Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko struck a defiant tone ahead of a rare meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week amid growing fears Belarus could be drawn into Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Lukashenko stressed his country’s sovereignty at a Russia-Belarus cooperation meeting in Minsk on Friday and said the situation was “escalating” as he prepares for talks with Putin on Monday.
The Belarusian leader refuted the “whispers” in his country that “Russians are already walking and running the country”.
“I want to emphasize this again: no one can rule Belarus except us,” Lukashenko said, according to comments published by the President’s Press Service. “We must always proceed from the fact that we are an independent and sovereign state. .”
Putin will travel to Belarus on Monday and meet Lukashenko, his first state visit to the country in three years.
A statement from the Kremlin said the two leaders were expected to discuss “key aspects” of their partnership and other international and regional issues.
Lukashenko said last week that the main topic would be the economy, but added that he and Putin would also discuss defense and security in the region, according to the Belarusian presidential press service.
Belarus became a staging ground for Russia in the early days of Russia’s war with Ukraine when Putin mobilized troops and weapons and sent them to Ukraine in late February.
In October, Belarus also deployed thousands of troops for joint military exercises with Russia, reigniting fears Putin’s allies would join the fray.
But Lukashenko has refused to go directly to the fight, despite warnings from Ukrainian officials that Russia is stepping up efforts to draw its neighbor into the conflict.
At a meeting in Minsk on Friday, Lukashenko defended his frequent meetings with Putin and Russian leaders, saying it was crucial to coordinate and respond to “tactical issues” such as Western economic sanctions.
Lukashenko also emphasized strong relations with Russia and stressed that Belarus “will never be an enemy of Russia.”
“This is the closest country to us, the closest people to us,” he said. “I think as long as we are in power, we will stick to this trend. If not, it will be like in Ukraine.”