Interview of President of the Republic of Belarus Aleksandr Lukashenko for the TV show Shuster Live

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Savik Shuster: Mr President, you said that the Republic of Belarus recognizes the de facto secession of Crimea to the Russian Federation. However, there was no de jure recognition. What does it mean?

Aleksandr Lukashenko: De jure recognition (perhaps, we will have similar approaches on the matter) is a formalized recognition based on treaties, agreements, other documents and so on. It is not the case with Russia or Ukraine.

As for the de facto recognition, I understand those Ukrainians for whom it is unacceptable. But even former presidents of Ukraine (I was told about the statement of Leonid Kuchma) say that today Crimea is not de facto part of Ukraine, but part of Russia. In fact, the state of affairs is that Crimea is de facto part of Russia and it does not matter whether I like it or not.

Savik Shuster: It is one thing when presidents say so, but it is a different story with people. I dare say that the majority of Ukrainians believes that it was the military seizure of Ukraine’s territory which will be never recognized by Ukraine. It will never give away Crimea. This is the position of Ukrainians.

Aleksandr Lukashenko: Savik, I do not contradict the opinion of the Ukrainian people. There are people in Belarus and even in Russia who subscribe to this opinion. But you did not ask me about it. You wanted to know if I recognize that Crime is de facto part of Russia. Yes, it is the de facto territory of Russia. More than that, by acting like that Ukraine’s current government has virtually acknowledged that Crimea is not their territory. Why did they leave? Why did they pull out the military units?

Why did not they stand up and fight if the land was theirs? In my darkest nightmares I cannot imagine the same thing happening to Belarus, god forbid… You know even if our military acted like the Ukrainian military did, if they just stayed in their bases doing nothing — although it is certainly hard to imagine in Belarus! — I would take up arms and fight on my own.

I am the president of the country. People have elected me for this purpose: to protect their land. If there is no president, then there is an acting president and other officials. They were supposed to protect their land.

I do not want to be accused of bloodthirst and warmongering but there is no other way to act but defend one’s own land.

Did you leaders do it? They did not. Did you military do it? They did not. You packed up your toys and left. One half surrendered, as Ukrainian executives remark, while another half was pulled out from Crimea in peace. Crimea was given away. Does it look like a de facto recognition of Crimea as not Ukrainian territory at least?

Presidents are supposed to answer questions in a diplomatic and elusive manner. But I answer it as a citizen and the president of Belarus: if it is your land, then there is nothing more precious, nothing whatsoever! If they take your aircraft, tank, a Mercedes or something, forget it, it is not worth waging a war for it. A car is not worth human lives and dying for it. But when they take your country’s land, you have to answer for the pride of your nation, be responsible for this piece of land. To all of those, who now reproach Russia, Russia can say that the behavior of the Ukrainian authorities and the military in Crimea indicates the fact that it is not their land. And Russia will be right.

Savik Shuster:Some people believe, including representatives of Ukraine’s new leadership, that if there had been resistance, then Russian troops would have launched a blitzkrieg war against Kyiv (like they did in Georgia when they stooped a distance of 20km from Tbilisi).

Aleksandr Lukashenko:If they like speculating what may have happened, I let them use the speculations to stay happy and calm down.

Where is this army now? The 250,000-strong Ukrainian army, which is supposed to protect Ukraine’s integrity and prevent such things from happening by the very fact of its own existence? If they think that Russia is an aggressor, then the best way of calming an aggressor is stopping it in its tracks. It is what a strong army should do. Do you think Russia was unaware of the fact that there is no such army? I wonder why powerful Ukraine with the population of 45 million people has failed to create such an army. I remember the talks with Ukrainian presidents except Kravchuk (strange as it may seem, but the strongest army was under Kravchuk as they had not have enough time to disorganize it after the collapse of the Soviet Union). All the presidents were proud of having such a strong army. When I arrived in the BelbekInternationalAirport near Sevastopol I saw a lot of planes. Everyone said that Ukraine could offer rebuff to any opponents. They say that up to 20,000 Russian military were stationed in Crimea. Let us say, initially there were 10,000 Russian soldiers in the peninsula. Could the army stop 10,000 soldiers?

Savik Shuster: There could be more military than these 10,000. A lot of Russian soldiers were stationed near Ukrainian borders.

Aleksandr Lukashenko: Russians would never have allowed themselves to act the way you suppose they would. They would never have attacked Kyiv from Crimea or would never have launched a multipronged attack if there had been any resistance. There were no such plans!

