Belarusians join the war seeking to liberate Ukraine and themselves

Volunteers from Belarus practice at a firing range near Warsaw, Poland, on Friday, May 20, 2022. Belarusians are among those who responded to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s call for foreign fighters to go to Ukraine and join the International Legion for the Territory. Defense of Ukraine. (AP Photo/Michal Dyjuk) (Michal Dyjuk/)

One of them is a restaurateur who fled Belarus when he learned that he was about to be arrested for criticizing President Alexander Lukashenko. They extorted another and demanded that he denounce other opponents or be imprisoned. And one is sure that his brother was killed by the country’s security forces… What brought them together is their determination to resist Lukashenko by fighting Russian forces in Ukraine.

These Belarusians are among those who have responded to a call by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for foreign fighters to go to Ukraine. and join the International Legion for Territorial Defense of Ukraine. And volunteers have answered that call, given how much is at stake in a conflict many see as a civilizational battle pitting dictatorship against freedom.

Belarusians join the Ukrainian war
Belarusian regimental leader Vadim Prokopiev, left, Polish instructor Dariusz Tomysek, center, and a volunteer from Belarus speak during a training session at a firing range near Warsaw, Poland, on Friday, May 2022. (AP Photo/Michal Dyjuk) (Michal Dyjuk/)

For Belarusians, who consider the Ukrainians a nation of brothers, the stakes are especially high.. Russian troops used Belarusian territory to invade Ukraine early in the war, and Lukashenko has publicly supported his longtime ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, describing him as his “big brother.” Russia, for its part, has injected billions of dollars to prop up Lukashenko’s state-controlled, Soviet-style economy with cheap energy and loans.

Weakening Putin, Belarusian volunteers believe, would also weaken Lukashenko, who has held power since 1994, and create an opening to topple his oppressive government and bring democratic change to the nation of nearly 10 million people.

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

Belarusians join the Ukrainian war
Weapons of volunteers from Belarus are placed on the ground as they take a break at a shooting range near Warsaw, Poland. They believe that if Russia falls, so will the Lukashenko government. (AP Photo/Michal Dyjuk) (Michal Dyjuk/)

Some of the fighters are already in Poland, and some only pass briefly in transit on their way to Ukraine.

“We understand that it is a long journey to liberate Belarus and the journey begins 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 saying publicly that the government was not doing enough for small businesses.

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

Belarusians join the Ukrainian war
Former US Army member Matthew Parker holds a smoke grenade during a training session for Belarusian volunteers at a firing range near Warsaw, Poland. (AP Photo/Michal Dyjuk) (Michal Dyjuk/)

Prokopiev heads a unit called “Pahonia” that has been training recruits in recent days. The Associated Press interviewed him while he was supervising an exercise that involved firing pistols and other weapons at old cars in simulated war scenarios. They were being trained by a former Polish police officer who is now a private shooting instructor.

Prokopiev wants his men to gain critical battle experience, and hopes that one day soon a window of opportunity will open for democratic change in Belarus. But he says it will require fighters like him to be prepared, and for members of the security forces in Belarus to turn against Lukashenko.

Mass street protests against a 2020 election widely seen as rigged were met with a brutal crackdown, leading Prokopiev to believe a “velvet revolution” cannot be expected there.

Belarusians join the Ukrainian war
Volunteers from Belarus train at a shooting range near Warsaw, Poland. The fighters from Belarus are brushing up their military skills in Poland before deploying to Ukraine, where they plan to join a legion of foreign fighters defending Ukraine from Russian attacks. (AP Photo/Michal Dyjuk) (Michal Dyjuk/)

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

On Saturday, a group of men with another unit, Kastus Kalinouski, met in Warsaw at the Belarus House, where heaps of sleeping bags, mats and other equipment bound for Ukraine were piled up. They sat together, talking and eating 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 family back home.

The unit, which is not formally under the Ukrainian International Legion, was named after the leader of a 19th-century anti-Russian insurrection who is seen as a national hero in Belarus.

Belarusians join the Ukrainian war
“When the Ukraine war is finally over, our war will only begin. It is impossible to liberate the country from Belarus without expelling Putin’s fascist troops from Ukraine.” (AP Photo/Michal Dyjuk)

One willing to describe his motivations was a 19-year-old, Ales, who has lived in Poland since last year. He fled Belarus after the country’s security service, still called the KGB, detained him and forced him to denounce an anti-Lukashenko resistance group in a video recording. They told him that he would be jailed if he did not comply.

Dressed in all black, from a hoodie to his boots, he admitted to feeling nervous when it was time to head to Ukraine. He had never received any military training, but he would get it once he arrived in the Ukraine. But how much, and where he would be deployed, he did not yet know.

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

Belarusians join the Ukrainian war
Pictures of the training of Belarusian volunteers. (AP photo/Michal Dyjuk) (Michal Dyjuk/)

Is a dangerous missionand several of the volunteers from the Kastus Kalinouski unit have died.

Still, the fighting in Ukraine may seem less dangerous than trying to resist Lukashenko at home, where many activists are imprisoned in harsh conditions.

Organizing the Kastus Kalinouski recruits was Pavel Kukhta, a 24-year-old who already fought in the Ukrainian region of Donbas in 2016, suffering burns and losing most of his hearing in one ear. He described his unit as a regiment, meaning it would have hundreds of members, but did not give his exact number.

Belarusians join the Ukrainian war
(AP photo/Michal Dyjuk) (Michal Dyjuk/)

Kukhta said his half-brother, Nikita Krivtsov, was found dead by hanging in a wooded area outside Minsk in 2020. Police have said there was no evidence of foul play, but Kukhta says he and the rest of the family they are sure that he was killed for joining the protests against Lukashenko.

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”said.

(with information from AP)


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