Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has said that Russia would never go to war with Belarus, but warned that if such a conflict were to erupt, "we would fight for every piece of land."
In an August 4 interview with RFE/RL in Minsk, Lukashenka also suggested that a political opposition leader whose imprisonment has prompted protests from the United States and the European Union might be released before a presidential election in October.
The interview, which included two other independent media outlets, was rare for the Belarusian strongman, who has ruled the former Soviet state for more than two decades.
His authoritarian policies have earned him the moniker "Europe's last dictator."
Belarus and other former Soviet states have been alarmed by Russia's annexation of Crimea last year and the Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine that continues to simmer.
Lukashenka, who at times has had prickly relations with the Kremlin, has positioned himself as a middleman between Moscow and the West, hosting several rounds of talks in Minsk in efforts to defuse the crisis.
Since last year, Russia has sharply increased air and naval patrols along its borders and in the Baltic Sea.
Asked whether Belarus could suffer the same fate as Ukraine has, Lukashenka said, "Russia will never fight with Belarus."
"Maybe, tomorrow someone would want to cut off a piece of Polesia," he said, referring to a vast forested area stretching across Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland. "Can you imagine what my reaction would be or that of our people? We would fight for every piece of land."
"If they come with the sword, they'll die by the sword," he added.
Still, Lukashenka downplayed speculation that Belarus might become a target of Russian expansionism.
"[The media] is full of consideration along the lines of 'Oh my God, now it's Ukraine and then it's [Belarus].' It's total garbage," he said. "There are no criteria, no parameters, and no directions by which Russia would even consider stripping us off our sovereignty or independence. Especially given the policy we are sticking to -- Belarus is the only honest, decent, and reliable ally Russia has got today."
In the wake of Crimea's annexation, Russian nationalists -- and Russian President Vladimir Putin himself -- have openly mused about the concept of the "Russky Mir," or "Russian World," to suggest that Moscow deserves to reclaim lands that once fell under imperial rule.
That was met with concern in many former Soviet republics, from Kazakhstan to Belarus. Lukashenka, however, scoffed at the idea, calling it an "artificial" and "foolish meme" that "failed to gain support among the Belarusian people, while it did make many of them wary."
"You will agree that it sounded rather odd and people were failing to understand it," he said. "It might have gone down more or less well here in Belarus, for we are always saying that we are a Russian people and we've never had an issue with that whatsoever; but how does it sound in Kazakhstan?"
"What Russian world are we talking about?" Lukashenka added. "Should we also be talking about a Ukrainian or a Belarusian world, too, then? Is it about some standoff among different worlds?"
During his 21 years in power, Lukashenka has ruthlessly cracked down on the political opposition, civil-society groups, and independent media.
During the 2010 presidential election, security forces detained scores of opposition figures, including independent candidate Mikalay Statkevich. He was later sentenced to six years in a penal colony.
Lukashenka indicated he was considering freeing Statkevich as early as October.
"I won't be cunning; this question is on the agenda," he said. "Only I can decide this.... If he will be released, he will be released before the [presidential] elections. If he won't be released, he won't be released. You will know about this in the near future."
He added that should Statkevich not be released from prison, "then let him stay behind bars and continue acting as a hero there."
Written by Mike Eckel in Washington based on an interview conducted by Valer Kalinouski in Minsk