We are talking about Crimea, recognition and non-recognition. Russia could not care less about whether Crimea is recognized as part of Russia or not. Russia has its own solid logic relying on international precedents. Facts are hard to bend. You see what the West does and what it does is not good. Russia has presented the world with powerful counterarguments. Please, understand me that Russia would never have moved into Crimea like they claim. Never without reasons or at least a cause. I have already given you an example. Tell me why initially when you had to restore your authority, take control of the entire country, including Crimea, after this revolution… We are not speculating whether the new authorities are good or not. During Yushchenko’s time Crimea was not taken away. Although nobody liked Yushchenko, he did his job. I do not want to praise him much but he did not enforce Ukrainian language upon everyone right away, he did not ban Russian, he did not pressurize Russian citizens, Russian-speaking people and not only Russians — Belarusians and other ones. He did not do it. And Yushchenko rose to power via a maidan. But what did the new authorities do? Virtually repressions right away.

At least the current authorities laid themselves open, gave a reason. So don’t blame the mirror. You are responsible for what has happened in Crimea. Russia now has the right to say: “If we had not interfered in Crimea, what would have happened to 1.5 million Russian people?” Who can answer this question?

Therefore, today Crimea is the de facto territory of Russia. And the Ukrainian authorities have proved that by their actions. This is the main thing.

Savik Shuster: Right. We should not forget about Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians who account for about 40% of the local population, but…

Aleksandr Lukashenko: Yes, and the issue can backfire on Russia if it does not pursue a balanced and cautious policy. Therefore, I agree with what you are saying. As far as I know, Crimean Tatars want to form their own authorities. The danger is in the precedent. If Crimeans could put the issue of sovereignty to a referendum, why could not Crimean Tatars do the same? They can. As a result, this territory can be divided into pieces.

Therefore, the Crimean precedent is dangerous for the Crimea itself.

Savik Shuster: Many people now wonder what Vladimir Putin is up to. Will he do more?

Aleksandr Lukashenko: President Putin has no intention of doing more than that. He said there is some limit, a red line that cannot be crossed. You have to understand that Russia has been humiliated to an extent it could not but respond. It would have been death for an empire like the Russian one otherwise.

When someone starts beating, killing, and cutting Russian people, like many thought (and it is the way the public in Russia viewed the events and Putin did the same), was he supposed to keep quiet about it?

Russian speakers, Russian citizens, and Belarusian citizens have been labeled non-citizens in the Baltic states and some other well-known countries. Poland’s behavior is very bad, like America’s retainer. Russia tolerates it so do we. We face pressure at every turn where it is necessary and where it is not. Syria and so on. We tolerate it. Pressure regarding Iran goes full throttle. Russia tolerates it. But when someone takes a knife and threatens to kill your own brother? Do you wait and do nothing? Russia had to respond.

Savik Shuster: Mr President, there wasn’t a knife.

Aleksandr Lukashenko: I don’t say there was a knife. But the situation starting with Russian language and so on developed in a way we understood maybe not entirely correctly as people in Ukraine understood it. But it is the way Putin and the Russians understood it. Our understanding may be wrong. But you gave a reason to view it like that.

The majority of the general public in Ukraine understands the situation as an infringement upon their territory and sovereignty.

Savik Shuster: Right.

Aleksandr Lukashenko: Further advancement in this regard would constitute an aggression. It is what all the Ukrainians will think. In no way should we use force in Ukraine. I absolutely don’t like what is going on in the east. The situation over there should be calmed down instead of agitated.

Savik Shuster: Who agitates the situation?

Aleksandr Lukashenko: I am absolutely against heating up the situation. Moreover, I am totally against any kinds of federations. Total idiocy! What does the division of Ukraine into the Western Ukraine and the Eastern Ukraine entail today? I’ve already said that it would be a two-person piano with one specialist playing one side and another specialist playing the other side. What would we get in the end? In essence in the center of Europe we will get a powerful major destabilized country. You know the kind of people who like to fish in muddy waters. All the rubbish like militants, mercenaries who prey on hot spots and earn money by doing so will gather up there. Are the Belarusians going to stay calm about it? No! Are the Russians going to be indifferent about it? No! You, those who live in Ukraine, cannot be indifferent about it as well!

It is the kind of situation that cannot be allowed. Ukraine must stay an integral state the way it is now. Things must be calmed down. It is not a good idea to stage any referendums on federalization and other things with all the ongoing turmoil. You have to calm down the country, stabilize the situation. After that, if the matter of referendums arises — a federal state, a confederation, a unitary state or something else — then you will be free to deal with it.

Savik Shuster: Mr President, I think Vladimir Putin and you wanted Ukraine to be part of the Eurasian Union.

Aleksandr Lukashenko: The Customs Union or the Eurasian Union.

Savik Shuster: But Ukraine has already signed the agreement on association with the European Union. This initiative is much more popular now than it was four months ago. I can even say that many Ukrainians believe the situation could be different if Ukraine joined NATO.

Aleksandr Lukashenko:

I’ve told Putin that making Crimea part of Russia is not a problem. Doing something in Ukraine, helping someone is not a problem either. But one has to bear in mind the consequences at every step.

What is the most dangerous thing for Belarus and Russia now? I and President Putin understand that the most dangerous thing would be Ukraine’s accession to NATO or NATO’s deployment and reinforcement in Ukraine. It is the worst thing that could happen for Russia and Belarus! It is more important than Crimea. I said that, too.

