Warsaw, Poland (AP) — One is a restaurant owner who fled Belarus when he learned that he was about to be arrested for criticizing President Alexander Lukaschenko. The other was given the option of blaming fellow opposition activists or being imprisoned. And it is certain that his brother was killed by national security forces.
It was their determination to resist Lukaschenko by fighting the Russian army in Ukraine that united them.
Belarusians, a foreign fighter by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky went to Ukraine, International Army For the Ukrainian territorial defense force. And given the high stakes of conflict, which many consider to be the battle of civilization over a dictatorship against freedom, volunteers responded to that call.
I feel that stakes are particularly high for Belarusians who consider Ukrainians to be siblings. Russian troops used Belarusian territory to invade Ukraine early in the war, and Lukaschenko openly supported his longtime ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and described him as his “brother.” As part of that, Russia has invested billions of dollars to support Lukaschenko’s Soviet state-managed economy with cheap energy and lending.
Weakening Putin, believed by Belarusian volunteers, will weaken Lukaschenko, who has been in power since 1994, and create an opening for him to fall. His oppressive government And it will bring democratic change to almost 10 million people.
For many Belarusians, their base is Poland. Poland is a country along the eastern side of NATO, adjacent to Belarus and Ukraine, which became a refuge for opposition to Belarus in favor of democratization before becoming a refuge for war refugees from Ukraine.
Some fighters are already in Poland, while others are temporarily passing on their way to Ukraine.
“We understand that liberating Belarus is a long way to go and the journey begins in Ukraine,” said Vadim Prokopiev, a 50-year-old businessman who ran a restaurant in Minsk. He fled the country after rumors spread that he would be arrested for publicly saying that the government wasn’t doing enough for small businesses.
“When the Ukrainian War finally ends, our war just begins. It is impossible to free the country of Belarus without expelling Putin’s fascist army from Ukraine,” he said.
Prokopiev leads a unit called “Pahonia” who has recently trained recruits. The Associated Press interviewed him when he oversaw an exercise involving firing a pistol and other weapons into an old car in a simulation of a war scenario. They were currently trained by a former Polish police officer who is a civilian shooting instructor.
Prokopiev wants his men to have a critical combat experience and hopes that one day an opportunity for democratic change in Belarus will open up. But he says fighters like himself need to be prepared and Belarusian security forces members need to turn their backs on Lukaschenko.
Massive street protests against the 2020 elections, widely regarded as fraud, faced brutal crackdowns and led to Prokopiev’s belief that a “velvet revolution” could not be expected.
“The power from Lukaschenko can only be taken by power,” he said.
On Saturday, a group of men with another unit, Kastush Karinoski, gathered in Warsaw, a Belarusian house. There, piles of sleeping bags, mats, and other equipment destined for Ukraine were piled up high. They sat together and talked about chocolate and coffee and had a light meal while preparing to deploy in Ukraine later in the day. Most people did not want to be interviewed because of concerns about their safety and the safety of their hometown family.
Not officially under the Ukrainian International Army, this unit is named after the leader of the 19th-century anti-Russian rebellion, considered a national hero of Belarus.
It was 19-year-old Ares, who has lived in Poland since last year, who was happy to explain his motives. He fled Belarus after a national security force, still called the KGB, detained him and forced him to blame the anti-Lukaschenko resistance group for video recordings. He was told that if he did not obey, he would be imprisoned.
Wearing everything from hooded sweatshirts to boots in black, he admitted that he was nervous when the moment came to Ukraine. He had never received military training, but he got it when he arrived in Ukraine. But he still didn’t know how much and where it would be placed.
He said he would fight “to make Belarus independent” as well as to help Ukraine. He also said it is important for people to recognize that the people of Belarus are very different from the Lukaschenko government.
This is a dangerous mission and some volunteers from the Kastus Karinouski unit have died.
Still, fighting in Ukraine feels less dangerous than trying to resist Lukaschenko at home, where many activists are in prison in harsh conditions.
Kastus Kalinouski’s new hires were organized by 24-year-old Pavel Kufta, who had already fought in the Donbas region of Ukraine in 2016, suffering burns and losing most of his hearing in one ear. He described his unit as a regiment. That means there are hundreds of members, but we didn’t reveal the exact number.
Cucuta said his half-brother, Nikita Kribtsov, was found dead in 2020 hanging in a wooded area outside Minsk. He was killed because he participated in the anti-Lukaschenko protest.
But he argued that support for Ukraine in the war was not revenge, but only fighting for democratic change.
“If Putin is defeated, Lukaschenko will be defeated,” he said.
Follow AP’s war coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine