Meet the Belarusian Regiment Fighting for Ukraine
By Sam Skove, FP, 20/2/23
Feb 22, 2023 - 4:24:07 PM

Someday, soldiers hope to return home and topple Lukashenko.

KYIV—In the early morning of Feb. 8, the coldest winter day yet in Ukraine’s capital city, military recruits set off on a bus to a nearby training base for a day of marching, shooting, and medical training. As the bus rounded a corner, the wide expanse of the frozen Dnipro River—Ukraine’s main artery—suddenly came into view. “Now that’s something worth fighting for,” one recruit said.

The recruit was not Ukrainian but a 42-year-old former IT worker from Belarus. Like the 10 other soldiers on the bus, he is one of hundreds of Belarusians fighting for Ukraine as part of the Kastus Kalinouski regiment—a group that opposes Belarus’s support for Russia and is named after a 19th-century anti-Russian Belarusian revolutionary. The regiment, which was formed last March, has fought alongside the Ukrainian army in front-line hot spots, from the defense of Kyiv to battles in eastern Ukraine.

The stakes are high for the crew, made up of former IT workers, crane operators, chefs, and others. Aside from facing battlefield danger, they risk never being able to go home safely again. Yet for them, the payoff is worth it. Some, fleeing repression, settled in Ukraine before Russia invaded and are now fighting for their new home. Others see in the regiment a chance to hone their combat skills and eventually bring the fight to Belarus; for them, only violent revolution can free their country from the grip of its dictatorial leader, Aleksandr Lukashenko.

The former IT worker, who preferred not to give his name for security reasons, recently started on the two-month path to join the regiment. The first month includes training in basic combat skills, while the second entails learning specialized tasks that prepare recruits to join mortar, medical, and reconnaissance groups. These groups are divided up into two battalions, Litvin and Volat, named after fallen regimental soldiers. While the battalion’s officers are Belarusian, they are commanded by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate, like other units in Ukraine’s army staffed by anti-Kremlin Chechens, Georgians, and Russians.

Trudging through the snow to their shooting range, the soldiers in training were a motley group. Many were in their mid-30s, but at least one soldier appeared to be well into his 60s. Some, like one young soldier struggling to climb a snowy hilltop, were out of shape, in sharp contrast to their Ukrainian trainers from Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces.

The regiment doesn’t treat its soldiers like special forces recruits, said commander Denis Prokhorov, a 27-year-old soldier who first came to Ukraine from Belarus at the age of 19 to fight against a Russian-backed separatist movement in the east. “We do things more softly,” he said, contrasting it with his own harsher military training. “We don’t want to hurt them.”

What the recruits lacked in physical fitness, they made up for in determination. Merely traveling from Belarus to Ukraine risks immense personal danger.

One soldier who helped run the training, code-named Marquis, was living as a normal 21-year-old in Minsk until he learned last September that he would soon face six months in prison for refusing to be drafted into the Belarusian army. Like most members interviewed for this article, Marquis requested that he be referred to only by his code name for security reasons. Marquis’s father, who was already serving in the Kalinouski regiment, encouraged him to join him in Ukraine instead.

There was only one catch, Marquis said. He needed to slip past guards who were already on the lookout for him in order to illegally cross the heavily fortified land border between Belarus and Ukraine. After a night out in Minsk, spending the last of his money, Marquis traveled 10 hours through a river and over a minefield, guided by his phone’s compass. When he reached Ukraine, he was met by Ukrainian border guards who were expecting him.

No matter how they got to Ukraine, every member must face the reality that returning to Belarus would likely mean a lengthy prison sentence if their membership in the regiment were discovered. The Belarusian government shows no leniency to opposition figures, let alone those who plot Lukashenko’s violent overthrow.

Their families in Belarus are at risk as well. Belarus has on occasion jailed opposition figures’ loved ones, as they did in May 2021, when authorities arrested Russian citizen Sofia Sapega, the girlfriend of Belarusian activist Roman Protasevich. Many of the regiment’s soldiers choose to fight in secret, lying to their families about their whereabouts to keep them safe.