On the other hand, did the events in Crimea give a reason to Ukraine to reciprocate? Yes, they did. If, god forbid, NATO troops enter Ukraine and straddle the country — on request of the government because the president has yet to be elected — and will secure the country’s integrity with support of the Ukrainian people, it will be the most undesirable consequence for Russia after what has happened.

The Ukrainian authorities have exposed themselves, giving Russia a reason to go and protect Crimea. The move has virtually invited NATO to come here, without thought of consequence. It is the most dangerous thing in the situation! It is what we should think about now. While negotiating with the West, Russia should keep in mind this possibility. It may be even more dangerous and more important for us. Russia is a nuclear power and so on while NATO’s arrival is a more dangerous thing for us.

What could have happened if Ukraine was part of NATO? Certainly, it would not have happened. The thought of assaulting one NATO member and getting a war with the entire NATO bloc would have been a powerful deterrent. Nobody would have dared to go as far as waging a war on NATO. But the argument would have been effective only until Russian citizens and Russian-speaking people had started dying in Crimea.

If bloodshed had started, neither Russia nor Belarus would have been able to stay indifferent about it regardless of considerations about NATO. But these are only speculations. I don’t think there are so many cutthroats in Ukraine as to start the bloodshed. God forbid, I don’t even want to think about it.

Savik Shuster: Why do you beware of NATO?

Aleksandr Lukashenko: We see their concrete actions. Therefore, we are forced to at least say: we don’t think you are going to fight us tomorrow and we don’t think you are a potential aggressor, but, please, don’t move on to the east, stop, let’s cooperate in economic, political matters but stop your advance in military sense. What is the advance I am talking about? Militarization, tanks, aircraft, other weapons, soldiers moving closer to us. Why? The same thing was done after the Eastern Germany and the Western Germany was reunited. Back then we heard sworn testaments that NATO will not move closer. Now not only socialist states but ex-USSR republics are NATO members. Georgia and Ukraine are willing to be NATO members. Why do you fail to deliver on your promises?

Commitments are failed everywhere and international agreements are violated. We are not afraid of NATO but we have to adequately respond. If you stage an army exercise, we do the same. You keep combat-ready troops, we are forced to do the same in case, god forbid, a military conflict happens and we have to cause unacceptable damage to you. It is just a reason for you to think whether it is a good idea to invade Belarus again like the Nazi did. It is what the situation is all about.

Savik Shuster: Could you become a mediator between Moscow and Kyiv?

Aleksandr Lukashenko: Mediation is the thing I loathe most. When our relations with the European Union and America went into disarray, I heard so many proposals about mediation in this office! I told everyone to drop it, we don’t need mediators, we can do without them. If the European Union or America let us know tomorrow that they are ready to cooperate with us, we will be able to come to terms with them directly. That’s exactly what we are doing. We register some shifts with regard to both the European Union and America. Many issues get settled without mediators. Mediators never represent the state of affairs exactly the way they are.

Although I don’t crave for the mediator position like some people, who, you know, claim to be willing to mediate for me, if I am told that it is important for my dear Ukraine and my Russia, I am ready to sacrifice a lot and do things if it is up to me to do them. However, from the practical point of view, I don’t think any major events will happen and Putin and Turchinov will establish smooth relations. It is likely to happen after the presidential election and the election will be held soon. It seems the domestic situation needs the election although the circumstances are not so good. And not even from the point of view of the current authorities. I am afraid that the elections may not benefit the current government. I am very much afraid of it. Or I may be wrong if you are correct about the situation if you say that priorities and mood of the Ukrainian people have changed

Savik Shuster: If we look into the real situation today we can say that voters in southeastern Ukraine, which is largely disorganized. There are no leaders and the people who voted in favor of Yanukovych are disappointed.

Aleksandr Lukashenko: Disoriented.

Savik Shuster: Nevertheless, support of residents of these regions will be necessary for the future president and the leader of the entire country.

Aleksandr Lukashenko: Most people over there are like that. And they may install some kind of a local leader into power. But other people in Kyiv will preserve the real power and they will certainly try to forestall such events or at least balance out the situation, which is happening now. It is the main danger of the forthcoming presidential election. God forbid if automobile tires are burnt in the streets again, if fires are lit, Molotov cocktails, snipers shooting in Kyiv’s streets. Even worse things could happen. It would be truly terrible then.

You said the right thing that a nationwide leader is needed, someone people in western Ukraine and eastern Ukraine can accept although he or she thinks differently. It is the kind of person that’s needed. I don’t see such a person for now. Sorry for interfering with your own affairs.

Savik Shuster: You don’t need to be sorry. You are the President.

Aleksandr Lukashenko: It is not up to me to decide who will be the President of Ukraine.

Savik Shuster: Yes, but you express your point of view.