https://www.newsweek.com-By Andrew Stanton
Above, a split image of Belarusian oppositionist Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and President Alexander Lukashenko. Following Lukashenko’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, Tsikhanouskaya said Belarus is “not for sale.” JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images; Contributor/Getty Images
Belarusian oppositionist Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said the Eastern European country is “not for sale” after President Alexander Lukashenko shook hands with Vladimir Putin on Monday.
Putin traveled to Belarus on Monday for the first time since the Ukraine invasion began in February amid speculation that he is trying to strong-arm Lukashenko to become more involved in his faltering invasion of Ukraine. Despite the size of Putin’s military, Moscow has struggled to maintain well-trained and motivated forces, allowing Ukraine, bolstered by Western support, to take back thousands of square miles of formerly occupied territory during the fall.
Lukashenko has not sent his own troops into Ukraine, but he has been one of the few global leaders to publicly support the widely-condemned war. His government enjoys close ties to the Kremlin, and he even allowed Russian troops to enter Ukraine from Belarus’ border—giving them closer access to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.
His meeting with Putin was met with condemnation from Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of Belarus’ pro-democratic opposition who is living in exile, as freedom of dissent is limited in the authoritarian state. She called Lukashenko out in a tweet on Monday for meeting with Putin after video emerged of the two shaking hands.
“Belarus is not for sale. Our independence is not for sale. The dictator Lukashenka can’t make agreements on behalf of our people—he only represents himself. And he won’t save his own skin,” Tsikhanouskaya tweeted.
She added that Lukashenko “will be held responsible for his crimes against Belarusians & Ukrainians.”
The meeting comes after Belarus has ramped up military exercises in recent weeks. Last week, its military announced plans to inspect the combat readiness of its troops and also conducted a counterterrorism exercise earlier in December.
Anna Ohanyan, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Newsweek on Monday that Tsikhanouskaya’s criticism is unlikely to influence Belarusian discourse because Lukashenko leads an authoritarian state where dissent is stifled.
However, she said many Belarusians are unlikely to respond to the Putin-Lukashenko meeting with support, pointing to deep societal connections between many Belarusians and Ukrainians that would make it difficult for Lukashenko to formally join Putin’s invasion.
“I think people on their own would get nervous if Lukashenko tried to drag Belarus into this war on the side of a losing power,” Ohanyan said. “I mean, tactically and strategically, it’s suicidal for any state to join this state of the war, where Russia’s superiority has basically been busted.”
Ohanyan said Belarus could be increasing military exercises to draw Ukrainian troops to the north, leaving the military in a more vulnerable position in southeastern Ukraine, such as the Donbas region, where the bulk of battlefield has taken place in recent months—though she doubted Russia would be successful in doing so.
“But at the same time, looking at how Russia has been managing this war, I’m not sure there’s a lot of hold on the strategy in order to pull that off,” Ohanyan said.
Newsweek reached out to Tsikhanouskaya and Lukashenko for comment.