‘A long journey’: Volunteers from Belarus fight for Ukraine

May 21, 2022, 12:53 PM | Updated: May 22, 2022, 11:57 am
Belarus regiment leader, Vadim Prokopiev, practices at a shooting range near Warsaw, Poland, Friday...

Belarus regiment leader, Vadim Prokopiev, practices at a shooting range near Warsaw, Poland, Friday, May 20, 2022. Belarusians are among the foreign fighters who have volunteered to take up arms in Ukraine against Russian forces. They consider the Ukrainians defending their homeland to be their brethren. And by joining their resistance to Russia's onslaught, they hope to weaken the rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and ultimately that of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. (AP Photo/Michal Dyjuk)

(AP Photo/Michal Dyjuk)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — One is a restaurateur who fled Belarus when he learned he was about to be arrested for criticizing President Alexander Lukashenko. Another was given the choice of either denouncing fellow opposition activists or being jailed. And one is certain his brother was killed by the country’s security forces.

What united them is their determination to resist Lukashenko by fighting against Russian forces in Ukraine.

Belarusians are among those who have answered 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, given the high stakes in a conflict which many see as a battle pitting dictatorship against freedom.

For the Belarusians, who consider Ukrainians a brethren nation, the stakes feel especially high.

Russian troops used Belarusian territory to invade Ukraine early in the war, and Lukashenko has publicly stood by longtime ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, describing him as his “big brother.” Russia, for its part, has pumped billions of dollars into shoring 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 opening to topple his oppressive government and bring democratic change to the nation of nearly 10 million.

For many of the Belarusians, their base is Poland, a country on NATO’s eastern flank that borders Belarus and Ukraine and which has become a haven for pro-democracy Belarusian dissidents before becoming one for war refugees from Ukraine.

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

“We understand that it’s a long journey to free Belarus and the journey starts in Ukraine,” said Vadim Prokopiev, a 50-year-old businessman who used to run restaurants in Minsk. He fled the country after a rumor spread that he would be arrested for saying publicly that the government wasn’t doing enough for small businesses.

“When the Ukraine war will be eventually over, our war will just start. It is impossible to free the country of Belarus without driving Putin’s fascist troops out of Ukraine,” he said.

Prokopiev heads a unit called “Pahonia” that has been training recruits. The Associated Press interviewed him as he oversaw an exercise involving firing pistols and other weapons into old cars in simulations of war scenarios. They were being trained by a Polish ex-police officer who is now a private shooting instructor.

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

The 2020 presidential election in Belarus was widely seen as fraudulent, but massive street protests against Lukashenko being awarded a sixth term were met with a brutal government crackdown, leading to Prokopiev’s belief that no “velvet revolution” can be expected in Belarus.

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

On Saturday, men with another unit, Kastus Kalinouski, gathered in Warsaw in the Belarus House, where sleeping bags, mats and other Ukraine-bound equipment were piled high. They sat together, talking and snacking on chocolate and coffee as they prepared to deploy to Ukraine later in the day. Most didn’t want to be interviewed out of concerns for their security and that of family back home.

The regiment, formally part of Ukraine’s armed forces, was named after the leader of an anti-Russian insurrection in the 19th century who is viewed as a national hero in Belarus.

Lukashenko has called them “crazy Belarusian citizens,” and authorities have put 50 members of Kastus Kalinouski on a wanted list and initiated criminal cases against them.

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, which is still called the KGB, detained him and forced him to denounce an anti-Lukashenko resistance group in a video. He was told he would be jailed if he didn’t comply.

Dressed all in black from a hooded sweatshirt to his boots, he admitted to feeling nervous as the moment arrived to head into Ukraine. He had never received any military training, but would get it once he arrived in Ukraine. But just how much, and where he would be deployed, he didn’t yet know.

