WARSAW, Poland (AP) — One is a restaurateur who fled Belarus when he learned he was going to be arrested for criticizing President Alexander Lukashenko. Another was given the option of denouncing other opposition activists or being jailed. 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.
Belarusians are among those who responded to a call by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for foreign fighters to go to Ukraine and join the International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine. And volunteers have answered that call, given how much is at stake in a conflict many see as a battle of civilizations pitting dictatorship against freedom.
For Belarusians, who consider the Ukrainians a sister nation, the stakes are high. Russian troops used Belarusian territory to invade Ukraine early in the war, and Lukashenko has publicly supported 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 Soviet-style state-controlled economy with cheap energy and loans.
Weakening Putin, the Belarusian volunteers believe, would also weaken Lukashenko, who has held power since 1994, and create an opportunity 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 on NATO’s eastern flank bordering Belarus and Ukraine that became a haven for pro-democracy Belarusian dissidents before becoming one for refugees. Ukraine war.
Some of the fighters are already in Poland, and some are only passing through briefly 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 war in Ukraine 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,” he said.
Prokopiev heads a unit called “Pahonia” that has been training recruits in recent days. The Associated Press interviewed him as he supervised 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 deemed fraudulent were brutally suppressed, leading Prokopiev to believe a “velvet revolution” cannot 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, met in Warsaw at the Belarus House, where piles of sleeping bags, mats and other equipment bound for Ukraine were piled up. They sat together, talked and ate chocolate and coffee as they prepared to travel to Ukraine later that 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 an anti-Russian insurrection in the 19th century, who is considered a national hero in Belarus.
Someone willing to describe his motivations was Ales, 19, 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 entirely in black, from a hoodie to boots, he admitted to feeling nervous when it was time to head to Ukraine. He had never received any military training, but he would receive it once he arrived in the Ukraine. But he still didn’t know how much and where he would be deployed.
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.
It is a dangerous mission and several of the volunteers from the Kastus Kalinouski unit have died.
Still, fighting in Ukraine may seem less dangerous than trying to resist Lukashenko at home, where many activists are imprisoned in harsh conditions.
The organization of the Kastus Kalinouski recruits was led by 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 their exact number.
Kukhta said his half-brother, Nikita Krivtsov, was found hanging dead in a wooded area on the outskirts of Minsk in 2020. Police said there was no evidence of foul play, but Kukhta says he and the rest of the family are safe. that he was murdered 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,” he said.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine