Berlin. Just days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, the first reports of volunteers from Belarus moving into the neighbouring country to help defend themselves against Russian aggression appeared on social media. Meanwhile, according to Belarusian opposition leader Pavel Latushko, two Belarusian units are already operating as part of the Ukrainian armed forces. One of them is the Kastus Kalinouski battalion, named after the 1860s Belarusian national hero, and the Pagonya regiment.
"Kalinowski's battalion includes volunteers who have already taken part in combat operations in Donbass in 2014," reports Latushko, formerly Belarus' minister of culture and now head of the opposition organisation National Anti-Crisis Administration (NAU) in Warsaw. The Pagonya regiment also includes reserve officers of the Belarussian armed forces and officers of the Belarussian special forces. "Both units are fighting for Ukraine’s independence, but at the same time for Belarus' independence," Latushko told RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland (RND).
Many Belarusian dissidents hope that the Ukrainian resistance will spread to Belarus in order to get rid of Russia’s dictate and overthrow dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power in Minsk for 28 years. "The Lukashenko regime is a puppet government of Moscow that oppresses the Belarusian people and submits to the interests of the Kremlin," Latushko stresses.
Alexander Friedman, a historian specialising in Eastern Europe who hails from Minsk and lives in Berlin, believes the existence of the Belarusian volunteers is also important from a "historical point of view". "These fighters save the honor of Belarus and show that not everyone is a supporter of Russia," Friedman says. Most Belarusians are against this war, he says. "People say it’s a disgrace."
But the courage and pathos of the volunteers may obscure the fact that the terms battalion and regiment are rather symbolic and say nothing about the real strength of the units. A battalion is made up of 300 to 1,200 men, while a regiment may consist of four battalions. Friedman estimates that the total number of active Belarusian fighters in Ukraine is currently between 200 and 500.
However, Belarusian opposition politician Vadim Prokopyev is firmly convinced that there could be more of them in a short time: "There is no doubt that we could create a regiment of 1,000 men relatively quickly," Prokopyev told RND. The former catering businessman, who also received military training in Russia in the past, is now in charge of the Pagonya regiment in Ukraine and trains volunteers, most of whom arrive via the Polish border. "The problem is logistics; volunteers can only join us in small groups because they all have to cross the border separately," Prokopyev says.
Currently, it is very difficult to obtain an exit visa from Belarus. Therefore, most Belarusians come via Poland, Lithuania or Latvia, where they fled earlier. In addition, the Ukrainian side has a fear of spies, which delays the admission of fighters.
In Belarus itself, resistance also continues. Because Lukashenko has made the entire country available to the Russian army as a deployment area, including airports, logistics centres and hospitals, the first acts of sabotage took place just days after the Russian attacks on Ukraine began from Belarus. "We call it a railway war," says Prokopyev, referring to a series of attacks on the distribution and relay stations of the Belarusian railway network. Thus, since the start of the war, there have been at least seven documented attacks on various sections of track in Belarus, which have resulted in stopping or at least significantly slowing down the transport of Russian troops and equipment. In addition, railway workers and dissidents have destroyed signals, damaged tracks and carried out hacking attacks. In response, Lukashenko tightened the protection of railway hubs by KGB units.
On the eve of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, rockets were fired from Belarus at Ukrainian territory around 11 p.m., which Lukashenko himself later admitted. Although so far Belarusian troops have not officially intervened in the war, Pavel Latushko has long believed it was time to address the "Lukashenko problem" and called on the European Union to tighten sanctions. "What else does Lukashenko have to do to make Europe hold him accountable?".
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