Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka says his country will never be part of Russia, despite what he portrayed as the imperialist designs of politicians in the former Soviet republic's giant eastern neighbor.
In remarks from an interview with Bloomberg News that were published by state-controlled news agency BelTA on April 2, Lukashenka said Belarus will fight "to the last man" against any invader.
"Many people in politics in Russia still think imperialistically and see Belarus as nothing but a northwestern province [of Russia]," he said in the March 31 interview.
He said Belarus "will fight against Europeans, Americans, Russians, or whoever comes with the goal of conquering" the country, which lies between Russia and NATO members in Europe.
Russia's takeover of Crimea and support for armed rebels in eastern Ukraine has raised concerns about President Vladimir Putin's intentions in several parts of the former Soviet Union.
Lukashenka also dismissed Western officials who have called him Europe's last dictator.
"I'm not Europe's last dictator anymore. There are dictators a bit worse than me, no? I'm the lesser evil already," he said in a possible reference to Putin, whose reputation in the European Union and the United States has been badly damaged by Russia's interference in Ukraine over the past year.
In power since 1994, Lukashenka has frequently presented himself as a defiant figure facing down pressure from both Russia and the West, where his authoritarian rule has made him a pariah.
The publication of his remarks in the interview coincided with the official Day of Unity of Belarusian and Russian Peoples, which commemorates the creation of a union state linking the two countries on April 2, 1996.
In a congratulatory statement to the people of both countries, Lukashenka said the union state presented "large-scale economic potential for cooperation."
"I am confident that our trust-based and constructive dialogue on the rich range of issues on the union-state agenda will be a driver of progress," he said.
The Kremlin said Putin sent Lukashenka a telegram congratulating him with the Day of Unity.
Russia and Belarus have tight military ties and are members of several post-Soviet groupings, including the bilateral union state, which on paper makes them close partners.
But Lukashenka has been wary of ceding too much control over Belarus to Russia.
He and Kazakhstan's long-ruling president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, have made it clear that the Eurasian Economic Union -- a group formed in January on the basis of an existing customs union linking their countries with Russia -- must not be an instrument for Russian political influence on their countries.
With reporting by Bloomberg, BelTA, Interfax, and TASS