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Natallia Radzina: War May Have Unexpected Consequences For Lukashenka

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Natallia Radzina: War May Have Unexpected Consequences For Lukashenka
VITALY PORTNIKOV, NATALLIA RADZINA, YEVHEN MAHDA

NATO needs to act proactively.

Lukashenka calls on Belarusians to prepare for war. According to experts, the Kremlin continues to consider the territory of Belarus as a base not only for a possible new attack on Ukraine but also for aggression against the Baltic nations. In this regard, the so-called Suwalki corridor belonging to Poland and Lithuania, which separates Belarus from the Kaliningrad Region of Russia, is called the most vulnerable place in NATO and the next target of Vladimir Putin. By seizing control of the Suwalki corridor, it is possible to cut off the Baltic nations from mainland Europe.

Why has Aliaksandr Lukashenka been speaking publicly about Belarus' preparations for war more and more recently? With whom does Belarus intend to fight? Radio Liberty journalist Vitaly Portnikov spoke about this with Yevhen Mahda, a Ukrainian political scientist and the Director of the Institute of World Policy, and Natallia Radzina, a Belarusian journalist and Editor-in-Chief of the Charter97.org website.

— On the part of Lukashenka, is this just a game or a continuation of the hybrid war that Belarus and Russia have been engaged in with respect to Poland and the Baltic nations for several years?

Yevhen Mahda: I think this is Lukashenka's desire to save his political image or remnants of the image. He can hardly pursue an independent policy in this matter, because the Belarusian army does not have the appropriate capabilities. It is hard to imagine that he himself decided to threaten Lithuania, which is still a NATO member state. I am quite skeptical about the level of combat capability of the Belarusian Armed Forces: they have never fought anywhere since the proclamation of the country's independence. Their only operation was in January 2022 in Kazakhstan, where a small unit came.

However, two weeks ago, Foreign Policy magazine wrote that Russian tactical nuclear weapons are now deployed in Asipovichy, respectively, Lukashenka may have felt a surge of vivacity and optimism. A year ago, when Putin announced the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, he began to speak actively like "two of us, Vladimir Vladimirovich and I, would simultaneously press the button and dictate our terms."

— Can Lukashenka really lead something together with Putin, or is he just following instructions from Moscow, demonstrating that the border of Belarus with the EU and NATO member states is unstable?

Natallia Radzina: Lukashenka is a puppet of the Kremlin for sure. He will follow all Putin's orders. Belarus has been Russia's military base for 30 years. Therefore, I do not exclude any provocations from the Belarusian territory against the Baltic nations and Poland, as well as a repeated attack on Ukraine from the territory of Belarus. I think it is better to overestimate the enemy than to underestimate.

It is known from various sources in the Belarusian army that new mobilized from Russia are expected to arrive in Belarus. Unlike in previous years, when Russian servicemen were trained on the territory of Belarus, who then went to Ukraine through Russia, this time they can immediately go there from the territory of Belarus to Ukraine by the end of the year.

As for the military exercises on the border with Lithuania, I am even alarmed by open source information. Units of the Belarusian 19th Mechanized Brigade (artillery, anti-aircraft missile troops) took part in these exercises, but it is known that 5,000 conscripts joined this brigade. That is, it increases to the scale of wartime.

Where did these 5,000 come from in only one brigade, if on average about 10,000 people are conscripted into the Belarusian army every year? Where is the guarantee that they are not Russians? We see that preparations for a big war are indeed underway. When it comes to the Suwalki corridor, we must understand that no one will capture one corridor, they will capture all the Baltic countries.

– That's an interesting note. To what extent is Kyiv ready for a possible new attack from the Belarusian-Ukrainian border?

Yevhen Mahda: Russian troops came to Belarus in early 2022 under the legend of the Union Resolve exercise announced by Lukashenka, and then they moved to Ukraine. From March to October 2022, several hundred missiles were fired from the territory of Belarus against Ukraine [more than 700 — Ed.], then the launches stopped. I will assume that now the moment of the invasion of Ukraine is associated with much greater problems, because for more than two years the line of the Belarusian-Ukrainian border has been turning into a fortified zone. The bridges are either blown up or mined, the terrain also does not offer much room for maneuver. There is a certain amount of suicide in such plans.

