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Belarusian fighters in Ukraine set sights on a long march

Belarusian Fighters (Сергей Васильевич Дейнеко/WikiCommons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine last February, Belarusian volunteer Dzyanis Prokharau and his comrades found themselves in a half-destroyed building near Bucha, a Kyiv region town now known for atrocities that survivors say Moscow’s forces committed there, surrounded by advancing Russian troops and waiting for Ukrainian soldiers to evacuate them.

The rescue mission never came, leaving the handful of soldiers with the prospect of fighting until the end. With some dead and others badly wounded, they managed to withstand an hours-long clash and incoming fire before darkness fell, enabling them to withdraw.

Almost a year later — now as commander of the Kastus Kalinouski Regiment, the biggest unit of Belarusian volunteer fighters in Ukraine — Prokharau, who is 27 and goes by the call sign Kit, which is Belarusian for whale, is training fresh recruits.

“Without the skills I am trying to pass on to them, I wouldn’t be standing here,” he told RFE/RL during the drills in early February. The fierce battles in the Kyiv region made him realize, he said, that the path to victory over Russia will be a long one.

‘One For Putin, One For Lukashenka’

Most of the fewer than 20 men marching through the snowy fields and hills to the training ground, located an hour’s drive south of Kyiv, were glad to have finally gotten there.

Some had arrived in Ukraine just a few days earlier, others a couple weeks, but they all came a long way. Before leaving their native Belarus or the countries of their residence, they went through online screening by the Belarusian anti-government hacker group Cyber Partisans and then passed face-to-face verification at the Belarusian House in Warsaw, a diaspora support group.

According to Prokharau, many people want to join his unit: too many to take in but not enough of those with solid military experience. At the same time, the threat of infiltration by agents of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime is real, he said, and thus the recruitment process is time-consuming.

The newcomers — athletic young men with tattoos all over their bodies, bearded white-collar workers, and middle-aged men with rough hands chapped by labor — represent different generations, professions, and backgrounds. What unites them is the hope that by helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia they may speed up the downfall of Lukashenka.

“One is for Putin, and the other is for Lukashenka,” Ruslan, a burly man carrying two machine guns, said during a break from shooting practice — a succinct expression of the regiment’s ideology.

Ruslan, who preferred not to reveal his surname due to security concerns, is a member of BYPOL, a group of former law enforcement officers who now oppose the Belarusian state. He asserted that “80 percent of Belarusians hate Lukashenka” and that “most of them back Ukraine in the ongoing war.”

So, how does the regime hold onto power? “Only because of this,” he said, pointing again to one of the guns.

Against The Autocrat Back Home

Belarus is the closest thing Putin’s Russia has to an ally, and their ties have tightened further since Lukashenka — in power since 1994 — claimed victory in a 2020 election widely seen as rigged and then cracked down violently against massive peaceful protests over the vote.

Minsk has not sent its troops to fight alongside Moscow’s forces in Ukraine, but Lukashenka allowed Russia to use the country — which borders Ukraine on the north — as a staging area for the invasion. It has also granted Russia full access to its air bases, carried out joint drills, and treated wounded Russian soldiers on its territory.

In consequence, many Ukrainians perceive Belarusians as passive if not complicit in Russia’s war. Members of the regiment — created in the wake of the Russian invasion and named after Kastus Kalinouski, one of the leaders of an 1863 uprising against the Russian Empire — try to prove this perception wrong.

One of them, a young man who goes by the call sign Kos and who lived in Kyiv when Russian tanks started rolling toward the Ukrainian capital on February 24, 2022, told RFE/RL that he was detained by law enforcement and taken in for interrogation because of his Belarusian passport as he was on his way to join territorial defense.

Recognized as pro-Ukrainian, he was driven by the police to the draft office where he soon received a machine gun. “I don’t want to be ashamed to be Belarusian,” he said, recalling the episode.

After the first rockets fell before dawn that day, Prokharau, who lives in Kyiv, went into a phone-calling frenzy, trying to find out which of his acquaintances with ties to the military could quickly grant him access to weapons. The answer came from Azov movement veterans who formed a volunteer territorial-defense detachment in Kyiv in the first hours of the onslaught.

