Putin has turned his country into a beggar and an aggressive bully.
How high is the probability of a war in our region? What is Putin seeking? How did the revolution in Kazakhstan frighten the Belarusian regime? Is it worth paying attention to Lukashenka's "referendum"? Are riots of "empty pots" waiting for Belarus? The coordinator of the European Belarus civil campaign, Dmitri Bondarenko, tells about it in an interview with Charter97.org.
- We are witnessing an escalation between Russia and NATO. What goals does Putin pursue in this conflict? Why does he need these "security guarantees"?
- He needs so-called security guarantees as a pretext for launching military action. The unrealistic demands on NATO indicate that Ukraine may not be the only target of Russia at the moment. There are leaks, clauses from Putin's officials saying that NATO could be pushed back to the 1997 borders.
Russia has a powerful propaganda campaign against the United States and the entire NATO bloc. I assume that Putin is planning a blow not only to Ukraine but also, for example, to create the so-called Suvalki corridor from Belarus to Kaliningrad to cut off the Baltic States.
One should keep in mind the pressure on Sweden and Finland, which are not NATO countries. If one looks at the map, at the eastern part of the Baltic Sea, Russia has a clear advantage here. That is, the Baltic states have practically no fleet. There's also a huge grouping of both land and naval forces in the Kaliningrad region. Therefore, Russian generals and admirals have a huge appetite there. Now they are testing the West for their strength.
- Are the West and Ukraine successfully responding to these actions of the Kremlin?
- It will depend on whether Russia's aggression begins or not. If it doesn't happen, then we can say the actions have been successful. Thank God, the West has already started supplying serious weapons to Ukraine; supplies of American Stingers have been shipped through the Baltic States.
We know that they played a key role in the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 in Afghanistan. There were huge losses of planes and helicopters. Pilots refused to take off.
I assume sanctions are needed before hostilities begin, not as a threat "if war begins, then we will impose them". If the war begins, then the Russians will not retreat; there will be fighting, and tens of thousands of people will die. Sanctions are needed first.
If one takes Ukraine, I would divide the Ukrainian volunteers, the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian military and the leadership. No matter how many times Belarusian democrats warned about the threat of Russian aggression from the territory of Belarus, still politicians, including those who call themselves democratic - Yushchenko, Poroshenko, Zelensky - still actively traded with the Lukashenka regime. They did not develop, for example, their oil refining but depended on supplies of oil products, which were made from Russian oil. Today they say: "we need to have the Ukrainian army in the north". This is a huge problem. However, we can see that 2021 was almost a record year in trade with Lukashenka's regime.
At that, the Ukrainian authorities demand help from the West, while they trade with Lukashenka's regime in potassium, nitrogen, and, most importantly, oil products, in violation of international sanctions. One can hardly call such a policy wise.
Given my personal experience, I can say that when we went to Ukraine and communicated with politicians, we told about the inevitable revolution in Belarus, the need for at least informational support on the part of Ukraine for democratic forces and that only a democratic Belarus would be a guarantee of security for Ukraine. However, they dismissed it as inane.
Today, Ukraine has to confront a joint Russian-Lukashenka military grouping, which is now deployed from Brest to Smolensk. The concentration of troops near Gomel indicates that an invasion in the direction of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, may happen.
- Russia is undertaking an unprecedented operation to move troops into Belarus. What role has Putin allocated to his vassal Lukashenka in this conflict with the West?
- Lukashenka has worn himself out and owes a lot to Russia and probably personally to Putin in some grey financial schemes. He plays no role now when Russian troops have entered Belarus in huge numbers. Now, the Kremlin will decide whether to attack Ukraine from the territory of Belarus or not, to make its way towards Kaliningrad from the Grodno region or not.
Lukashenka's opinion is of no interest here. If he says anything, Putin will simply send a battalion from the Gomel region to the town of Ostroshitsky and Drozdy. Well, if Lukashenka is not there, there will be other policemen. That's the unenviable role he has today.
- Let's discuss the revolution in Kazakhstan. How did Nazarbayev's resignation and the protests in this country affect the Belarusian regime?
- It was clear that the Belarusian usurper was frightened. He tried to gain some points in Putin's eyes. He was the first to suggest sending Belarusian soldiers to Kazakhstan.
The rapid withdrawal of CSTO troops (if they were indeed withdrawn) shows that the main direction of Russian expansion is the West. That is why Russia does not need one more front in Kazakhstan.