He said he was going to fight not only to help Ukraine “but to make Belarus independent.” He said 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. At least four volunteers from the Kastus Kalinouski unit have already died. A deputy commander, Aliaksiej Skoblia, was killed in a Russian ambush near Kyiv and was later recognized by Zelenskyy as a Hero of Ukraine.

Still, the fighting in Ukraine can feel less dangerous at times than seeking to resist Lukashenko at home, where many activists are in prison facing harsh conditions.

Organizing the Kastus Kalinouski recruits was Pavel Kukhta, a 24-year-old who already fought in Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2016, suffering burns and the loss of most of hearing in one ear.

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

But he insisted that his support for Ukraine is not about revenge, only about fighting for democratic change.

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

___

Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.

___

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

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Photo by John Moore...
Associated Press

Nevada man sentenced for assault on Vegas-Seattle flight

A 41-year-old Nevada man has been ordered to serve six months home confinement and pay more than $49,000 in restitution after pleading guilty to assault and interference with crew members during a 2019 flight from Seattle to Las Vegas.
17 hours ago
FILE - Joe Kennedy, a former assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Wash.,...
Associated Press

Supreme Court backs coach in praying on field after games

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court said Monday that a high school football coach who knelt and prayed on the field after games was protected by the Constitution, a decision that opponents said would open the door to “much more coercive prayer” in public schools. The court ruled 6-3 for the coach with the conservative […]
17 hours ago
Associated Press

US officials return to Venezuela amid gas price hike

CLEVELAND, Ohio (AP) — Senior Biden administration officials have quietly traveled to Caracas in the latest bid to bring home detained Americans and rebuild relations with the South American oil giant as as the war in Ukraine drags on, driving higher gas prices and forcing the U.S. to recalibrate other foreign policy objectives. A State […]
17 hours ago
Associated Press

Court finds France negligent in Caribbean pesticide case

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A court in Paris found the French government guilty of wrongful negligence involving the former use of a banned pesticide in the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique but denied compensation to those affected, officials announced Monday. The long-awaited decision was bittersweet for activists and attorneys who accused […]
17 hours ago
Associated Press

Infant burials in Mexico: Aztec customs lasted post-Conquest

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Four children in Mexico were buried in the years after the Spanish Conquest with rituals and grave offerings that suggest that pre-Hispanic customs lived on for some time after the Aztec empire fell. The National Institute of Anthropology and History said Monday the burials of children ranging from a newborn, to […]
17 hours ago
Associated Press

Moscow police detain opposition politician

UNDATED (AP) — Moscow police on Monday reportedly detained one of the few politicians openly opposing the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine who remains in Russia. A journalist friend said Ilya Yashin, a municipal deputy, was taken into custody while they walked in a Moscow park. The journalist, Irina Babloyan, told the Tass news agency he […]
17 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.
...

Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!
...

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]
...

Compassion International Is Determined to ‘Fill’ a Unique Type of Football ‘Stadium’

Compassion International SPONSORED — During this fall’s football season—and as the pandemic continues to impact the entire globe—one organization has been urging caring individuals to help it “fill” a unique type of “stadium” in order to make a lasting difference in the lives of many. Compassion International’s distinctive Fill the Stadium (FtS, fillthestadium.com) initiative provides […]
...

What are the Strongest, Greenest, Best Windows?

Lake Washington Windows & Doors SPONSORED — Fiberglass windows are an excellent choice for window replacement due to their fundamental strength and durability. There is no other type of window that lasts as long as fiberglass; so why go with anything else? Fiberglass windows are 8x stronger than vinyl, lower maintenance than wood, more thermally […]
...

COVID Vaccine is a Game-Changer for Keeping our Kids Healthy

Snohomish Health District SPONSORED — Cheers to the parents and guardians who keep their kids safe and healthy. The dad who cooks a meal with something green in it, even though he’s tired and drive-thru burgers were tempting. The mom who calms down the little one who loudly and resolutely does NOT want to brush […]
‘A long journey’: Volunteers from Belarus fight for Ukraine