WARSAW, POLAND (AP) — A restaurant operator fled Belarus after hearing that he was about to be arrested for criticizing President Alexander Lukashenko. The other denounced his fellow opposition activist or chose to go to jail. And one is certain that his brother was killed by the national security forces.
What united them is their determination to fight the Russians in Ukraine and resist Lukashenko.
Belarusians are among those who responded to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s call for foreign fighters to go to Ukraine and join the international corps. For the defense of the territory of Ukraine. And given the high stakes of conflict that many see as a civilized battle against freedom, the volunteers responded to the call.
The danger feels especially high for Belarusians, who regard Ukrainians as their brotherhood. Russian forces used Belarusian territory to invade Ukraine at the beginning of the war, and Lukashenko publicly described him as his “brother” next to his longtime ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia has poured billions of dollars into Lukashenko’s Soviet-style, state-controlled economy with cheap energy and loans.
Belarusian volunteers believe that undermining Putin will weaken Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, and leave room for overthrowing his oppressive government. Bringing democratic change to a nation of nearly 10 million people.
For many Belarusians, their base is Poland, a country on the eastern flank of NATO bordering Belarus and Ukraine, and before becoming a home for war refugees in Ukraine, it became a haven for pro-democratic Belarusian dissidents.
Some of the fighters are already in Poland and some pass only briefly on the way to Ukraine.
Vadim Prokopiev, a 50-year-old businessman who ran a restaurant in Minsk, said, “I understand that liberating Belarus is a long journey and that it begins in Ukraine.” He left the country after rumors spread that he would be arrested on charges of publicly saying that the government is not doing enough for small businesses.
“Our war will only begin when the war in Ukraine is finally over. “It is impossible to liberate Belarus without expelling Putin’s fascist forces from Ukraine,” he said.
Prokopiev is leading a unit called “Pahonia” that is currently training as a recruit. The Associated Press interviewed him while overseeing training involving firing pistols and other weapons at old cars in a war scenario simulation. They were being trained by a former Polish police officer who now works as a private shooting instructor.
Prokopiev wants his men to gain important combat experience and hopes that one day soon a window of opportunity for democratic change will open in Belarus. But he said fighters like him must be prepared and the Belarusian security forces need to turn their backs on Lukashenko.
Massive street protests against the 2020 election, widely known as fraudulent, met with brutal repression, which led Prokofiev to believe that a “velvet revolution” could not be expected there.
“The power of Lukashenko can only be taken by force,” he said.
On Saturday, a group of men, along with another unit named Kastus Kalinouski, gathered in Warsaw, a Belarusian house, where piles of sleeping bags, mats and other Ukrainian-related equipment were piled high. They sat together, chatted, ate chocolate and coffee, ready to deploy to Ukraine in the afternoon. Most did not want to be interviewed because of concerns about the safety of themselves and their families back home.
The unit, not officially part of the Ukrainian International Corps, is named after the leader of the 19th-century anti-Russian uprising, considered a national hero in Belarus.
One person willing to explain his motives was 19-year-old Ales, who has been living in Poland since last year. He fled Belarus after a state security agency still called the KGB detained him and forced him to denounce an anti-Lukashenko resistance group in a video recording. If he doesn’t comply, he will go to jail, he said.
Dressed in all-black, from a hooded sweatshirt to boots, he confessed that he felt nervous when the moment came to head to Ukraine. He has never had military training, but he will receive it when he arrives in Ukraine. However, it is not yet known how and where he will be deployed.
He said he would fight not only to help Ukraine, but “to make Belarus independent.” He said it was also important for him that people realize that Belarusians are very different from the Lukashenko government.
It is a dangerous mission and several volunteers from Kastus Kalinouski’s unit have been killed.
But fighting in Ukraine can feel less dangerous than resisting Lukashenko at home. There, many activists are imprisoned in harsh conditions.
Pavel Kukhta, 24, who organized recruit Kastus Kalinouski, already fought in Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2016 and suffered burns and most of his hearing loss in one ear. He described his troops as regiments. That said, he would have hundreds of members, but he didn’t reveal the exact number.
Kukhta said his half-brother Nikita Krivtsov was found hanged dead in a wooded area outside Minsk in 2020. Police said there was no evidence of the foul, but Kukhta said he and other family members were convinced he committed the crime. He died on the grounds that he took part in protests against Lukashenko.
But he insisted that supporting Ukraine in war is not about revenge, but about the struggle for democratic change.
“If Putin loses, Lukashenko will lose,” he said.
Follow AP’s War Report at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine.