that Ukraine's resistance against the ongoing Russian-Belarusian invasion could reignite anti-autocratic revolution across its northern border.

Tsikhanouskaya spoke with Newsweek on Tuesday, the same day Ukraine claimed that Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko sent his country's troops into Ukraine in support of the week-long Russian invasion.

Belarus has already served as a key staging ground for the Russian invasion, with armored columns, military aircraft, and ballistic missiles striking Ukraine from across the border.

Now, Kyiv says Belarusian troops are being sent to fight, kill, and die in Ukraine. The U.S. said Tuesday it had seen no evidence that Belarusians have joined the invasion.

"Lukashenko shares the full responsibility for this aggression, because he gave our country, he gave our lands for the military troops that are invading Ukraine," Tsikhanouskaya told Newsweek.

"He made our country an aircraft carrier. For tanks, for military aircraft, and missiles going from our land to Ukraine."

Lukashenko, long a close Kremlin ally, has become—in the words of French President Emmanuel Macron—a "vassal" of President Vladimir Putin. Russian troops bolstered the beleaguered dictator when pro-democracy protesters threatened to end his 26 years in power. Since then, his government in Minsk has ceded ever more power to Moscow.

"He is paying the Kremlin for the support he got in August 2020," Tsikhanouskaya said, describing his actions as "high treason."

"He is not deciding anything at all," Tsikhanouskaya added, and is instead following dutifully in the destruction wrought by his older brother, as Lukashenko described Putin in 2020.

Belarusian territory has been vital to the Russian invasion plan, its border just 160 miles from Kyiv. Russian armor charged towards the capital from Belarus at the start of the invasion, while helicopters staged along the Belarus border pressed the assault on the airport in Gostomel, close to Kyiv.

Ballistic missiles have been repeatedly fired from Belarus towards Kyiv and other Ukrainian targets. The troops that took the Chernobyl area attacked from Belarus, and the 40-mile long Russian convoy heading towards Kyiv now also entered Ukraine through the shared border.

Tsikhanouskaya said Lukashenko's complicity is again fanning the embers of revolution in her home country. "Now in Belarus there is resistance on the ground, there are rallies," she said.

"You have to understand the situation in our country—for a year and a half we have lived under huge repression and people are scared. People would prefer to fight on the side of the Ukrainians because at least they would not be detained.

"In Belarus, if you're against war, you will be in prison immediately."

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya at EU parliament in Strasbourg
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya gives a speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France on November 24, 2021. JULIEN WARNAND/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

"Lukashenko is not Belarus," she added. "Belarusians who fled the country and Belarusians in our country are against this war. But we are trapped in Belarus now because the regime has become an accomplice of the Kremlin."

Tsikhanouskaya and the broader pro-democracy opposition have pursued peaceful revolution since August 2020. They have been met with brutality, mass arrests and imprisonment, censorship, and disappearances.

The opposition leader said some Belarusians are ready to drop their placards and pick up weapons. "I see that now, maybe, this peaceful resistance we tried to keep up this past year and a half doesn't work anymore," Tsikhanouskaya said.

"And seeing Russian military troops on our territory, people are demanding active resistance. I can't call on people to do this, but I can't stop them either.

"I now support all the initiatives that help the Belarusian people to resist in the manner they can.

"I want to support everybody now. Because before we thought: 'We are a peaceful people.' But now the situation is absolutely different...People are becoming more aggressive, and it would not be honest to stop this."

Some are headed to Ukraine to fight already, Tsikhanouskaya said, some of the international volunteers answering President Volodymyr Zelensky's call to join the anti-Russian resistance.

Tsikhanouskaya said the European Union and NATO could help both Ukraine and the Belarusian opposition by establishing training and education centers in eastern Europe to hone the skills of resistance fighters.

"Some people who want to fight on the side of the Ukrainian people, they don't have resources or ammunition, or military education," she explained. "Our volunteers who work with the refugees, they also need support."

"So if democratic countries could organize something like a training center for Belarusian people in Poland, for example, we would be grateful for this."

"Belarusians want to help, but they are lacking assistance...A lot of people who want to do something, but they don't have military experience."

A free Ukraine would be invaluable to the struggle of Belarus' pro-democratic front. As would be a core of experienced Belarusian fighters who cut their teeth fighting Russians—and maybe Belarusians too—in Ukraine.

