Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has claimed there is “no way” his country would send troops into Ukraine unless it is attacked, amid fears Russia’s close ally will help to facilitate a spring offensive by Moscow.
“We are peaceful people. We know what war is and we don’t want war,” the authoritarian leader Lukashenko, who has close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, said at a small gathering of journalists from international media, including CNN, at Minsk’s Palace of Independence
“There is no way we are going to send our troops to Ukraine unless you are going to commit aggression against Belarus,” Lukashenko said. “But don’t forget Russia is our ally, legally, morally and politically,” he added.
The Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, meanwhile announced that Putin will meet with Lukashenko in the Moscow region on Friday.
Belarus helped Russia launch its initial invasion of Ukraine last February, allowing the Kremlin’s troops to enter the country through the 1,000-kilometer (621-mile) Ukrainian-Belarusian border to the north of Kyiv.
Minsk has since claimed on numerous occasions that Ukrainian drones and missiles have entered its territory, sometimes without providing evidence.
There have been fears throughout the conflict that Belarus will again be used as a launching ground for another offensive, or that Lukashenko’s own troops will join the conflict, citing such episodes as provocation against its sovereignty. Tensions have been mounting at the border again in recent days as Ukraine braces for a renewed attack.
Lukashenko continued to say Thursday that Russia has “never asked” him to start a joint war in Ukraine.
The Belarusian strongman ducked questions from international media about his country’s complicity in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
When asked by CNN why Lukashenko continued to support what has so far been a protracted and strategically questionable war for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Belarusian president tried to turn the tables onto the West.
“Why do you support Ukraine, pumping it with weapons instead of sitting down to negotiate as I suggest? You are already discussing sending long range weapons, missiles up to 300 kilometers in range and F 16 fighter jets, state of the art fighter jets, after hundreds of Leopard tanks have gone there. Why are you doing this? You understand this is escalation,” he said.
Lukashenko continued, saying the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine – the latest battleground which has been the focus of intense fighting in recent weeks – will be taken by Russian forces “one way or another.”
“Right now, the most fierce fighting is happening near Bakhmut. I know what’s going on there … Bakhmut will fall in the next few days. This will be yet another victory for Russia,” Lukashenko told a press conference when asked about his continued support for Russia’s war.
“Bakhmut will be taken one way or another. Why let thousands die? But the politicians sitting at the top in Ukraine have prohibited this, and so this meatgrinder goes on,” the Belarusian leader continued.
Lukashenko maintained he wanted to see “peaceful negotiations” and accused the United States of preventing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky from negotiating.
“You are not letting him negotiate. This is my conviction. And there are many facts that speak to this. It’s you who wants war. Please wake up! The US are the only one who needs this slaughter, only they want it. Europe does not need this war, because if there is an escalation, Europe will sizzle. Europeans know it. And even the British know it, and especially Ukrainians.”
A CNN team visited Belarus’s southwest border near northwest Ukraine earlier this week, accompanied by state border officials.
The CNN team were 100 meters (328 feet) away from the Ukrainian side, where they saw the Belarusian government’s fortification of the border area with barbed wire in a carefully orchestrated and tightly controlled press tour.
According to the CNN team on the ground, the Ukrainian side of the border is heavily barricaded with several layers of barbed wire and earth mounds to stop anyone from going through.
Belarusian officials told CNN the border crossing from their side in the small town of Dyvin is still functioning but that the Ukrainian side has closed the crossing.
Kyiv has closed all border crossings to Belarus, except to occasionally allow entry to Ukrainian refugees who are looking to return to their home country, out of concern Belarus could be used for a further invasion by Russia.
The CNN team could see a Ukrainian flag on Ukraine’s side of the border crossing and a red and white flag which is associated with the Belarusian opposition – a move Belarusian authorities called a “provocation.”
Formerly under Soviet control until declaring its sovereignty in 1990, Belarus remains one of Russia’s closest allies and has played a key role in its invasion of Ukraine – despite Lukashenko saying previously his country was “being dragged” into the war.
Russian troops launched the invasion on February 24, crossing into Ukraine from Belarus after months amassing along Ukraine’s border. In the first days of the assault, Russian Tu-22 “Backfire” bombers used Belarusian airspace to launch coordinated cruise missile attacks on targets within Ukraine. More recently, the two nations have engaged in joint military drills near the Belarus-Ukraine crossing.
Frederik Pleitgen, Zahra Ullah, Claudia Otto reported from Minsk, and Rob Picheta wrote in London. CNN’s Anna Chernova contributed reporting.