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A Belarusian battalion fights in Ukraine ‘for both countries’ freedom’

Fighters of the Belarusian “Kastus Kalinouski Battalion,” from left: Konstantin Suschik, Pavel Kulazhanka and Siarhei Bespalau in Kyiv on March 30. (Serhiy Morgunov for The Washington Post)
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correction

A previous version of this article contained information provided by Pavel Kulazhanka that was called into question by a source familiar with the situation. Kulazhanka would not respond to questions that challenged his version of events. The information The Post now believes to be suspect involves the length of 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 previous version incorrectly said that former Belarus culture minister Pavel Latushko defected a decade ago. It happened in 2020. The article has been corrected.

KYIV — Pavel Kulazhanka advocates for the overthrow of the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko in his native Belarus.

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

But he thinks the best shot yet at toppling Lukashenko — and Russian President Vladimir Putin, without whose support many in Belarus think Lukashenko would quickly fall — 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 carry that momentum back into Belarus to end Lukashenko’s 28-year rule.

Many of them have joined the “Kastus Kalinouski Battalion,” named after the leader of Belarus’s insurrection against Russia in the 1860s. It is made up of Belarusians taking 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’s pro-democracy movements.

“Life is about leaps of faith,” Kulazhanka said during a break this week from training with an AK-47 assault rifle in a western suburb of Kyiv. Around him, the sound of distant artillery fire rumbled through the air like a thunderstorm. “Fighting Lukashenko was one. Fleeing Belarus was another. Throwing away my life in America was one more. And fighting here, we are making the biggest one of all.”

While Lukashenko’s military has not yet joined Putin’s in Ukraine, Russian soldiers have been based in Belarus since before the war began and launched their main ground offensive on Kyiv and northern Ukraine from there.

About 200 members of the volunteer battalion are serving on the front lines, including in Irpin on Kyiv’s outskirts, 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 induction of the battalion into the armed forces has meant that some received guns 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 vetting them and getting equipment has created a backlog. Many are dissidents who were arrested during protests against Lukashenko’s 2020 election win, which they and international observers say was brazenly stolen.

In March, Vadim Prokopiev, a Belarusian restaurateur who has become one of the main organizers of Belarusian recruits from around Europe, met 14 of them at the Poland-Ukraine border before guiding them to a training site.

Only a few allowed their faces to be photographed and none agreed to provide their last names, saying that family members in Belarus could be targeted.

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

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

While most said they had no prior combat experience, some said they have been at the receiving end of Lukashenko’s brutality, which has imbued them with the spirit of revenge.

“I only spent three nights in prison during the 2020 protests,” said Aleksandr, 38. “But it was enough to make me leave Belarus. I saw women begging not to be beaten, I saw a guy with long hair get scalped. They put 70 of us in a small cell. It was pure brutality, like we are enslaved people or animals. I’m fighting here because until we overthrow Lukashenko, I can’t go back. Defeating Putin in Ukraine is the first step for both countries’ freedom.”

One of the recruits who crossed the border that day, also named Aleks, was a Belarusian passport holder but ethnically Russian. The 61-year-old, the oldest in the group, described himself as a freethinker 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 cannot last forever,” he said. “Putin is against goodness, truth and freedom. He has opened old wounds. To heal them, unfortunately, we must fight, and it may take our lives.”

Latest updates from the Ukraine war

Since the war in Ukraine began, Belarusian dissidents have warned that an invasion of Ukraine by Belarus’s military is imminent. Ukraine’s military has echoed those warnings and accused Russia and Belarus of staging small-scale attacks on Belarus as pretexts for a Belarusian invasion, though those allegations have not been proven.

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

“To me it is obvious why Lukashenko has not said go yet,” Latushko said. “He is a master at self-preservation, and he knows that invading Ukraine may be the end of him. His soldiers’ morale is zero for this war. They will defect in droves.”

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

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

“We are already envisaging how to get Belarusian troops to defect into our ranks,” said Sergey Bulba, who along with Prokopiev, leads recruitment and training efforts for Belarusians in Ukraine. “Many soldiers in the army already know in their hearts that the destinies of Belarus and Ukraine are bound to each other. As soon as they leave Belarus’s propaganda bubble, they will know what they have to do.”

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