Last week, residents of Machulishchy were intrigued as soldiers and police swarmed across their small town on the edge of Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
Cordons and checkpoints were hastily erected for miles around the local airbase, which has played host to Russia’s forces during its abominable war against Ukraine.
It was clear to anyone out and about on that frosty winter morning that Belarusian security services – known as the KGB – were panicking. The Belarusian people, who are disgusted at their government’s support for the Kremlin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, had struck a symbolic blow right at the heart of Russia’s military.
Our anti-war partisans had flown two drones over the former Soviet airbase and dropped bombs on an A-50U surveillance aircraft, a £275m Russian spy plane used to pinpoint targets inside Ukraine. The Beriev A-50, which uses a long-range radar detection system to track up to 60 targets at a time, was severely damaged.
Unfortunately for the Belarusian KGB, the heroic resistance fighters who made a mockery of Russian military might managed to escape the checkpoints. They are now safely outside the country.
Doubtless Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s tyrannical dictator and solitary Kremlin ally, would have had an uncomfortable discussion when he next took a phone call from Vladimir Putin. Lukashenko will be particularly nervous as he owes his position to the Russian president. I beat him in the general election of 2020, before he stole it back with the help of the secret police and Putin. The Russian president sent propagandists, financial support and, eventually, tanks in a bid to prop up his old Soviet ally – then forced him to pay his debts by enlisting support for the catastrophic invasion of Ukraine 18 months later.
The vast majority of my people are horrified at what is happening in Ukraine. The attack on the Russian spy plane is not the first example of resistance. Cyber-partisans have performed a series of audacious hacks on Belarusian state databases. Resistance fighters have blown up transport networks in an attempt to constrict the supply of Russian arms into Ukraine. And hundreds of Belarusians have enlisted to fight the Russian aggressor on Ukrainian territory itself.
As long as Lukashenko barks like a Russian lapdog, the Ukrainian struggle for freedom will be tougher. There will be no secure Ukraine without a free Belarus. Lukashenko’s invitation for Russian troops to perform a hybrid occupation of Belarus has placed my country at the centre of the crisis in eastern Europe. Yet it remains part of the solution. Overthrowing Lukashenko would accelerate victory for Ukraine.
Today, I am meeting Leo Docherty, the UK’s Europe minister, and Lindsay Hoyle, the speaker of the House of Commons, to discuss how we can bring about a peaceful and democratic revolution inside Belarus. I am grateful for the support of the UK thus far.
The UK has led the way in imposing sanctions against the tyrant and his cronies. But it could go further. We need more monetary and secondary sanctions targeting the state economy that fuels Lukashenko’s KGB intelligence agency and Putin’s war machine.
Karim Khan now wields enormous influence as the chief prosecutor at the international criminal court (ICC) at The Hague. He has correctly identified the abhorrent war crimes perpetrated by Russian armed forces in Ukraine, including attacks on civilians and critical infrastructure. But Khan needs to glance across to Belarus next door. Lukashenko is also a state sponsor of terrorism.
The UK and the west need to fully grasp this point. We still pick up misguided signals from some allied nations that wish to believe Lukashenko is a man they can do business with. Some still like to think of him as a potential honest broker who, through no fault of his own, is trapped as a prisoner of geography and unwilling hostage of Putin. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The west needs to stop falling for his lies and understand that Lukashenko consciously desires Belarus to be a vassal state of Russia. Most Belarusians are quintessentially European, and wish to live peacefully in a democracy. They want Russian troops to be withdrawn from Ukraine and from Belarus immediately. They recognise that Lukashenko is a war criminal and hope that he will eventually face justice at the ICC.
The UK and the west need to throw their wholehearted support behind these key strategic objectives. I am not pretending it will be straightforward. Tyranny is like cancer, it cannot be tackled easily. Lukashenko and Putin won’t feel troubled by half-baked measures from the west.
Belarusians understand this, which is why my people continue to take extraordinary risks to show the west that they are worth fighting for. On the anniversary of the Ukrainian invasion last month, activists in Minsk managed to avoid the KGB and briefly raise a huge Ukrainian flag at the top of a high-rise building in Minsk. The message that accompanied the poignant image as it was broadcast on resistance Telegram channels said: “Belarusians raised Ukraine’s flag in Minsk to mark their solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Long Live Belarus! Glory to Ukraine!” It could not be any clearer.