Belarus leader says Ukraine must be united state

Thu May 22, 2014 6:36am EDT

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* Lukashenko criticises separatist votes in Ukraine

* Says would fight any invader, even Putin

* Belarus is close Russian ally

By Jason Bush

MOSCOW, May 22 (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko has criticised separatist referendums in Ukraine and warned Russia not to take any more ex-Soviet territory after annexing Crimea, Russian media reported.

"Ukraine must be a united, whole state. Both the east and the west are Ukraine," Lukashenko was quoted as saying in an interview late on Wednesday with Internet channel Dozhd.

Lukashenko said he would fight any invader including Russian President Vladimir Putin. "No matter who comes to Belarussian land, I will fight. Even if it is Putin," he said.

Under Lukashenko's authoritarian rule since 1994, Belarus is Russia's closest ally, relying on Moscow for cheap energy and serving as a buffer zone between Russia and NATO nations. But the president often tells Belarussians he will bend to neither Russia nor the West.

The May 11 referendums organised by pro-Moscow separatists in two eastern Ukrainian regions "have no meaning at all from the legal point of view," Lukashenko was quoted as saying.

Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March after a referendum considered a sham by Kiev and the West.

Putin secured consent from parliament in March to send the military into Ukraine to protect Russian-speakers, and NATO says Russia has amassed 40,000 troops near the border with Ukraine. Moscow says some are now being withdrawn.

Lukashenko's comments may add to pressure on Putin to distance Russia from the separatist militants who are threatening to disrupt Ukraine's presidential election on Sunday.

The United States and European Union, which accuse Moscow of supporting the separatists, are threatening to impose further sanctions on Russia if it disrupts the vote.

While he relies on Russia economically, Lukashenko holds some sway over Moscow because he is a crucial partner in Putin's efforts to build a Eurasian Economic Union linking former Soviet republics. (Editing by Steve Gutterman and Janet Lawrence)

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