Belarusians join the war in pursuit of liberating Ukraine and themselves

WARSAW, Poland (AP) – One of them is a restaurateur who fled Belarus when he learned he was about to be arrested for criticizing President Alexander Lukashenko. Another benefactor either denounced fellow opposition activists or imprisoned. One asserts that his brother was killed by the country’s security forces.

Only they were determined to resist Lukashenko by fighting against Russian forces in Ukraine.

Belarusians are among those who answered the call of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for foreign fighters to go to Ukraine and join the international legion Ukraine’s territorial defense. The volunteers responded to this call, given the high stakes in a conflict that many people view as a civilized battle between dictatorship and freedom.

For Belarusians, who consider Ukrainians a sister nation, the stakes are especially great. Russian forces used Belarusian territory to invade Ukraine early in the war, and Lukashenko publicly sided with his longtime ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling him his “big brother.” Russia, for its part, has poured billions of dollars into Lukashenko’s Soviet-style economy, which was state-controlled with energy and cheap loans.

Belarusian volunteers believe that weakening Putin will also weaken Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, and create an opportunity to overthrow his repressive government. and bringing about democratic change in a country of about 10 million people.

For many Belarusians, their base is Poland, a country along NATO’s eastern side bordering Belarus and Ukraine, which became a haven for Belarusian pro-democracy opponents before becoming one of the war refugees from Ukraine.

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

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“We understand that it is a long journey to liberate Belarus and that the journey begins in Ukraine,” said Vadim Prokopyev, a 50-year-old businessman who ran restaurants in Minsk. He fled the country after a rumor spread that he would be arrested for publicly saying the government was not doing enough for small businesses.

When the Ukraine war finally ends, our war will just begin. “It is impossible to liberate the country of Belarus without expelling Putin’s fascist forces from Ukraine,” he said.

Prokopyev heads a unit called “Bahonia” that has been training conscripts in recent days. He was interviewed by The Associated Press as he supervised an exercise that involved firing pistols and other weapons at old cars in a simulated scenario of war. They were trained by a former Polish police officer who is now a special shooting instructor.

Prokopyev wants his men to gain decisive combat experience, and he hopes that one day a window of opportunity will open for democratic change in Belarus. But he says it will require fighters like himself to be prepared, and members of Belarus’ security forces to turn against Lukashenko.

Massive street protests against the 2020 election widely seen as fraudulent were met with brutal crackdowns, leading Prokopyev to believe that no “velvet revolution” could be expected there.

“Power can only be taken from Lukashenko by force,” he said.

On Saturday, a group of men with another unit, Kastus Kalinouski, gather in Warsaw at a Belarus home, where piles of sleeping bags, mats and other equipment bound for Ukraine have piled up. They sat together, talked and snacked on chocolate and coffee as they prepared to move to Ukraine later in the day. Most of them did not want to be interviewed because of their concerns for their safety and that of their families back home.

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

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

Dressed in all black from a sweatshirt to his boots, he admitted he was nervous as the moment came to head to Ukraine. He never received any military training, but he will have it as soon as he arrives in Ukraine. But to what extent, and where it will be published, is not yet known.

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

It’s a dangerous mission, and several volunteers from Castus Kalinowski’s unit have died.

The fighting in Ukraine is still less dangerous than trying to resist Lukashenko at home, with many activists languishing in prison in dire conditions.

Pavel Kokta, 24, who actually fought in Ukraine’s Donbass region in 2016, was a recruiter of Castus Kalinowsky, suffering from burns and losing most of his hearing in one ear. He described his unit as a regiment, which means it would have hundreds of members, but he didn’t say how many.

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Kokta said his half-brother, Nikita Kravtsov, was found hanging dead in a wooded area outside Minsk in 2020. Police said there was no evidence of tampering, but Kokta says he and the rest of the family are sure it was. They were killed for joining the anti-Lukashenko protests.

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

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

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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