I think that the revolution has also scared Putin. That's why there was such a quick reaction to Tokayev's request to introduce troops.
I think he did not solve the situation in Kazakhstan. As experience shows, the protests were widespread all over the country. One can't just stifle them like that. We remember the protests of 2017 in Belarus later turned into a huge revolution in 2020. I think these problems, which have been accumulating in Kazakhstan for decades, have not been solved. The Kazakhstani revolution will continue.
- Svetlana Tikhanovskaya's office and the NAU urge Belarusians to take part in the so-called Lukashenka's referendum. What do you think about this idea?
- I have always been sceptical about these structures. We should register facts. The facts are as follows: in November, when the Belarusian Association of Workers called for a strike, Lukashenka and all the propaganda state mass media attacked the leaders of the workers' movement. Lukashenka was against the strike Tikhanovskaya's office was against the strike as well.
Then the Belarusian Association of Workers and other democratic leaders called for a People's Quarantine because Lukashenka did not introduce it and the authorities did nothing. Instead, they sought to infect all Belarusians with the coronavirus, implementing the crazy idea of collective immunity without a serious vaccination. And Tikhanovskaya's office opposed the People's Quarantine, the People's Lockdown.
Now Lukashenka, amid an outbreak of "omicron," the fifth wave of the coronavirus, will drive Belarusians to the poll stations to participate in this idiotic "referendum". Tikhanovskaya's office is also urging Belarusians to go to the poll stations and play tic-tac-toe with the regime. This is nothing new to me. Make your conclusions.
- Speaking of the situation in Belarus, the inflation in our country hit a five-year record in 2021. How relevant today is the issue of the "empty-pot riot"?
- I think riots are possible. Despite the heavy repression, there are quite large groups of people in Belarus who can barely make ends meet, and who can revolt because they are cornered.
A quarter of the population of Belarus, that is pensioners, get from $50 to $200 on average, while most people get between $100 and $150. When you tell people these figures even in the neighbouring countries, Lithuania, Poland, everyone is shocked how one can live on such money. Moreover, many products in Belarus are more expensive than in the neighbouring countries.
We know that Belarus has experienced large-scale layoffs for political reasons and to prepare enterprises for privatization by Russian businessmen. The so-called optimization took place. It means a considerable number of people were laid off. At the same time, these people got into an insane scheme, when the unemployed, called "parasites" by the authorities, laid off people have to pay several times more for the utilities. It's a matter of survival for hundreds of thousands of Belarusians. Not all the people laid off at the end of the year in Belarus got those increased utility bills. However, there are no jobs. It is impossible to find a job in the regions. It is also a big problem to leave the country to earn money. It may trigger spontaneous riots. What should people do? They are cornered. There will be no other choice but to revolt.
- Given all the mentioned above, what can the Belarusians expect soon. What should they do?
- We should all admit that we missed the "window of opportunity" in 2020 and 2021. The reason is that the real leaders are in prison, while those who called themselves leaders turned out to be completely unprepared to manage the processes and lead the revolution.
At the same time, whether we want it or not, the Russian leadership's intention to unleash war in the region is very serious. The evacuation of diplomatic personnel from Kyiv by leading Western countries indicates that war is likely to happen, as scary as it is to say.
Many Belarusians have undergone prisons; many are in exile, most in Belarus are in a very difficult situation. Nevertheless, we are doomed to make it through the war.
Certainly, there's still a chance that it won't happen because the West doesn't want it. Western politicians have now realized that they cannot solve any issues by talking to Putin. The West and NATO are strengthening their positions in the region. Belarusians must be ready for anything.
If Russian aggression occurs, tens of thousands of Belarusians will fight against Russia on the side of Ukraine and defend the independence of their country.
I believe Putin's and Russian generals' desire to rattle arms and launch aggression against Ukraine and other countries comes from weakness. After all, compared to the world centers of power, the European Union, the U.S., same China, Russia has turned into a poor, aggressive hooligan over the past 20 years during Putin's presidency.
The percentage of Russian GDP in the global economy is simply negligible and decreases every year. The Belarusians should remain Belarusians, wait for the moment, when they could act with all their might and, together with their allies, achieve real independence and freedom for their country. The Soviet Union had an army several times larger than that of Russia. Contingents of Soviet troops deployed in Cuba, Angola, Afghanistan, Mongolia, not to mention Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany. But the "sovok" collapsed, as they say, in three seconds. We hope for the best and prepare for the change of power. The Belarusians have already deserved a better life.