Belarus and Russia are bringing Europe “to the brink of nuclear war,” opposition leader Tsikhanouskaya warns

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko provided crucial support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and is now helping Moscow bring Europe to the “brink of nuclear war,” Belarus’ top opposition leader and pro-democracy activist warned this week on a visit to Washington.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is widely believed to have won a 2020 election against Mr Lukashenko but fled after a post-vote crackdown, voiced her concern at rising concerns over Mr Putin’s plan to deploy Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.

Mr Putin stated over the weekend that the guns will be in place soon. Many analysts are describing the move as the latest Cold War-style escalation between the Kremlin and the West.

Ms Tsikhanouskaya said at an event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute and the International Republican Institute Monday night that US officials should be more cautious about Mr Lukashenko’s role. She claimed that he enjoys his reputation as “Europe’s last dictator” and that Moscow is using him as a puppet.

Mr Lukashenko, who has held power in Belarus for almost 30 years, has been “Putin’s forerunner since the beginning of the Russian invasion,” she said. He offered Belarusian territory as a base for Russian forces, despite polls showing about 86% of Belarusian citizens oppose the war, Ms Tsikhanouskaya said. However, so far Belarusian troops have not participated in the invasion.

“He is now a war criminal like only his master,” she said, adding that Mr Lukashenko recently signed more of the country’s sovereignty “by allowing the Russians to build nuclear missile silos on our soil.”

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“Lukashenko is helping Russia bring Europe to the brink of nuclear war,” she said.

Russian officials said the decision to station the nuclear weapons in Belarus did not violate Moscow’s obligations under existing agreements, but Putin’s announcement follows Russia’s decision to suspend participation in the New START pact.

The moves have sparked concern around the world, particularly in Europe, where lower-yield Russian nuclear weapons — seen as more likely to be deployed — could now be stationed closer than ever to NATO allies Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

NATO has criticized Mr Putin’s plan. Ukrainian officials warn that this is likely to fuel internal destabilization in Belarus. “The Kremlin has taken Belarus nuclear hostage,” tweeted Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council.

China has also expressed concerns. The South China Morning Post has reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping and Mr Putin vowed during their meeting last week that neither Beijing nor Moscow would deploy nuclear weapons abroad.

However, specific details of the vow have not been verified.

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When asked Monday about Mr Putin’s move, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning suggested it violated a separate informal agreement between nuclear-armed nations. “In January last year, the leaders of the five nuclear-weapon states released a joint statement reiterating that nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, and stressed the importance of avoiding and reducing war between nuclear-weapon states strategic risks,” Ms. Mao told reporters in Beijing.

The Biden administration has so far reacted cautiously to Mr. Putin’s announcement, saying that it does not change the balance of power in the Ukraine fight. National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson told CNN: “We have seen no reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear stance, nor any indication that Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon.”

Belarus and Russia, meanwhile, appear to be trying to downplay developments. Officials in the Lukashenko government on Monday said Putin’s plan would not violate international agreements, according to Russia’s official TASS news agency.

During an interview aired on Russian television over the weekend, Mr Putin said the use of tactical nuclear weapons will come in response to increasing NATO arms supplies to Ukraine’s armed forces. He specifically referred to Britain’s recent announcement that it would supply Kiev with ammunition containing depleted uranium.

Britain’s Defense Ministry said last week it would provide Ukraine’s armed forces with the special armor-piercing shells first developed by the US during the Cold War to destroy Soviet tanks.

“Like Cancer”

Ms Tsikhanouskaya urged Washington to pay more attention to the Lukashenko government’s deepening alliance with the Kremlin.

“You have to delegitimize Lukashenko more and more,” she said.

The opposition leader gained international recognition in 2020 when she ran for president against Mr Lukashenko after her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular opposition blogger, was jailed in a government crackdown on dissent. She has continued her activism from Poland and Lithuania and heads a Belarusian democratic government in exile.

In her speech in Washington on Monday, she called on the West to officially recognize the government-in-exile, adding: “A free and democratic Belarus is the ultimate sanction for Russia’s sick imperial fantasies. … If we don’t win now, Europe won’t be free and the Iron Curtain will fall again.”

Her visit to Washington comes as the Biden administration convenes its second annual Summit for Democracy, a gathering of world leaders and activists. Government officials say the summit aims to promote unity in the face of rising autocracy and authoritarianism.

Ms Tsikhanouskaya challenged the notion recently espoused by some US lawmakers that the Biden administration should focus solely on countering China and not be distracted by the Russian war in Ukraine.

“Powerful countries like America can’t just focus on one issue — China, for example — because there are countries that are now fighting for the same values ​​that Americans cherish,” she said.

Ms Tsikhanouskaya, who testified with Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday about U.S. support for democracy and human rights, warned that dictatorships are unifying and coordinating their policies at an alarming rate.

“Dictators are being united before the eyes of powerful countries,” she said in her speech on Monday evening. “This process may seem unnoticed until they are too big and too strong, and now when we see dictators uniting – China, Russia, the Belarusian regime, Iran – I think democratic countries should pay attention to this development. “

“Tyranny or dictatorships are like cancer. Until you cut out the last cell of this disease, it will keep spreading, and then it will be too late to cure this disease,” she said.

• Mike Glenn contributed to this article.

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