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 For the territorial defense of Ukraine, given the great stakes in the conflict, which many see as a 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 on NATO’s eastern side bordering Belarus and Ukraine, which became a haven for Belarusian pro-democracy dissidents before becoming a country of war refugees from Ukraine.
Some of the volunteer fighters are already in Poland, and some only pass briefly on their way to Ukraine.
“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 trains conscripts. He was interviewed by the Associated Press as he supervised an exercise involving firing pistols and other weapons at old cars in a simulation of war scenarios. 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.
Belarus’ 2020 presidential election was widely viewed as rigged, but massive street protests against Lukashenko in a sixth term were met with brutal government repression, leading Prokopyev to believe that a “velvet revolution” could not be expected in Belarus.
“Power can only be taken from Lukashenko by force,” he said.
On Saturday, men with another unit, Kastus Kalinouski, gathered in Warsaw at a Belarus home, where sleeping bags, mats and other equipment bound for Ukraine were piled aloft. 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.
The regiment, which was officially part of the Ukrainian armed forces, was named after the leader of the anti-Russian rebellion of the 19th century who is seen as a national hero in Belarus.
Lukashenko called them “crazy Belarusian citizens”, and authorities put 50 members of Castus Kalinowski on a wanted list and institute criminal cases against them.
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. 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 job. At least four volunteers from Castus Kalinowski’s unit have already died. The deputy commander, Aliaksig Skopelia, was killed in a Russian ambush near Kyiv and Zelensky was later recognized as the hero of Ukraine.
However, the fighting in Ukraine can at times feel less dangerous than trying to resist Lukashenko at home, with many activists in prison facing dire conditions.
The 24-year-old Pavel Kokta, who actually fought in the Ukrainian Donbass region in 2016, was a Kastus Kalinouski recruiter, suffering from burns and losing most of his hearing in one ear.
Kokta said his half-brother, Nikita Krivtsov, was found dead hanging in a wooded area outside Minsk in 2020. Police said there was no evidence of evil game, but Kokta says he and the rest of the family are sure Krivtsov was killed for his accession. Anti-Lukashenko protests.
But he insisted that his support for Ukraine was not about revenge, but about fighting for democratic change.
“If Putin is defeated, Lukashenko will be defeated,” he said.
Yuras Karamano in Lviv, Ukraine contributed to this report.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine