VLADIMIR Putin has his eyes on Belarus- but its people won't go down without a fight and they will never bow down to Russia, the country's exiled opposition leader has vowed.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya sat down with The Sun Online as she gave a defiant message to Minsk and Moscow.
This week the English teacher turned opposition leader was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in a prison camp after she ran for president against Putin's puppet leader Alexander Lukashenko .
It was an election rife with fraud – with Lukashenko declaring himself the winner with 80 per cent of the vote – and that sparked an uprising as Tsikhanouskaya was forced to flee Belarus.
When asked if she had anything to say to Lukashenko regarding her prison sentence, she was brief.
Tsikhanouskaya said: "I have nothing to say to this person. He doesn’t care about our country. He doesn’t care about people. He takes care only of his own power."
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Belarus claims the opposition leader committed "treason" and "conspiracy to seize power".
Now she lives in exile – and has been forced to watch from afar as her beloved country becomes ever-closer aligned with Russia, with fears they could even join the war against Ukraine.
Tsikhanouskaya said she believes Belarus is a country that Putin could attempt to absorb into his "empire" – with Vlad being shameless in his desire to create a new "Soviet Union".
And secret documents revealed in recent weeks suggest that Putin is plotting to take control of Belarus by 2030 – even as he flounders in Ukraine.
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The exiled leader, however, was clear – her people will never allow this to happen, they want a new identity for Belarus, and they are more than just pawns of Russia.
"Of course, Putin wants to return Belarus and Ukraine into his empire, but when the people and nation don’t want to be an appendix of Russia, they will not be," she told The Sun Online.
Incumbent Lukashenko, often referred to as "Europe's last dictator", has been in power since 1994 in Belarus.
Despite claims each year of election fraud, he's remained firmly in power – and close to Putin.
Tsikhanouskaya explained that just as Ukraine wanted to break further away from Russian influence and become more "European", so does Belarus.
She said of Ukraine: "We’ve [Belarus and Ukraine] always had a wonderful relationship and I don’t understand why you [Russia] can invade a country that has decided to move a different way and develop.
"Ukraine wants Europe, the same as Belarus. Why do you think you have the right to forbid a nation from doing what they want?"
Tsikhanouskaya went on – and explained one of the biggest consequences for Putin regarding the war in Ukraine has been unveiling the "myth" of the Russian military's strength.
Putin's war machine quickly ground to a halt in early 2022 – with predictions of him seizing Kyiv in days quickly falling apart as he faced fierce resistance from Ukraine.
Russia has since faced a flurry of military disasters – and seen its reputation on the world stage left in tatters, even as they now make small gains in the east around Bakhmut.
Tsikhanouskaya continued: "The war in Ukraine showed that if a nation wants to protect its land, if a country is united to counter the second biggest army in the world, they will succeed.
"We’ve discovered that the Russian army is not so big, not so strong, not so motivated."
A LIFE IN EXILE
A force to be reckoned with, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is living life in exile from her home nation Belarus.
Tsikhanouskaya's pro-democracy husband Sergei Tikhanovsky is jailed as he plans to run against Aleksandr Lukashenko in the upcoming presidential election.
Tsikhanouskaya announces her intention to run in the place of her arrested husband. She sends her children to live with their grandmother abroad as threats against her rise.
August 9, 2020
Election results are published, with Tsikhanouskaya gaining 10.12% of the votes, compared to Lukashenko's 80.10%.
Widespread reports of election fraud were reported across Belarus, with poll workers being threatened if they questioned tallies or protocol.
August 10, 2020
Protests erupt across the country against the election results in favour of Lukashenko. Hundreds of protestors are arrested, many of whom remain in jail.
The U.S. and the European Union say the election is neither free nor fair, and induce sanctions on Belarus.
August 11, 2020
Tsikhanouskaya flees Belarus for fear of arrest and for her children, who are already outside of the country.
August 2020 – now
Tsikhanouskaya has lived in Lithuania since the fraudulent results of the 2020 election, and has campaigned for a free Belarus since.
‘EUROPE’S LAST DICTATOR’
28 years of rule in Belarus: How did it come to this for Alexander Lukashenko?
Lukashenko becomes the first president of Belarus after separation from the Soviet Union.
1995 – 1999
Belarus signs multiple documents with Russia, reinstating Russia as a second official language, strengthening trade and relations.
1999 – 2021
Lukashenko wins each following election, despite widespread protests and reports of fraud.
Sanctions and visa restrictions are placed on Belarus in retaliation, leading to widespread inflation and a gas crisis.
Lukashenko signs a deal with Russia to gain access to oil supplies, yet again strengthening ties to the superpower.
2022 – now
Lukashenko allows parts of its territories to be used for Russian soldiers attacking parts of Ukraine.
He continues to back Putin in the war.
And showing the resistance to war within Belarus, partisans attacked a £274million Russian spy plane as it was parked on the tarmac near Minsk.
Speaking on Belarusian partisan fighters, Tsikhanouskaya explained: "There will be constant resistance and Putin and Lukashenko know it’s impossible to change the way of thinking of people.
"He understands that until Lukashenko is gone, even if they try to put a pro-Kremlin head there, it will be a constant resistance, constant uprising and fights against this."
But she pointed out the resistance within Belarus remains "peaceful" – only collecting information and launched sabotage operations.
"This way of fighting, by taking out this plane, disrupting railways, is also a peaceful method of fighting. Because Belarusians don’t want to have any victims," she said.
"We don’t want to harm people. Partisans also stick to this idea. This plane helped Russians to kill people in Ukraine.
"So I hope the partisans prevented the murders of thousands of Ukrainians."
She also vowed that those who committed crimes against the people of Ukraine and Belarus will face justice.
Speaking to The Sun Online at a hotel in London, Tsikhanouskaya urged western countries to launch "all mechanisms" to help bring perpetrators to accountability.
Our interview with Tsikhanouskaya falls on International Women's Day, and she implored the west to not forget about the resistance being led by Belarusian women.
She said: "Since 2020, Belarusian women have shown incredible courage. I want to wish Belarusian women, first of all, courage and belief, because we are strong.
"We are much stronger than we might think about ourselves. I wish for decisiveness, courage. We show them that we are on the side of the light."
Moving forward, a clear strategy to assist the Belarusian people in their fight for freedom is necessary, Tsikhanouskaya said.
Though the world is focused on Ukraine, she said Belarus is a part of this crisis, which must be solved.
Thousands of Russian troops remain stationed in Belarus, and Tsikhanouskaya is calling for the withdrawal of troops not just from Ukraine, but from her home country as well.
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She continued: "A lot can be done, but there should be consistency, there should be strategy, and I hope there will not be fatigue of the problems in our region.
"Belarus and Ukraine are now fighting for the whole of Europe, and we need help."
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