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Belarus volunteers defy their pro-Russia regime to fight for freedom alongside Ukrainian troops

The i 30/03/2022 Cahal Milmo

Belarus and its autocratic pro-Kremlin ruler have played a key supporting role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the only Belarusians currently engaged in combat are fighting on Kyiv’s side.

Hundreds of dissident Belarusians are estimated to have joined four separate units on Ukraine’s front lines in locations including the capital’s northern suburbs and the key port of Odesa after feeling compelled to take up arms as a riposte to their native country’s role as a staging ground for Moscow’s offensive.

Alexander Lukashenko, the strongman leader of Belarus for nearly three decades, is accused of turning his country into a Kremlin client state. Belarusian territory was used to host tens of thousands of Russian troops who subsequently crossed the 670-mile southern border into Ukraine for Putin’s “special military operation”.

Kyiv has repeatedly expressed concern that Belarusian forces are about to join the Russian invasion, while there is considerable evidence that Kremlin forces are using Belarus to launch missile attacks against Ukraine and as a base for the rest and resupply of units decimated in fighting around Kyiv and other northern cities.

But at the same time a steady stream of ordinary Belarusians opposed to Lukashekno, who led a wave of vicious repression following a protest movement against his fraudulent re-election in 2020, has been arriving to join the fight against Russian forces in the belief that the current war represents a last chance to oppose totalitarianism in their own country as well as preserving democracy in Ukraine.

The influx has been accompanied by aid from Belarusian expats, including supplies including medical equipment sent via Belarusians living in London.

The largest Belarusian fighting contingent is contained within the Kastus Kalinouski Battalion, a force of some 300 to 400 volunteers named after a 19th-century writer and revolutionary who is a revered figure in the history of Belarusian self-determination.

The force, which includes veterans fighting in Ukraine’s Donbas region since 2015, has been involved in operations north of Kyiv and is understood to have taken part in the counteroffensive which this week saw Kyiv claim to have retaken the key suburb of Irpin, to the north west of the capital.

Its recent recruits include baristas, graphic designers, IT specialists and a psychologist, who have all travelled either directly from Belarus, or sizable Belarusian communities in neighbouring Poland and Lithuania.

Among them is a former Olympic rower, Pavel Shurmei, who earlier this month posted a video on social media, saying: “I have witnessed many terrible things for what Putin and his lackey Lukashenko must answer.”

They have been bolstered by support from within Belarus itself, where there have been multiple reports of sabotage – both virtual and physical – to the country’s rail network to designed to hobble the flow of Russian military supplies.

Many of those joining the fight repeat the point that there is a common cause between standing with Ukraine and what they see as their own country’s “occupation” by Russian forces ushered in by the Lukashenko regime. For his part, the Belarusian dictator has described the volunteers as “insane” and ordered prosecutors to open a criminal investigation.

Dmitry, a 27-year-old native of the Belarusian capital of Minsk, who declined to give his surname but joined the Kastus Kalinouski Battalion this month, told i: “It’s straightforward – without a free and democratic Ukraine, there cannot be a free Belarus. We have to fight alongside our Ukrainian brothers to stop Putin, to throw him and his soldiers back across the border. When this is done we will take back Belarus from the tyrant Lukashenko. It was impossible to stand aside while Ukrainians are murdered by Putin.”

It was announced last week that several elements of the battalion have formally joined the Ukrainian regular armed forces, receiving regular pay and a promise of a lump sum payment in the event of serious injury or death. Several within the Belarusian grouping had previously fought alongside the Ukrainian Azov Battalion, which has recently disavowed links with the far right.

Belarusian sources told i that at least three other fighting units, including one grouping within the international legion being formed by Kyiv from foreign recruits, are currently active within Ukraine. They include a force of some 50 volunteers who are working with Ukrainian territorial defence units in the key southern port of Odesa, manning check points and building defences.

It is a struggle that comes with an inevitable cost. To date, at least four Belarusian fighters have been killed, with the total number of volunteers in Ukraine put at somewhere between 500 and 900.

Experts say the result is a important shift in the narrative of the role being played by Belarus in the war, from one of the pro-Putin cronyism of the Lukashenko regime to one where ordinary Belarusian are being seen to fight for the cause of freedom. According to polling by the London-based Chatham House think-tank, within Belarus itself just three per cent of the population support the idea of the country joining the Russian offensive.

Pavel Slunkin, a former Belarusian diplomat who is now an analyst at the European Council for Foreign Relations, told i: “These brave volunteers are shifting the image of my country both in Ukraine, where people have understandably raised questions about where Belarus stands, and to the wider international community.

“There is an understanding that we are engaged in a battle with implications far beyond Ukraine – for Belarus, for the Baltic states and for Europe as a whole. If Ukraine falls then the way is clear for Putin’s Russia. If we don’t fight for Ukraine then we will lose the battle for the future.”

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled leader of the Belarusian opposition who is widely believed to have won the 2020 election by a landslide before the result was falsified by Lukashenko, yesterday urged the West to learn the lessons of what she said was its failure to isolate the regime.

Writing in The Economist, she said: “The fate of both Belarus and Ukraine is at stake. Belarus can’t be free without a free Ukraine and vice versa. Dismantling the dictatorship in Belarus would help Ukraine win the war. And there could be no stronger punishment for the Kremlin than seeing Russia share a border with a democratic Belarus. Furthermore a Ukrainian victory would make democracy in Belarus far more likely to emerge.”

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