Proharau belongs to a group of Belarusians who fought — initially alongside the Azov Battalion — in the war that erupted in the Donbas in 2014, after Moscow seized Crimea and fomented separatism across much of Ukraine. For most of the year since the invasion, this group has formed the backbone of the Kastus Kalinouski Regiment and attracted other Belarusians willing to take up arms against Russia.

Operating under the auspices of Ukrainian military intelligence, the regiment is an official part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The exact number of its members is not publicly known — according to Prokharau, it’s more than 300 people. And as the war continues, new recruits keep coming.

In the first several weeks of the invasion, members of the regiment fought in battles in the Kyiv region, including in the liberation of the hard-hit city of Irpin; later they took part in the unsuccessful defense of the Donbas cities of Syevyerodonetsk and Lysychansk, both of which are now held by Russian forces, as well as other battles.

RFE/RL’s Belarus Service has determined that at least 18 Belarusians fighting alongside Ukraine have died in the war since the start of the full-scale invasion, including two deputy commanders of the Kastus Kalinouski Regiment.

The regiment, which is increasingly seen as a potential political force by the Belarusian opposition, has a significant online presence — its media team’s Kyiv office resembles a professional production studio — and, as Ruslan said after the drills, “is known to everybody in Belarus except those who shut their ears and eyes.”

‘The Right Path’

But while the prospect of joining the struggle is tempting to many, the reality of war can be grim, painful, and frightening — and deadly, or course.

The Belarusian volunteer fighters who were transferred from the blood-bathed Donetsk region city of Bakhmut to the southern front in late January and early February and recently spoke to RFE/RL in the city of Zaporizhzhia experienced it first-hand.

The soldiers had recently completed two “combat tasks,” and several of their comrades were wounded each time.

“The notion that all freshly mobilized Russian troops are completely useless is wrong,” Fima, 57, a former electrician, labor union member, and local lawmaker who is now a mortarman, said of the fighting, which came after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a major mobilization campaign last fall. “In fact, they are better prepared than I am.”

Bacha, 58, a former crane operator, opposition activist, and veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan whose job now is to load anti-tank missiles, said the Belarusian soldiers remain highly motivated but there are not enough well-trained officers in the unit.

“This is like Afghanistan, but now I am a bearded partisan facing the Russian Army razing everything to the ground,” he said.

Fima, Bacha, and Zoltan, a 32-year-old ex-cook who is now a mortarman, all took part in the protests over Lukashenka’s claim of a sixth term in the August 2020 election in Belarus.

For many in the Kastus Kalinouski Regiment, the brutal crackdown on the protests was the final straw — proof that attempts at a nonviolent revolution against the Lukashenka regime are futile.

Moreover, the level of repression during and after the protests — with more than 25,000 people detained and hundreds subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, according to Human Rights Watch report from 2021 — meant that staying in Belarus was a dangerous prospect for opponents of Lukashenka.

Before coming to Ukraine, Fima was detained for participation in Freedom Day, the anniversary of the declaration of an independent Belarus in 1918, and the Belarusian KGB searched his apartment, officially as part of an investigation into the alleged planting of explosives in Babruysk, where he lived.

Bacha said he was interrogated, his home searched, and his phone bugged by the KGB as he was a witness in the Autukhovich case, a prosecution and trial widely seen as politically motivated. In October, businessman and activist Mikalay Autukhovich was sentenced to 25 years in prison on charges of treason and terrorism and the other 11 defendants who stood trial sentenced to a total of nearly 170 years in prison.

Both Fima and Bacha said that for them, there is no way back home. This is true for other Belarusian regiment members, too, as they are considered mercenaries and members of an “extremist organization” in Belarus and face criminal liability there.

They can reside in Ukraine as long as they are registered as soldiers, but this does not extend to any of their relatives — so, for many, joining the regiment means severing or limiting ties with their families.

Bacha said his “marriage is on the verge of collapse,” Fima’s family thinks he is a guest worker in Poland, and Zoltan’s parents believe he is “chopping vegetables in Estonia.”

Despite varying political views and loyalties, members of the Kastus Kalinouski Regiment share the conviction that to liberate Belarus they first need to help in liberating Ukraine. Many say they would like to fight the regime with the weapon in their hands.

With no end to the war in sight and a renewed invasion from Belarusian territory remaining a possibility, their goal does not seem within easy reach. “But at least we feel we are on the right path,” Bacha said.