Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s president, gestures while giving a speech during a rally of his supporters in Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus, on Aug. 16, 2020.

Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s president, gestures while giving a speech during a rally of his supporters in Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus, on Aug. 16, 2020. (Evgeny Maloletka/Bloomberg)

The authoritarian Belarusian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, on Thursday blamed Ukraine for provoking Russia's full-scale invasion last year, and he insisted that Belarus was "a peaceful nation" despite allowing its territory to be used as a staging ground for the war.

But in typically convoluted remarks at a news conference in Minsk, Lukashenko seemed to once again resist any pressure from Moscow to send his own troops into Ukraine, warning that he would do so only if his country was attacked.

In comments that he dressed up as a stern warning to Ukraine and other Western nations, Lukashenko said: "I am ready to fight together with the Russians from the territory of Belarus only in one case: if at least one soldier sets foot in Belarus to kill my people."

"If they commit aggression against Belarus, the answer will be immediate," he said. "The war will acquire a completely different scale."

A year ago, Russian forces in Belarus invaded Ukraine from the north in what was ultimately a disastrous attempt to capture Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. Those troops were repulsed and later fled back into Belarus.

Since then, as Russia suffered a string of battlefield defeats and heavy casualties necessitating reinforcements, Lukashenko has not offered to send his troops to join the war, despite professions in Moscow and Minsk of growing military cooperation between the countries, including exercises that have led to more Russian troops stationed in Belarus.

Lukashenko's government has faced a battery of Western sanctions since August 2020, when he claimed to have won a new term in elections widely deemed as fraudulent. Belarus is heavily dependent on Russia for economic aid and security assistance, but Lukashenko so far has proven unwilling to sacrifice his own soldiers to help Russian President Vladimir Putin achieve his goals in Ukraine, including the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian territories.

On Thursday, Lukashenko parroted the Kremlin in blaming Kyiv and the West for the war, saying that Ukraine had provoked the offensive.

"It's not an invasion; the Ukrainian authorities provoked this operation," Lukashenko said. "Had they reached an agreement with Russia there would have been no war."

"There was no invasion," Lukashenko continued. "I believe this is the protection of the interests of Russia and those people, Russian people, who live there."

In recent weeks, Kyiv officials have warned that Russia could once again attack from Belarus, possibly further west in an attempt to block the transport of weapons being sent to Ukraine by the United States and other NATO countries.

In December, Belarus complained to Ukraine that a Ukrainian air defense missile had entered Belarusian airspace. Minsk claimed to have shot down the S-300 missile. The incident occurred as Russian was firing a heavy barrage of missiles at Ukraine, part of an ongoing effort to destroy Ukraine's critical infrastructure.

While resisting the direct involvement of his military in the war, Lukashenko has often issued blustery threats to Kyiv. In October, he warned that Ukraine should not touch "even a meter of our territory with their dirty hands."

Lukashenko also criticized the West for stoking the war in Ukraine, listing a number of factors including the 2015 Minsk Agreement, sponsored by France and Germany, that was designed to implement a cease-fire in the war between Russian-backed separatist forces and Ukraine in the eastern Donbas region.

Lukashenko also said the West did not want an end to the conflict. "You are escalating this conflict today," he said, directing his remarks at Western reporters at the news conference. The United States does not want peace, he said. "They've bent Europe over and are making it do it whatever they want."

Lukashenko also criticized Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, saying he should pursue "an independent policy" and distance himself from the United States and its allies. "He should not run around Western Europe asking for F-16s or some other fighter jets, long-range MLRS," he said, referring to multiple-launch rocket systems. "He should think about how to stop the war, so that 100,000 to 300,000 Ukrainians do not die in it."

Lukashenko's three-hour news conference was portrayed by his office as a "surprise" event, following a press tour of the Belarusian border with Ukraine organized for national and international journalists.

But amid all the tough talk, Lukashenko reiterated his reluctance to get involved in the war. "We don't want war," he said. "We are in no way going to send our troops to Ukraine unless you commit aggression on Belarus from there. Here's my answer. It was given a long time ago."

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