Belarus faces a "hybrid war," President Alexander Lukashenko said on Tuesday, just days before as he is set to face his most difficult election since taking power in 1994.
In the lengthy, but seemingly emotional, address to the nation, the strongman leader both praised the alliance with Russia and accused Moscow of lying about the 33 alleged Russian mercenaries detained near Minsk last week.
"Russia is afraid of losing us, because except for us it has no really close allies left," said the politician.
Previously, Belarus said the detained Russian nationals were members of Wagner, a private military company controlled by officials close to the Kremlin. Minsk claims they were deployed to Belarus to destabilize the country ahead of the election. Belarus authorities have since launched a terrorism investigation against the group.
In turn, the Kremlin said the men were in Minsk to catch a plane to Istanbul and had nothing to do with the situation in Belarus.
Some reports speculated the group was heading to Sudan, while a Russian official mentioned Venezuela as their ultimate destination. Others speculated the arrest was done as a stunt to gain sympathy from the West, or as part of an elaborate scheme between Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin.
'All of it lies'
On Tuesday, Lukashenko said the men told the Belarus authorities "everything."
"And all these lies about Istanbul, about Venezuela, Africa and Libya! All of it is lies," Lukashenko said. "These people — they gave statements — they were deployed specifically to Belarus. The order was to wait," he added. "The tickets for Istanbul are a legend."
"So stop lying," Lukashenko said.
While ties between the two countries run deep, the rift has been widening for years over oil prices, trade disputes, political integration between Russia and Belarus, as well as Russian military presence in the smaller nation.
With the election approaching, Lukashenko has hinted his rivals were bankrolled by Russian oligarchs.
Brotherhood or partnership?
On Tuesday, the 65-year-old president said that "Russia has always been and always will be our closest ally, regardless of who is in power in Russia or Belarus."
"This is deep inside our peoples, regardless of Russia switching from a brotherly relationship to a partnership — suddenly," Lukashenko added.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Lukashenko's speech was right about the "brotherly ties" being above day-to-day interests in Moscow and Minsk.
"When it comes to the Russian citizens detained in Belarus, whose guilt is no way proven, and the spectacle created around them, we will not let anything happen to them, and Minsk knows that very well," she wrote on social media.
dj/stb (Interfax, Reuters, AP, AFP)