Meet Belarusians fighting Russia in Ukraine


Pavel Kukhta fought against Russia in Ukraine’s Donbass region from 2016 to 2018. “I was hot-tempered and young, and my strong sense of justice prompted me to join the war,” he says. But Mr Kukhta is not Ukrainian, he comes from neighboring Belarus, whose government is Vladimir Putin’s closest ally.

Mr. Kukhta, 24, went almost deaf in one ear when an explosion killed one of his comrades. “I don’t regret anything,” he said. He continues his fight against Russia from Warsaw, where he recruits Belarusians for the Ukrainian army. Since late February, he estimates he has helped send more than 200 Belarusians to Ukraine to fight Russia.

“These people are bleachers of Belarusian consciousness,” Kukhta says. President Alexander Lukashenko and Mr. Putin have formed “a synergy of evil in our country”, as he puts it. Belarus also provides a launching ground for Russian troops and missiles entering Ukraine. But the Belarusian people “absolutely do not support this, and that is why we are joining this war,” Mr Kukhta said.

Their decision says a lot about regional politics. Mr. Lukashenko has been president since 1994, when the population was becoming restive. After the rigged 2020 elections, people demonstrated en masse. Mr. Putin helped put an abrupt end to the protests. This favor left Mr Lukashenko as “Putin’s puppet”, and now, “his room for maneuver is very limited”, explains Agnieszka Romaszewska-Guzy, director of the pro-democracy television Belsat, which broadcasts from Poland to the Belarus.

As the Russian military faltered in Ukraine, Mr Putin pressured Belarus to join the war as an active combatant. So far Mr Lukashenko has resisted, in what his critics call an act of self-preservation. If “soldiers were killed, it would be too much even for these intimidated and terrorized Belarusians,” says Ms. Romaszewska-Guzy. “I think the soldiers would defect and surrender.” At home, there “may be protests”, especially if Western sanctions lead to deprivation.

Belarusian dissidents and Ukrainians share a common enemy in Mr. Putin. The old hope “that the defeat of Russia will be crushing, which will weaken assistance and support for Belarus”, explains Evgeniy Mihasyuk, 27. It is part of the Kastuś Kalinoŭski Battalion in Ukraine, named after the Belarusian national hero who helped lead an 1863 uprising against the Russian Empire.

Veranika Yanovich, another Belarusian from the Kastus Kalinouski battalion in Ukraine, with her husband, Alexey Lazarev.


Photo:

Kastus Kalinouski Battalion Press Service

Just like Veranika Yanovich, 25, and her husband, Alexey Lazarev. Before getting married, the couple fled Belarus in 2021 and lived in the city of Lviv in western Ukraine when Russia invaded. When they heard about an opportunity to join the battalion, “we got on the first train and went to kyiv,” she says in a video interview from the Ukrainian capital.

“The motivation is very simple,” continues Ms. Yanovich. “Lukashenko is very dependent on Russia, and the death of the dictatorship in Russia will mean the death of Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime.

Ms. Yanovich oversees the inventory, purchases and equipment of soldiers on combat missions. The man she loves has gone to fight, and she is ready to join him on the battlefield if necessary: ​​“I have had combat training,” she says. “Conscripts serving in Belarus haven’t fired as many bullets in their entire service as I have fired recently. . . . I can even throw a grenade.

In addition to enlisting together, the two Belarusians tied the knot in March: “We just thought, ‘Who is Putin to mess up our plans?’ When asked how she envisions their future, she replied, “After it’s all over, and when my friends [in Belarus] get out of jail, we’ll have a wedding. . . . If we decide to build a house, it will certainly have a very good bomb shelter.

Ukraine closely guards statistics on its army, including the number of Belarusians who have joined it. The Kastuś Kalinoŭski Battalion also does not disclose its numbers, but it includes “hundreds” of Belarusians, says Sabina Aliyeva, a Belarusian journalist who volunteers to help the battalion with public relations. Some members of the battalion participated in combat at Bucha and Irpin.

It is not the only Ukrainian battalion made up largely of Belarusians. There are also “people who would like to come from Belarus to help the guys in Ukraine, but we cannot help them now. At the moment it is very difficult to get out of Belarus,” says Aliaksandra Zhylko of the Belarusian House in Warsaw, which supports Belarusian exiles and dissidents.

Tomasz Grzywaczewski, a Polish journalist who covered the 2020 protests in Belarus, said the West missed a crucial opportunity to counter Russian expansionism by withholding meaningful support from the Belarusian freedom movement. “It’s a great shame for the western community – and by that I mean all of us – that we left these people alone,” he says. “If the collective West had reacted differently, perhaps the situation would be different” in Ukraine today.

That opportunity has passed, but the West would be well advised to learn from it, says Mr. Grzywaczewski: “Right now, we have to push Russia as much as we can. The policy of appeasement only leads to war. And if Ukraine trumps Russia, Mr Lukashenko may wish he had given in to peaceful protesters when he had the chance.

Ms. Melchior is an editorial editor for the Journal.

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