By Tess Conciatori
(CNN) — The exiled leader of Belarus’ democratic opposition is warning the United States that abandoning Ukraine in its fight against Russia and its President Vladimir Putin would threaten the security of all of Eastern Europe.
“Belarusian people and Ukrainians are facing the same enemy – imperialistic ambitions of Russia. And we have to fight the sentiment together,” Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya told CNN’s Chief National Security Analyst Jim Sciutto.
“Without free and independent and safe Ukraine, there will be no safe Belarus. But also vice versa. Without free Belarus, there will be constant threat to all our neighbors in the whole region,” she added.
Tsikhanouskaya’s husband was imprisoned after announcing he would challenge Belarus’ longtime leader, Alexander Lukashenko, in the 2020 presidential election. She ultimately ran in his place in an election widely considered fraudulent.
Tsikhanouskaya fled with her children to Lithuania in the same year, after Lukashenko’s government, with aid from Russia, forcefully stamped down pro-democracy protests.
Tsikhanouskaya says she has few details about her husband’s safety in prison, sharing with CNN, “I haven’t heard about my husband since March this year. [The] lawyer is not allowed to visit him, letters are not delivered. So I am not sure if he is alive.”
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Lukashenko has deepened ties with Putin, and Belarus – a former Soviet nation – has become a key ally and strategic partner in the fight, with Russian forces using Belarus as a launchpad for invading Kyiv.
This week, Tsikhanouskaya traveled to Washington D.C. for meetings with lawmakers to advocate for increasing pressure on Lukashenko’s regime and countering Putin, including continuing to provide military and security support to Ukraine.
Her meetings with the State Department are the first of what both sides have described as a “comprehensive strategic dialogue” between US officials and the exiled democratic leaders of Belarus.
The United States can play a “crucial role” in Belarusian pro-democracy efforts, Tsikhanouskaya said, but she expressed fear that a new American president could undo diplomatic progress.
Responding to the presidential campaign of former President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly spoken warmly of dictators including Putin, she said she hoped he would be defeated in 2024.
“We need [to] help Ukrainians to win this fight against Russia until the next elections in the USA,” she said.
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