Putin is probably interested in acting against Ukraine by the hands of Belarusians in this regard. But I doubt that the Belarusian military, from a private to a general, are ready to go to Ukraine. I believe that their readiness to go against NATO member states may be higher, because both Russian and Belarusian propaganda tell not only about the aggressive bloc, but also about the fact that Lithuanians and Poles are cowards, that it is enough for them to punch them in the face once and it will all be over. Therefore, yes, the option of dressing Russians in Belarusian uniforms should be considered as one of the most likely.

— And can we count on the fact that Belarusian soldiers are ready for any war, given the sentiments in the Belarusian society? After all, support for the war in Russia and Belarus are completely different sociological categories.

Natallia Radzina: Sure. Therefore, I'm afraid I have to disagree with Yevhen regarding the fact that the Belarusian military will gladly go to war against the Lithuanians or Poles. As for propaganda, it works equally aggressively against Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Poles. They talk about "Nazis from Ukraine" every day in the news of Belarusian TV channels.

Therefore, here I would not refer to the consideration that having heard the propaganda, the Belarusian military will not go to Ukraine, but will go to war against NATO member states.

The Belarusian military does not want to fight at all — I can definitely say that. If they go, it will be only by order and under duress, but they know perfectly well what the consequences of participation will be. Another thing is that it is not necessary to send an army.

Yevhen said that information about the deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus is confirmed. I assume that they may simply strike Ukraine with tactical nuclear missiles from Belarus for the first time.

Yevhen Mahda: I think that no one at NATO headquarters or among the member states has any illusions about Lukashenka's possible independent decision in this matter. I want to remind you that in September 2022, the then Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhny stressed that even a tactical nuclear strike would not break our will to resist. But what would NATO nations do in case of the missile strike? Fortunately, we are still modeling what needs to be done.

— Almost four years have passed since the Belarusian uprising against the falsification of the presidential election. Lukashenka continues to strengthen his regime, primarily as an authoritarian one. To what extent can Belarusian society influence the decisions of its own authorities in these conditions?

Natallia Radzina: Society cannot influence this under the total terror in the country. Even the army that can be sent to fight in Ukraine, unfortunately, is incapable of riots or protests. The only thing they can do if they come to Ukraine is to surrender.

In the current situation, there should be external influence on the Lukashenka regime, there is no other way. We are discussing the need to strengthen sanctions against this regime, which the West is not yet doing. The sanctions imposed against dictatorial Belarus are insufficient. Or Lukashenka has already learned how to circumvent them. Sanctioned goods continue to go, including to Europe. Today, firstly, it is necessary to tighten the sanctions regime against the dictatorship, and secondly, to think about military ways of neutralizing the threat that comes from the territory of Belarus today.

It is necessary to think in advance about what preventive steps to take. Do not act when the real war crime committed: troops will enter Ukraine again, or nuclear missiles will come, or the capture of the Baltic states from the territory of Belarus will begin, and take preventive steps.

— It seems to me that for many politicians of NATO member states, Belarus is not quite a sovereign state, but rather an extension of Russia.

Yevhen Mahda: I think NATO's modus operandi does not imply preventive solutions. The idea to tear Belarus away from Russia is being considered now. But it is quite difficult to turn Belarus from what is called a Russian balcony into a neutral state at least. We, having more than a thousand kilometers of common border with Belarus, were convinced by our own example that there is no safe Europe without democratic Belarus.

In this situation, it is probably necessary to offer a set of different solutions, including looking for approaches to those who are components of the Lukashenka regime today. He is also not eternal, and people from his entourage must think about their own political and personal future anyhow.

— Is it possible that the people around Lukashenka are already part of the Russian, not Belarusian, system of governance?

Natallia Radzina: I agree. Unfortunately, even Lukashenka's death will not solve anything at the moment, the government will still be pro-Russian, there will be some other Kremlin protege. Therefore, I would not count on Lukashenka's entourage in this regard, but still thought about developing independent scenarios. For example, I could advise Ukraine to create a Belarusian division based on the Kalinouski Regiment, to seriously think that sooner or later the issue of the liberation of Belarus will come up and this will have to be done.

— Lukashenka has changed the image of the country over the years. In 2020, Belarus was perceived in the world as a country whose people rebelled against the authoritarian regime. In 2024, Belarus is an accomplice country with a silent people.