"The Belarusian people are against the war," Tsikhanouskaya said. "We are not supporting the decisions of illegitimate Lukashenko. Now our Belarusian people are going to the Ukrainian side to fight beside the Ukrainian army."

"We are organizing different military-civil groups who are teaching military techniques to people who want to fight there. People who had to flee the country after August 2020 are now in exile, but they want to help somehow."

"Of course those people who are getting military experience in Ukraine now will be useful in our country," Tsikhanouskaya said. "We are praying for Ukraine to win this fight, because then it will be easier to defend independence from the regime, and we will have help from our Ukrainian allies."

"We understand that Ukraine needs the most attention from the world at the moment, but don't lose focus from Belarus as well. Without free Belarus there will be no free Ukraine, and vice versa."

"Now, Ukraine needs support from Belarusian people. And then together, we could defend the independence of Belarus."

Tsikhanouskaya is hoping the unprecedented Western response to the Russian invasion will also envelop Belarus, and revitalize EU and NATO opposition to Lukashenko and his government in Minsk.

"Recently, after the war started, I declared myself national leader and defender of independence," Tsikhanouskaya said. "Before we fought for rule of law, for the release of political prisoners, and for new elections in our country. But now we see that we have to fight for our independence as well."

The opposition leader said she sees the West shifting into a more assertive posture on Belarus since Russian troops again invaded Ukraine. "I have noticed a change of attitude," she said, away from "appeasement" and towards action.

"I see that international leaders woke up, they saw the real face of the regime. Now, I hope decisions will be made faster, decisions will be stronger.

"Now, I see the teeth of democratic countries. They are ready to show the strength of democracy, this unity, this power...even those who hesitated, maybe, in the past towards Russia, towards Belarus, now they have principled opinions."

Tsikhanouskaya is calling for the West to break entirely with Minsk. "I ask international society, leaders of democratic countries, to recognize me and my cabinet as the legitimate representatives of Belarus," she said.

The sanctions that are collapsing the Russian economy must also be applied to Belarus, she said, regardless of negative impacts on normal Belarusians.

"Belarusian people don't care that sanctions could harm them, because they want to stop this war," Tsikhanouskaya said.

"They don't want Belarus to be a threat in this war. Mothers don't want their sons to be sent to be killed from the territory of Belarus.

"We are communicating everyday with these people from Belarus. And they are asking: 'Please impose on Lukashenko the same sanctions as the European Union or democratic world is imposing on the Kremlin, because he shares the responsibility for his actions."

Lukashenko has been inextricably tied to the Kremlin since August 2020. For him, it is Putin's way or nothing.

"Lukashenko also sees this reaction of the whole world against this invasion," Tsikhanouskaya said. "He understands that he is on the side of the aggressor, he understands the consequences he will have to face in this situation.

"It's very important to isolate Lukashenko's regime and now give the opportunity for the Kremlin to use Belarus as a country through which they can trade. They have to share responsibility."

Putin's war is so far not going to plan. One week in, neither Kyiv nor Kharkiv have fallen. Zelensky's government has not collapsed, rather he and his top aides have become heroes within Ukraine and far beyond its borders.

The EU and NATO have mobilized support previously thought unthinkable. Russia's economy is crippled, its oligarchs isolated, its financial institutions humbled.

The Kremlin has tried to hide the war from the Russian people. Even captured Russian troops say they were not told they were partaking in an invasion. It remains to be seen whether the Russian people will rally behind Putin or denounce his aggression.

Tsikhanouskaya believes the political tremors will reach Minsk, and collapse one of the pillars holding Lukashenko in place.

"As soon as Ukraine will win this fight, the Belarusian military will change sides for sure. They see Lukashenko is so weak now, and he fulfils the orders of his 'older brother,'" she said.

"Usually military people want to follow orders of a strong person, and they don't see Lukashenko as a strong person anymore. He doesn't decide for himself.

"I really hope that our military people will understand this, and step by step they will change their attitude and they will overcome their fear, because they really also want change...

"We could be behind a new Iron Curtain, and nobody wants to go back to the Soviet Union."

Ukraine soldiers in Irpin Kyiv Russia advance
Ukrainian serviceman patrol on March 1, 2022 in Irpin, Ukraine. The capital Kyiv is in danger of encirclement by Russian forces advancing from the border with Belarus to the north. Anastasia Vlasova/Getty Images