Wed. Aug 10th, 2022

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 has united them is their determination to resist Mr 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, given the high stakes in a conflict that many see as a 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 Mr 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 Mr Lukashenko’s Soviet-style, state-controlled economy with cheap energy and loans.

Weakening Mr Putin, the Belarusian volunteers believe, would also weaken Mr 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.

No ‘Velvet Revolution’ for Belarus

A man in fatigues uses a small gray car for cover as he practices shooting a pistol held with two hands over the car's boot.
Belarus regiment leader Vadim Prokopiev and volunteers hope to weaken the rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and ultimately that of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.(AP: Michal Dyjuk)

For many of the Belarusians, their base is Poland, a country on NATO’s eastern flank that borders Belarus and Ukraine.

It has become a haven for pro-democracy Belarusian dissidents before becoming one for war refugees from Ukraine.

Some of the volunteer fighters are already in Poland, and some only pass through briefly 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.

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