That’s the case for two mortarmen, code-named Zoltan and Foma. Several days before visiting the regiment’s training ground near Kyiv, I met them and other Belarusian soldiers at a cafe in Zaporizhzhia, a city in southern Ukraine just 30 miles from the front line that is near one of the regiment’s bases.

As far as Foma’s family knows, he’s working in Poland. Zoltan told his sister and a friend that he’s in Ukraine but not his parents, who believe Russian propaganda that Russia was right to invade Ukraine.

Zoltan and Foma, who joined the regiment last summer, were resting after fighting around the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. The fighting there is still some of the most intense in Ukraine, with Russia experiencing hundreds of casualties a day in frontal assaults on Ukrainian positions. Foma, a grizzled 57-year-old former electrician, described the anxiety before his first battles. “I never served before,” he said. “I was afraid.”

Foma is committed to fighting for Ukraine, though, and said he eventually became comfortable with battle. The alternative for him would likely be state persecution. Foma and another soldier, code-named Bacha, said they had both faced state searches of their homes in Belarus for being active in opposition politics.

Paradoxically, it is Lukashenko’s paranoia about domestic opposition that helps drive the recruitment of these soldiers to the regiment. In particular, Belarus’s harsh repression of large-scale protests after Lukashenko’s fraudulent 2020 reelection saw an estimated tens of thousands of Belarusians move at least temporarily to Ukraine, according to a 2021 Deutsche Welle interview with Ukrainian human rights advocate Maksym Butkevych.

Kos, a regiment press officer and ex-graphic designer, fled to Kyiv that year in fear of government retaliation for his role on the staff of an opposition politician. At the cafe in Zaporizhzhia, he explained that he sought to join Ukraine’s military when Russian forces threatened Kyiv in the war’s early days. The alternative, he believed, was waiting around for the Russians to catch him and hand him back to Belarus. He eventually became one of the first soldiers in the newly formed Kalinouski regiment.

Oppression in Belarus is so great that even some nonpolitical Belarusians have joined the regiment. Zoltan said that even though he had not been targeted by the Belarusian state for political activity, he felt that the smallest slip could send him to jail. “The atmosphere is such that sooner or later you’ll be sentenced … for as long as they want,” Zoltan said.

That’s why many in the regiment have turned their hopes to revolution. Once Russia’s war in Ukraine ends, “we’ll go to free Belarus,” Foma said, vowing to go fight in the thick forests on the Ukraine-Belarus border.

While many soldiers share Foma’s conviction, it is not explicitly the regiment’s position. Instead, the regiment holds that weakening Russian President Vladimir Putin sets the stage for weakening Lukashenko, since Moscow provides essential economic and political support to Minsk. In 2020, Putin even vowed to send military forces if needed to help crush Belarus’s protests.

With “hundreds, not thousands,” of soldiers, according to press officer Kos, the regiment’s leadership is also realistic about its chances of fighting in Belarus anytime soon. “We’re hoping for support” from Ukraine eventually, said regiment commander Prokhorov.

Consequently, the regiment’s primary value is likely symbolic. For one, the soldiers believe that their presence shows Ukrainians that not all Belarusians support Russia’s war. “It defines Belarus as apart from Lukashenko,” said Belarusian political analyst Dmitry Bolkunets. The regiment also serves as a rallying point for dissident Belarusians. Although it is loosely allied with exiled Belarusian politician Zianon Pazniak, the regiment accepts Belarusians of all political stripes who are opposed to Lukashenko.

The regiment, of course, has a long way to go until it’s ready to take on the Belarusian state. Gathered on the bus back to Kyiv after their all-day training, the recruits were obviously tired. They roused briefly though, just before taking off, to shout in unison an enthusiastic “Long Live Belarus”—the slogan of the 2020 protests. Without missing a beat, they followed it up with “Glory to Ukraine,” in a nod to their new circumstances.

Source: Ocnus.net 2022