© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya attends a debate of The Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA) in Helsinki, Finland, December 13, 2022. Lehtikuva/Heikki Saukkomaa via REUTERS
By John Irish
DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) – Belarus’ exiled opposition leader said on Monday she did not think Russia would launch an offensive on Ukraine from Belarus after the two countries began military drills, but Moscow could launch more missiles strikes from its ally’s territory.
Moscow and Minsk started joint military exercises on Monday, triggering fears in Kyiv and the West that Moscow could use its ally to launch a new ground offensive in Ukraine.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya told Reuters in an interview on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos that she believed the drills aimed to scare the Belarus people about the possibility of war and make President Alexander Lukashenko appear to be doing everything to avoid conflict.
“The other purpose is to threaten the Ukrainians, distract them and turn the attention of their troops from the eastern part of the country to the northern borders,” Tsikhanouskaya, who fled Belarus after a presidential election in 2020, said.
Belarus says the drills are defensive and it will not enter the war, while the Kremlin has denied that it has been pressuring Lukashenko to take a more active role in the conflict in Ukraine, which it calls a “special military operation”.
Belarus has conducted numerous military exercises since Russia’s invasion began in February, both on its own and jointly with Russia. Together with Moscow, Minsk has also been bolstering the drills with weaponry and military equipment.
However, it is unclear how much appetite there is from the people to enter a war against their neighbour.
“Lukashenko’s regime isn’t sure that if he sends troops to fight with the Russian army to Ukraine, the Belarus people won’t change sides, hide or betray him, so the status quo is comfortable for Lukashenko and (Russian President Vladimir)Putin.”
Lukashenko, one of Putin’s few firm allies, has allowed Russia to use Belarusian territory as a launch pad for missile strikes into Ukraine and a point of entry for Russian soldiers and warplanes since the start of the war on Feb. 24 last year.
“I doubt that a possible attack can take place on land, but missiles can be launched from Belarus territory at any moment,” Tsikhanouskaya said, pointing out that it had not been the case for several months.
“Putin knows that the participation of Belarusian troops could raise unpredictable consequences,” she said.