On August 17, President Alexander Lukashenka gave a 2-hour-long interview to Diana Panchenko
, a Ukrainian journalist no longer based in her home country. Panchenko used to be on Ukrainian TV; in 2020, the Ukrainian magazine Focus
included her in its list of Ukraine’s most influential women. She then ran afoul of the authorities over the Russian language and Ukrainian nationalism. In August 2022, she left Kyiv and in January 2023, in the wake of her televised reports from Donetsk and Mariupol, Ukraine’s Security Service accused her of spreading Russian propaganda.
In essence, Lukashenka’s opinion on the war that he shared with Panchenko did not differ from what he had articulated before: the war was provoked by the West, especially the US, Russia responded to the challenge; Kyiv did negotiate and was intent on further negotiating with the Russians but was stopped by the US; given the current situation on the front line and the resource inequities between the warring parties, Ukraine needs to return to the negotiating table, and the hostilities should stop; otherwise, Ukraine may lose its statehood completely.
Belarusian opposition media in exile, as well as the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty, analyzed the interview in detail and uncovered multiple distortions and duplicities. For example, Lukashenka claimed that Russia’s army was not defeated on the outskirts of Kyiv but rather retreated out of good will. He criticized the Ukrainian government for mistreating journalists like Panchenko, whereas dozens of journalists have been jailed in Belarus or squeezed out of the country.
In his interview to Panchenko, Lukashenka pushed for Ukraine effectively conceding to loss of some territories, especially but not only Crimea. However, during a meeting on the same day with the Chinese minister of defense, Lukashenka claimed he is committed to the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Even the fact that Lukashenka exaggerated the rate of car ownership in Minsk was not spared the attention of the opposition-minded journalists
.Off the beaten path
There were two remarks by Lukashenka that some of the most insightful of those journalists focused on. One of them was his unexpected statement that “the objectives of the special military operation have already been achieved today.” In the opinion of Alexander Klaskovsky
, a veteran opposition journalist, this was a message sent on behalf of Vladimir Putin, who, believes Klaskovsky, “needs a pause so that the Russian economy eventually reorganizes itself on a war footing, to accumulate missiles and other weapons, to further mobilize, and so on. Lukashenka plays along with him and hopes to receive dividends.”
The second remark was seemingly more suggestive. Rather than rehashing Russia’s propaganda, it reflects Belarus’s own interests and predicaments related to the war. When Panchenko asked the Belarusian leader if he was informed by Putin in advance about Russia’s February 24, 2022 invasion, Lukashenka had this to say
“You saw his speech on TV [after the start of the operation]. Me too… Right on the eve of hostilities, we did not have a conversation that would suggest the war would begin. I swear to you. Yes, we discussed that Russia may be taking some actions against Ukraine. The only thing is that when we met with him in his country residence and discussed the situation that had developed, he told me verbatim (I’m telling you this for the first time ever): “Listen, Sasha, you know the situation; if, God forbid, suddenly something happens... I say: listen, what can happen? Well, he said, anything can happen. Cover for me, please.”