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Belarusians Join Ukraine/Russia War    05/22 09:00

   Belarusians are among those who have answered a call by Ukrainian President 
Volodymyr Zelenskyy for foreign fighters to go to Ukraine and join the 
International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine. And volunteers 
have answered that call, given the high stakes in a conflict which many people 
see as a civilizational battle pitting dictatorship against freedom.

   WARSAW, Poland (AP) -- One is a restaurateur who fled Belarus when he 
learned he was about to be arrested for criticizing President Alexander 
Lukashenko. Another was given the choice of either denouncing fellow opposition 
activists or being jailed. And one is certain his brother was killed by the 
country's security forces.

   What united them is their determination to resist Lukashenko by fighting 
against Russian forces in Ukraine.

   Belarusians are among those who have answered a call by Ukrainian President 
Volodymyr Zelenskyy for foreign fighters to go to Ukraine and join the 
International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine. And volunteers 
have answered that call, given the high stakes in a conflict which many people 
see as a civilizational battle pitting dictatorship against freedom.

   For the Belarusians, who consider Ukrainians a brethren nation, the stakes 
feel especially high. Russian troops used Belarusian territory to invade 
Ukraine early in the war, and Lukashenko has publicly stood by longtime ally, 
Russian President Vladimir Putin, describing him as his "big brother." Russia, 
for its part, has pumped billions of dollars into shoring up Lukashenko's 
Soviet-style, state-controlled economy with cheap energy and loans.

   Weakening Putin, the Belarusian volunteers believe, would also weaken 
Lukashenko, who has held power since 1994, and create an opening to topple his 
oppressive government and bring democratic change to the nation of nearly 10 
million people.

   For many of the Belarusians, their base is Poland, a country along NATO's 
eastern flank that borders Belarus and Ukraine and which became a haven for 
pro-democracy Belarusian dissidents before becoming one for war refugees from 
Ukraine.

   Some of the fighters are already in Poland, and some only pass through 
briefly in transit on their way to Ukraine.

   "We understand that it's a long journey to free Belarus and the journey 
starts in Ukraine," said Vadim Prokopiev, a 50-year-old businessman who used to 
run restaurants in Minsk. He fled the country after a rumor spread that he 
would be arrested for saying publicly that the government wasn't doing enough 
for small businesses.

   "When the Ukraine war will be eventually over, our war will just start. It 
is impossible to free the country of Belarus without driving Putin's fascist 
troops out of Ukraine," he said.

   Prokopiev heads a unit called "Pahonia" that in recent days has been 
training recruits. The Associated Press interviewed him as he oversaw an 
exercise that involved firing pistols and other weapons into old cars in 
simulations of war scenarios. They were being trained by a Polish ex-police 
officer who is now a private shooting instructor.

   Prokopiev wants his men to gain critical battle experience, and he hopes 
that one day soon a window of opportunity will open for democratic change in 
Belarus. But he says it will require fighters like himself to be prepared, and 
for members of the security forces in Belarus to turn against Lukashenko.

   Massive street protests against a 2020 election widely seen as fraudulent 
were met with a brutal crackdown, leading to Prokopiev's belief that no "velvet 
revolution" can be expected there.

   "Power from Lukashenko can only be taken by force," he said.

   On Saturday, a group of men with another unit, Kastus Kalinouski, gathered 
in Warsaw in the Belarus House, where piles of sleeping bags, mats and other 
Ukraine-bound equipment were piled high. They sat together, talking and 
snacking on chocolate and coffee as they prepared to deploy to Ukraine later in 
the day. Most didn't want to be interviewed out of concerns for their security 
and that of family back home.

   The unit, which isn't formally under Ukraine's International Legion, was 
named after the leader of an anti-Russian insurrection in the 19th century who 
is viewed as a national hero in Belarus.

   One willing to describe his motivations was a 19-year-old, Ales, who has 
lived in Poland since last year. He fled Belarus after the country's security 
service, still called the KGB, detained him and forced him to denounce an 
anti-Lukashenko resistance group in a video recording. He was told he would be 
jailed if he didn't comply.

   Dressed all in black from a hooded sweatshirt to his boots, he admitted to 
feeling nervous as the moment arrived to head into Ukraine. He had never 
received any military training, but would get it once he arrived in Ukraine. 
But just how much, and where he would be deployed, he didn't yet know.

   He said he was going to fight not only to help Ukraine, "but to make Belarus 
independent." He said it was also important for him that people realize that 
the Belarusian people are very different from the Lukashenko government.

   It is a dangerous mission, and several of the volunteers from the Kastus 
Kalinouski unit have died.

   Still, fighting in Ukraine can feel less dangerous than seeking to resist 
Lukashenko at home, where many activists are in prison in harsh conditions.

   Organizing the Kastus Kalinouski recruits was Pavel Kukhta, a 24-year-old 
who already fought in Ukraine's Donbas region in 2016, suffering burns and the 
loss of most of his hearing in one ear. He described his unit as a regiment, 
meaning it would have hundreds of members, but he wouldn't give its exact 
number.

   Kukhta said that his half-brother, Nikita Krivtsov, was found dead by 
hanging in a wooded area outside Minsk in 2020. Police have said there was no 
evidence of foul play, but Kukhta says he and the rest of the family are 
certain he was killed for joining the anti-Lukashenko protests.

   But he insisted that his support for Ukraine in the war is not about 
revenge, only about fighting for democratic change.

   "If Putin is defeated, Lukashenko will be defeated," he said.

 
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