Belarus’s battalion fights in Ukraine for ‘freedom’ of both countries’

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An earlier version of this article contained information provided by Pavel Kulazhanka, who was questioned by a source familiar with the situation. Kulazhanka would not answer questions that challenged his version of events. The information that The Post now believes is suspicious involves the time he has worked to overthrow Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, the timeline of events before he moved to New York, and what his role was in anti-government protests. In addition, the earlier version incorrectly said that former Belarusian Minister of Culture Pavel Latushko stepped down a decade ago. That was in 2020. The article has been corrected.

KYIV – Pavel Kulazhanka is in favor of overthrowing the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko in his native Belarus.

He left the country in 2011 and landed in New York City, where he became a mixed martial arts fighter. From there, he has in recent years supported anti-government efforts in his home country, including plans to sabotage train lines and bomb military outposts.

But he believes the best shot so far at overthrowing Lukashenko – and Russian President Vladimir Putin, without whose support many in Belarus believe Lukashenko would fall quickly – has come with the war in Ukraine.

He is one of hundreds of Belarusians who have joined the fight here, inspired by their neighbor’s battlefield successes and determined to bring that momentum back to Belarus to end Lukashenko’s 28-year rule.

Many of them have joined the “Kastus Kalinouski Battalion”, named after the leader of Belarus’ uprising against Russia in the 1860s. It is made up of Belarusians who take advantage of Ukraine’s wartime decision to allow foreigners to serve in the ranks of its armed forces, though not as officers. A dozen recruits interviewed by The Washington Post described their sense of common cause between Ukraine and Belarus’ pro-democracy movements.

“Life is about leaps and bounds,” Kulazhanka said during a break this week from training with an AK-47 combat rifle in a western suburb of Kiev. Around him the sound of distant artillery fire rumbled through the air like a thunderstorm. “Fighting Lukashenko was one thing. Fleeing Belarus was another. Throwing my life in America was another. And when we fight here, we make the greatest of all.”

While Lukashenko’s military has not yet joined Putin in Ukraine, Russian troops have been based in Belarus since before the war began, launching their main offensive against Kiev and northern Ukraine from there.

About 200 members of the volunteer battalion are serving on the front lines, including in Irpin on the outskirts of Kiev, where Ukrainian forces recently regained control, Kulazhanka and other recruits said.

They are funded and equipped mostly through donations from the Belarusian and Ukrainian diasporas, including in the United States. But the recent deployment of the battalion into the armed forces has meant that some received weapons and armor, including some supplied by NATO, from the Ukrainian military.

Those leading the recruitment effort say there are thousands more who have expressed interest, but examining them and getting equipment has created a backlog. Many are dissidents who were arrested during protests against Lukashenko’s election victory in 2020, which they and international observers say were rudely stolen.

In March, Vadim Prokopiev, a Belarusian restaurateur who has become one of the main organizers of Belarusian recruits from across Europe, met 14 of them at the Polish-Ukrainian border before guiding them to a training ground.

Only a few allowed their faces to be photographed and no one agreed to disclose their last name, saying family members in Belarus could be targeted.

“Basically, there are two wings,” Prokopiev said. “One already in Kiev and one in western Ukraine. Over here, we train recruits intensively for two weeks – everything from tactical issues to digital hygiene. Then they move east in small groups and go to the front lines.”

Prokopiev said that out of thousands who had expressed interest from all over the world, there were only a hundred or so in the pipeline. He said he expected more senior defected officers to join soon, but so far most were untrained recruits.

While most said they had no previous combat experience, some said they have been on the receiving end of Lukashenko’s brutality, which has permeated them with vengeance.

“I only spent three nights in jail during the protests in 2020,” said Aleksandr, 38. “But that was enough to make me leave Belarus. I saw women begging not to be beaten, I saw a guy with long hair being scalped.They put 70 of us in a small cell.It was pure brutality as if we are slaves of humans or animals.I’m fighting here because until we overthrow Lukashenko I can not go back.To defeat Putin in Ukraine is the first step towards the freedom of both countries. “

One of the recruits who crossed the border that day, also called Aleks, was a Belarusian passport holder, but ethnic Russian. The 61-year-old, the oldest in the group, described himself as a free thinker and a proud Russian who wanted to show Ukrainians that not all Russians supported the war – in fact, there were some like him who would fight on their side.

“We have to prove that the Soviet mentality can not last forever,” he said. “Putin is against goodness, truth and freedom. He has opened old wounds. To heal them we must unfortunately fight and it can take our lives.”

Recent updates from the Ukraine War

Since the war in Ukraine began, Belarusian dissidents have warned that an invasion of Ukraine by Belarus’ military is imminent. Ukraine’s military has reiterated these warnings, accusing Russia and Belarus of staging small attacks on Belarus as a pretext for a Belarusian invasion, although these claims have not been proven.

“According to my sources in the military, battalions on the Belarusian side of the border are fully prepared for the invasion, they are just waiting for the message,” said Pavel Latushko, Belarus’ former culture minister, who left for Poland in 2020. He has since organized protests, and now recruitment to Ukraine, from there.

“To me, it’s obvious why Lukashenko has not said go yet,” Latushko said. “He is a master of self-preservation and he knows that invasion of Ukraine can be the end of him. The morale of his soldiers is zero for this war. They will jump out in droves. “

Lukashenko dismissed the battalion as “insane citizens” in a recent interview with Belarusian state-run media.

In Ukraine, however, there are high hopes among Belarusian recruits that if Belarus’s army invaded, its soldiers would seize the opportunity to jump off, and their Belarusian battalion was ready to welcome them.

“We are already imagining how we can get Belarusian troops to jump into our ranks,” said Sergey Bulba, who, along with Prokopiev, is leading the recruitment and training efforts of Belarusians in Ukraine. “Many soldiers in the army already know in their hearts that the fates of Belarus and Ukraine are tied to each other. As soon as they leave Belarus’ propaganda bubble, they will know what to do.”

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