Belarusians join the war to liberate Ukraine and themselves

One of them is a restaurateur who fled Belarus after learning he was about to be arrested for criticizing President Alexander Lukashenko. Another had the choice of either denouncing other opposition figures or being imprisoned. And it is certain that his brother was killed by the country’s security forces.

What united them was their determination to resist Lukashenko by fighting Russian forces in Ukraine.

Belarusians are among those who have responded to a call from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to send foreign fighters to Ukraine and to join the International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine. And volunteers have answered that call, given the high stakes in what many see as a civilizational struggle between dictatorship and freedom.

The stakes feel particularly high for Belarusians, who view Ukrainians as a brotherly nation. Russian troops used Belarusian territory to invade Ukraine early in the war, and Lukashenko has publicly stood by his longtime ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling him his “big brother”. For its part, Russia has pumped billions of dollars into supporting Lukashenko’s Soviet, state-controlled economy with cheap energy and credit.

Weakening Putin, the Belarusian volunteers believe, would also weaken Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, and create an opportunity to overthrow his repressive government and bring democratic change to the nation of nearly 10 million people.

For many Belarusians, their base is Poland, a country on NATO’s eastern flank, bordering Belarus and Ukraine, which became a haven for pro-democracy Belarusian dissidents before becoming a haven for war refugees from Ukraine.

Some of the fighters are already in Poland, others are just passing through on their way to Ukraine.

“We understand that liberating Belarus is a long road, and the road starts in Ukraine,” said Vadim Prokopiev, a 50-year-old businessman who used to run restaurants in Minsk. He fled the country after rumors spread that he would be arrested for publicly saying the government was not doing enough for small businesses.

“When the war in Ukraine will eventually be over, our war will only begin. It is impossible to liberate the country of Belarus without expelling Putin’s fascist troops from Ukraine,” he said.

Prokopiev heads a unit called “Pahonia” that has been training recruits for the past few days. The Associated Press interviewed him while he was overseeing a drill involving firing pistols and other weapons at old cars in simulations of wartime scenarios. They were trained by a Polish ex-cop who is now a private shooting instructor.

Prokopiev wants his men to gain crucial combat experience, and he hopes that an opportunity for democratic change in Belarus will one day soon open up. But he says fighters like him must be prepared and members of the security forces in Belarus must face Lukashenko.

Massive street protests against a 2020 election widely seen as voter fraud were brutally crushed, leading Prokopiev to believe that no “velvet revolution” could be expected there.

“Lukashenko’s power can only be taken by force,” he said.

On Saturday, a group of men with another unit, Kastus Kalinouski, gathered in Warsaw at the Belarus House, where piles of sleeping bags, mats and other gear destined for Ukraine were piled up. They sat together, chatted and ate chocolate and coffee as they prepared to deploy to Ukraine later in the day. Most did not want to be interviewed out of concern for their safety and that of their families at home.

The unit, which does not formally report to the International Legion of Ukraine, was named after the leader of a 19th-century anti-Russian uprising, considered a national hero in Belarus.

One who was willing to describe his motivations was 19-year-old Ales, who has been living in Poland since last year. He fled Belarus after the country’s security service, still known as the KGB, arrested him and forced him to videotape him denouncing an anti-Lukashenko resistance group. He was told that if he did not comply, he would be imprisoned.

Dressed in all black from a hooded sweatshirt to his boots, he admitted he was nervous when the moment came to head to Ukraine. He had never received military training but would receive it upon arrival in Ukraine. But how much and where he would be used, he does not yet know.

He said he will fight not just to help Ukraine, “but to make Belarus independent.” He said it is also important to him that people realize that the Belarusian people are very different from the Lukashenko government.

It’s a dangerous mission, and several volunteers from the Kastus Kalinouski unit have died.

Still, fighting in Ukraine can feel less dangerous than trying to resist Lukashenko at home, where many activists are in prison in harsh conditions.

The organizer of the Kastus Kalinouski recruits was Pavel Kukhta, a 24-year-old who fought in Ukraine’s Donbass region back in 2016 and suffered burns and the loss of most of his hearing in one ear. He described his unit as a regiment, meaning it would have hundreds of members, but he would not give his exact number.

Kukhta said his half-brother Nikita Krivtsov was found dead in a forested area outside of Minsk in 2020. Police said there was no evidence of foul play, but Kukhta says he and the rest of the family are certain he was killed for joining the anti-Lukashenko protests.

But he insisted that his support for Ukraine in the war is not about revenge, just about fighting for democratic change.

“If Putin is defeated, Lukashenko will be defeated,” he said.


Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at Belarusians join the war to liberate Ukraine and themselves

Bobby Allyn

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