UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The foreign minister of Belarus, which has a strategic partnership with Russia, says he cannot envision a situation where his country would enter the war in Ukraine alongside Russian forces.
Sergei Aleinik said in an interview with The Associated Press that he also can’t imagine a situation where Russia would order his country to use the tactical nuclear weapons it recently deployed in Belarus.
“I don’t see such an option because it is an instrument of defense primarily,” he said of the missiles.
But if Belarus was invaded, “I will not exclude any instruments to be used to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country,” he said.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has relied on Russian subsidies and political support to rule the ex-Soviet nation with an iron hand for nearly three decades, allowed the Kremlin to use Belarusian territory to send troops into Ukraine in February 2022 at the start of the invasion. But Lukashenko has opposed joining the fighting.
Aleinik said the stationing of tactical nuclear missiles in Belarus is a response to “the very big militarization” along its western border. The Polish military, for example, is planning to double its armed forces and bring more heavy weapons to the border, backed by a growing presence of U.S. and other NATO forces, he said.
The foreign minister disputed the assertions by some opponents that Belarus’ ties to Russia were isolating the country. Just the opposite, he said.
During his five days in New York for the annual high-level meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, Aleinik said he held 40 meetings with countries, many from the global South, who are interested in building economic and trade relations, especially focused on food security.
Belarus is among the top five exporters globally of butter, cheese and powdered milk, he said, and it produces 10% of the world’s tractors, 8% of the harvesting equipment and a range of other agricultural machinery.
There is growing demand for Belarus' products from African countries, a number of Asian countries, the Middle East and Latin America,, Aleinik said, and the country is increasing its production of food and other agricultural products. Belarus is also building a relationship with China, he said.
The foreign minister criticized neighboring Lithuania, which landlocked Belarus used to ship potash fertilizer to the Global South, for blocking transit through the country, saying he raised the issue repeatedly this week including with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. “Lithuania simply unilaterally imposed a ban for the transit of our fertilizers to the global South,” he said.
Lithuania, a Baltic nation, declared its independence from the Soviet Union 33 years ago. It is a democracy that belongs to NATO and the European Union. It has been a strong backer of Ukraine and a place of refuge in recent years for many who have fled Lukashenko’s authoritarian crackdown in Belarus and increased repression in Russia.
Aleinik said Belarus is now shipping fertilizer from Russian ports and sending its products to China by rail, but “these shipments are more costly.”
Western countries imposed sanctions on Belarus after its crackdown on protests against Lukashenko’s claim of victory in the 2020 presidential election which opponents claimed he fraudulently won. Additional sanctions were added over the forced diversion of a commercial jetliner traveling between in May 2021 two EU countries to Belarus’ capital Minsk, where authorities took a prominent opposition leader who was a passenger into custody.
Aleinik said Belarus’ union with Moscow covering almost all areas and is building technological cooperation with Moscow to counter Western sanctions and make the country self-sufficient in producing products previously imported from Western nations.
In his address to the General Assembly on Saturday, Aleinik briefly addressed the war in Ukraine, saying it was “very painful to see” how Ukrainians who are so close to Belarusians have been suffering for a year and a half.
“Unfortunately, Ukraine and its people have become a pawn in the great game of the West to preserve its own global hegemony,” he said. “It’s clear that by increasing weapons deliveries to this country, the West is determined to continue the war down to the last Ukrainian.”
Could he see a situation where Belarus could support the war in Ukraine alongside Russia? “My answer is no,” he told AP.
The foreign minister said he didn’t think Ukrainians want or need “this war of attrition,” stressing that Belarus has always supported peace in its neighboring country and will continue “to do everything in our power” to achieve it.
In the AP interview, Aleinik said he doesn’t think anyone at the United Nations for the high-level meeting knows how long the war will last, but “we all understand that there is no alternative to the political and diplomatic solution for this conflict.” He recalled that last year Belarus hosted three rounds of negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian delegations “and they started to draft some elements of a potential peace accord.”
Aleinik blamed Ukraine and perhaps others indirectly involved in the conflict for the failure of those negotiations. But he said Belarus will keep pursuing peace efforts.
Lukashenko’s government has come under sharp criticism for its crackdown and jailing of political opponents and human rights activists. The Viasna Human Rights Center recorded 1,496 political prisoners in Belarus at the end of August, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski.
Asked about the political prisoners, Aleinik said: “We don’t have political prisoners.”
“All the people who are detained are detained for criminal charges which have been proved in the courts. And so that’s it.”
Edith M. Lederer, chief U.N. correspondent for The Associated Press, has been covering international affairs for more than 50 years.