Yevhen Mahda: There is another interesting fact. In 2023, the incomes of Belarusians, thanks to Russian military production orders, became the highest since the country's independence. Outside the country, those who do not want to associate themselves with Belarus: this is a maximum of 10% of the total number of residents. But in my opinion, only a fan of fiction can suggest the possibility of a democratic transit of power in Belarus in the current situation. Therefore, the question arises, how realistic is the transit of power in 2025, when there will be another imitation of the presidential election. If earlier they were more talks about a possible scenario for the transfer of power, and that Lukashenka would become the Belarusian "elbasy" [official title worn by the first President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev - Ed.], today, after the well-known events in Kazakhstan, there are fewer and fewer chances of this.

— Can't Vladimir Putin offer Aliaksandr Lukashenka, as some Russian governor, just write a letter of resignation and nominate another person who will suit the Kremlin more?

Natallia Radzina: I think he will remain in power for now. Still, further steps by the Kremlin regime depend on the war today. I would not give any predictions as to how long Lukashenka or Putin would rule.

It is quite obvious that the war will continue, both dictators will actively participate in it. As a result, various unexpected events are possible.

— Is something possible that the Belarusian authorities cannot foresee, including in the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation?

Yevhen Mahda: If Lukashenka disappears, then a new Russian version of Lukashenka will appear in Minsk, that is, an even more pro-Russian one. When I talk about this in Ukraine, they ask me: what could be even more pro-Russian?! I answer: Easy. But if Putin disappears unexpectedly, and everyone in Moscow is captured by the division of power and the creation of a new Putin as a new Frankenstein, then Belarus may have some chance.

— By the way, this idea that something worse could appear after Lukashenka, it seems to me, determined the Ukrainian policy towards Belarus for three decades. Even the current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, as one of his first steps in this post, actually chose the dialogue with Lukashenka in the format of such a collective farm asset, and both presidents kissed each other on its grounds in 2019.

Natallia Radzina: Yes, I remember these photos of them hugging. Unfortunately, all presidents of Ukraine, even those who came to power after peaceful revolutions and not very peaceful Euromaidans, in which Belarusians, supported by the Belarusian opposition, participated, then, spitting on all the principles, established cooperation with the Belarusian dictator.

We, Belarusian democrats, have always criticized them for this and will continue to criticize them. 2022 showed what such a policy of cooperation with the dictatorship can lead to.

We warned. I personally came to Kyiv many times since 2014, and held meetings with the MPs. There were meetings in the National Security and Defence Council and the Ministry of Defence. We warned that an attack from the territory of Belarus would be inevitable if Putin launched a full-scale war against Ukraine. They looked at us like at crazy people: "We agreed with Lukashenka, he promised us!"

There was a trade in petroleum products, they were purchased in huge quantities from Belarus, including after 2020, when it was necessary to impose sanctions against the dictator for dispersing mass demonstrations, for killing people at protests, this was not done. It's 2022 now.

— Can we say that the Ukrainian leadership is now changing its policy towards Belarus? After all, Kyiv did not have special contacts with the Belarusian opposition even after 2020, and now there is an ambassador-at-large who used to head the Embassy of Ukraine in the Republic of Belarus, and he can afford contacts with the leadership of the Belarusian opposition.

Yevhen Mahda: This is at least a formalization of these relations. Diplomatic relations between our countries have not yet been severed, although they are frozen. The vector of official Kyiv are the Belarusian democratic forces, which are experiencing not the easiest times, but at the same time remain the only partner. Participation in hostilities on the side of Ukraine of several hundred Belarusian volunteers largely saves the image of Belarus from complete discredit in the eyes of an ordinary Ukrainian.

Natallia Radzina: I met with Ihor Kizim, and we talked about what the cooperation of official Kyiv with Belarusian democratic forces could be. In particular, Mr Ambassador asked how to increase the number of Belarusian volunteers fighting in Ukraine. I answered him and I can repeat it on the air that Belrusians, of course, want to help Ukraine, a lot of Belarusians died in flash points and near Bakhmut, and near Vuhledar, and in Sievierodonetsk, but all Belarusians going to Ukraine have one dream — to liberate their own country. I personally came to Kyiv and met with many volunteers.

If earlier President Zelensky said that Belarusian volunteers would have such an opportunity, now official Kyiv is silent on this topic. Perhaps there are some secret negotiations with the Belarusian authorities, but here, sorry, then we need to decide: either you want to create a serious Belarusian unit on the territory of Ukraine and get help from the Belarusians, or you will continue to negotiate with the Lukashenka regime.

I appeal to the Ukrainian authorities: Do not believe Lukashenka! He'll betray you anyway.

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