Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is striking a defiant tone ahead of a rare meeting this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin amid growing concerns that Belarus could be pulled into Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Lukashenko, emphasizing his country’s sovereignty at a Friday meeting in Minsk on Russia-Belarus cooperation, said the situation was “escalating” as he prepares to talk with Putin on Monday.
The Belarusian leader refuted the “whispering” in his country that “Russians are already walking and running the country.”
“I would like to emphasize this feature once again: no one, except us, governs Belarus,” Lukashenko said, according to remarks published by the presidential press service. “We must always proceed from the fact that we are a sovereign state and independent.”
Putin will travel to Belarus and meet with Lukashenko on Monday in his first state visit to the country in three years.
The two leaders are expected to discuss “key aspects” of their partnership as well as other international and regional issues, a statement from the Kremlin said.
Lukashenko last week said the main topic would be economics but added he and Putin will also discuss defense and security in the region, according to the Belarusian presidential press service.
Belarus served as a staging ground for Russia early in the war against Ukraine when Putin mobilized troops and arms that he sent into Ukraine in late February.
In October, Belarus also deployed thousands of troops with Russia to conduct joint military drills, renewing fears that Putin’s ally would commit forces to the war.
But Lukashenko has resisted joining the war directly, even as Ukrainian officials warn Russia is ramping up efforts to rope its neighbor into the conflict.
In the meeting on Friday in Minsk, Lukashenko defended his frequent meetings with Putin and Russian leaders, saying it was critical to coordinate and respond to “tactical issues” such as economic sanctions from the West.
Lukashenko also emphasized strong ties with Russia and stressed that Belarus would “never be enemies” with the country.
“This is the state closest to us, the peoples closest to us,” he said. “I think that as long as we are in power, we will adhere to this trend. If it were otherwise, it would be like in Ukraine.”