The probability of a new Russian attack on Ukraine from Belarus has been actively discussed in recent months. Since the first day of the war, Belarusian territory has been continuously used as a bridgehead for Russian military maneuvers. But Alexander Lukashenko, who calls himself the president of Belarus, maintains caution when commenting on Russia’s war against Ukraine, in which Belarus continues to participate.
Vitaly Shklyarov, a Belarusian and American political strategist, believes that an attack against Ukraine by Belarusian troops is only a matter of time. It hurts him to see what Lukashenko has turned Belarus into and how many people his regime has killed and imprisoned.
Shklyarov is also a victim of Lukashenko’s tyranny. In 2020, he was detained for allegedly collaborating with opposition leader Sergei Tikhanovsky before Tikhanovsky was imprisoned for 18 years. Shklyarov spent three months behind bars and was tortured, but managed to escape, He is now unable to go home and meet with his parents.
In an interview with Kyiv Post, Shklyarov explains what he thinks should happen to the Belarusian regime; and why Ukraine matters in saving all Belarusians.
Were you in Kyiv when the war started?
Tell us about your emotions on that day, Feb. 24, when you realized that Russia was attacking and invading Ukraine, including from the territory of Belarus, your native country.
I couldn’t believe it. I can honestly say that I didn’t believe that this could happen until it did. I thought it was a bluff or some sick fantasy.
There was surprise at first. I woke up early in the morning after the bombing started, and saw about 30 missed calls from parents, friends, and relatives. I thought, “Damn! How to live with this now?!”
It may seem strange, but on the morning of Feb. 24 I went for a run on Trukhaniv Island as usual. It was strange to run through an empty Khreshchatyk Street, the center of the capital. There was no one around and I could only hear air-raid sirens. I understood that a war had begun and felt a sense of fear for the first time.
I thought that the attack on Chernihiv had been launched from the side of my native Gomel, where I come from. I think of Chernihiv as my own and often visited there when I was young. So this is now my war too.
After the run, I returned home, then went to join a territorial defense unit.
Do you still serve in the territorial defense unit?
No, I was there for the first 10 days.
Do you agree with the statement that Belarus, like Russia, is waging war against Ukraine?
Firstly, I believe that Lukashenko personally unleashed the war against Ukraine on Feb. 24. Back in Nov. 2021, he stated that “if a war breaks out in Donbas or somewhere on the border with Russia, Belarus won’t stand aside.” Later, he repeatedly confirmed this statement. Therefore, yes, Belarus is a party to the conflict and is waging war against Ukraine.
Secondly, Belarus has been one of Russia’s closest allies for a long time. This is a key fact and should be talked about. Lukashenko’s totalitarian regime has ruled now for 30 years. The existence of Lukashenko’s Belarus relies heavily on Russia’s help: Russia has been subsidizing the country’s weak economy with low-rate loans and discounted gas and oil for decades.
So, Belarus turned into [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s accomplice in the invasion of Ukraine, becoming a bridgehead for Russian money and military units attacking Ukraine from the north.
I’d like to remind your readers that a fictitious referendum was held in Belarus after the start of the war, on Feb. 27. As a result, norms about the neutrality of Belarus, including its intention to adhere to being a nuclear-free status, were removed from the Constitution. At the same time, amendments were introduced expanding Lukashenko’s powers.
It should also be noted that the dictator announced the possibility of placing nuclear weapons in the country. This is an important point, even if it is the delusion of a madman. Thus, the traitor Lukashenko allowed Putin to turn the independence of Belarus and its “imaginary” sovereignty into a laughingstock long ago.
Is an international tribunal needed to bring Lukashenko and his associates to justice?
We know what crimes Lukashenko is committing, firstly, against the people of Belarus and secondly against Ukrainians. Sanctions are only the first stage – they usually aim at changing political behavior. But Lukashenko must be brought to justice through the international criminal court for the crimes he has committed. The European Parliament is now actively discussing the possibility of bringing charges against the dictator.
What can stop Lukashenko from participating in the war, for example inducing him to leave Belarus in peace and possibly fleeing the country?
On the one hand, the threat of Russia annexing Belarus on Russia’s terms is already a reality. This is evident not only from the country’s economic dependence on Russia, but also the fact that Russian troops were not deployed in Belarus under the terms of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), but by force, without authorization of the Belarusian people. This is a big problem.
On the other hand, in early August it became evident that only 13,000 Belarusian servicemen signed their consent to participate in the war against Ukraine, and I still doubt this number.
Lukashenko won’t stop anything. He cannot be changed, and we should not be under any illusions about that. At the same time, Belarusians are not ready and do not want to be complicit in this war. This is Lukashenko and Putin’s war.
However, this doesn’t make Ukrainian people feel better. Lukashenko and the Belarusian people must be viewed separately. It is necessary to cooperate with Belarusians in order to win, while Lukashenko and Putin are clearly war criminals.
An attack against Ukraine by Belarusian troops is only a matter of time. And it seems to me that there will be an offensive. Belarusians living in the country have no choice. Therefore, they need help to look for a different future. They need to be taught, talked to, won over and convinced. We need to fight for the minds of Belarusians – this is more important than building a 1,084-kilometer wall on the border.
Neither steel nor walls will protect Ukrainians as reliably as the will of free Belarusians who do not want to live as before, and who are against the war – brave and ready, like Ukrainians – to stop any of Putin’s and Lukashenko’s gangs and protect their home.
I think that Lukashenko could stop, or at least restrain, real political and military aid to Ukraine. If we do not fight for Belarusians together with Ukrainians, we won’t change Belarus. And then no wall will stop Lukashenko. Only internal pressure, fear of another rebellion, and an irresistible desire by the people for a new life and meaningful change in the country. Only those things will stop the growth of this “cancerous tumor” forever.
So you think it’s a real possibility that Belarusian soldiers will invade the territory of Ukraine?
I am sure that Lukashenko has no other choice, because he is a Russian general. Lukashenko is not Belarusian. Shame on anyone who calls him the president, ex-president of Belarus, or “batka” [father].
And if suddenly, God forbid, Belarusian servicemen were to fight on the side of the Russian army, this would only extend the list of enemies with Belarusian names killed in Ukraine. It would not significantly change the outcome of the war. In fact, it would accelerate the downfall of Lukashenko’s regime.
No matter how strange it sounds: let them go, let them try to get involved in this fight, and they will get what they deserve. Life is fair!
Do you consider Belarus to be Russian-occupied territory?
Yes. Ukraine is partially occupied by Russia, while Belarus is completely occupied and has been for a long time. Power is seized by force and held by the Russian general Lukashenko. Russia succeeded in doing with Belarus what it dreamed of doing with Ukraine but failed.