Belarusian Exiles in Ukraine Join the Fight Against Russia’s Invasion

Eager, but ill equipped, some of Belarus’s exiles have formed a battalion in their host country, saying its fight against Vladimir Putin’s domination is the same as their homeland’s.

LVIV, Ukraine — In Belarus, Konstantin Suschik was a graphic designer who used his skills to support the opposition movement against President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the strongman who has held power for nearly 28 years. The movement collapsed in a wave of repression after hundreds of thousands of people protested Mr. Lukashenko’s fraudulent re-election in 2020.

Now Mr. Suschik is fighting against him — and against his patron, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia — not by designing political campaigns but with a Kalashnikov assault rifle. And not in Belarus, but in Ukraine.

Mr. Suschik, 31, is one of hundreds of Belarusian dissidents who have joined the Kastus Kalinouski battalion, a volunteer unit that is helping to defend Ukraine as part of the official army. Unlike the thousands of foreign fighters who have poured into Ukraine to fight against Russia, Mr. Suschik was already living in exile in Kyiv, one of thousands of Belarusians who fled to Ukraine to avoid prison for their activism at home.

“As soon as the war started, we decided to stay here because there is actually nowhere to run, our country is lost under occupation,” said Mr. Suschik, in a telephone interview from a training center in an undisclosed suburb of the Ukrainian capital, as shooting could be heard in the distance.

“Kyiv is being bombed and we realized this is probably the only such real chance — the last chance — to win back Belarus, protect Ukraine and actually make this world a better place.”

From the outset of the war, Mr. Lukashenko has allowed Moscow to use Belarus, which has a 674-mile border with Ukraine, as a staging ground. Russian forces have poured into Ukraine from Belarus in an attempt — so far unsuccessful — to take Kyiv. Western intelligence agencies are watching closely for signs that Belarus may send in its own troops to assist the Russian attack.

Emile Ducke for The New York Times

“We have a common enemy, Putin and Lukashenko,” said Sergey Bespalov, a former journalist from the Belarusian capital, Minsk, who went into exile in Ukraine and then joined the battalion. “These are the two people who unleashed this war.”

Mr. Bespalov, speaking in a phone interview, said the fate of Ukraine and Belarus were intermingled.

“If Kyiv falls, it will be bad for everyone, including Belarus,” he said. “Belarus is already occupied. Russian troops are in Belarus. Russian supplies are being sent from Belarus, Russian soldiers are being treated there, and from the territory of Belarus missiles target Ukraine.”

The Belarusian opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, expressed on Twitter her support for the battalion, posting photos of billboards designed by Mr. Suschik.

“Together forever,” she wrote, using the red and white colors of the Belarusian opposition movement and the yellow and blue of Ukraine’s flag.

The battalion was formed in the days after the full-scale invasion began. Belarusians who had been part of other groups, as well as new recruits, announced the unit, named after a 19th-century Belarusian who led an uprising against the Russian Empire, on March 9. The posts on their social media channels end with “Glory to Ukraine! Long Live Belarus!” Both are slogans of each country’s pro-democracy movements.

“Every Belarusian is responsible for the situation in Ukraine,” read one fund-raising request posted to Telegram on March 10. “Because silence is also murder.”

Mr. Suschik said that more Belarusians were arriving to join the battalion, which has “hundreds and hundreds” of members, though there was no way to confirm his claim. Many are coming from places like Poland and Lithuania, which both host large Belarusian communities following the crackdown that began in 2020.

“This is important for me and for many people to disassociate from Lukashenko’s regime, which is supported by only a small part of society, from the majority who support Ukraine or would definitely not participate in the invasion,” said Pavel Slunkin, a former Belarus diplomat who quit the service in 2020 and is an analyst at the European Council for Foreign Relations.

Four days after the war, Mr. Lukashenko held a referendum, widely seen as rigged, that renounced Belarus’s non-nuclear status, raising the specter that Russia could deploy short-range nuclear weapons in Belarus.

Emile Ducke for The New York Times

“These people in the battalion reveal another image,” Mr. Slunkin said. “They show to Ukraine that Belarusians are demanding freedom and helping to fight for freedom in Ukraine.”

He added: “In 2020, the fight between democracy and autocracy took place in Belarus. But Belarus didn’t receive enough support. Now the fight is in Ukraine.”

Mr. Slunkin said that he also believed the exiles’ involvement was important for the nation’s long-term reputation, since many Belarusians abroad, most of whom left because of Mr. Lukashenko, were seen as coming from an aggressor country and could face prejudices over the war, similar to what has sometimes happened to Russians who have fled Mr. Putin’s crackdown.

Many of the tens of thousands of Belarusians who had fled to Ukraine are now on the move again, Mr. Slunkin said, but they face problems because many never got a residency permit, and, therefore, do not have the same rights to legal protection in the European Union as Ukrainian refugees. Many are also penniless because Ukraine has frozen the bank accounts of Belarusian citizens.

Both newly minted soldiers, Mr. Suschik and Mr. Bespalov said that since their country was used as a staging ground by Russia, they had been met with suspicion in the early days of the war and were questioned by the police. While their primary motivation was defeating Mr. Putin and Mr. Lukashenko, both said that they also wanted to show Ukraine and the world that Belarusians did not support the destruction wrought by the war.

“Our main mission here is not to lose what we have achieved in 2020,” Mr. Suschik said, referring to Belarus’s protest movement, which won global acclaim for its bravery. “And not to become allies of our enemy, so that Belarusians around the world are not perceived as the same invaders and enemies.’’

Mr. Lukashenko dismissed the Belarusian fighters as crazy during a meeting on March 15 with representatives from his country’s security agencies, and he accused them of stealing the money they raised.

“They shout, ‘No to war, no to war!’ everywhere, and form battalions of insane citizens,” he said. “Even if the diaspora or someone abroad collects money and sends it to them, 99 percent of this money will settle in their pockets.”

Emile Ducke for The New York Times

In fact, the battalion is not particularly well equipped. One Belarusian man in the Czech Republic began collecting money for the battalion to buy bulletproof vests.

“Even Somali pirates are better equipped than some of our guys,” the man, Kirill Yakimovich, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He has raised thousands of dollars to buy equipment for them.

People inside Belarus are helping in other ways, too, like disabling the railway tracks used to resupply the Russian soldiers across the border.

“There is no railway connection between Ukraine and Belarus currently,” Oleksandr Kamyshin, the director of Ukraine’s national railway company, told Current Time, a Russian-language media outlet supported by the U.S. government. “I am grateful to Belarus’s railway workers for what they are doing,” he said.

Two Belarusian volunteers have already died: Ilya Hrenov, a former computer programmer who had served as part of the Belarusian Territorial Defense Company of the Azov Battalion, was killed after fighting in the battles for Bucha, outside Kyiv, on March 4.

On March 13, Aleksei Skoble, 31, who had been fighting for Ukraine since the war began in 2014, was also killed.

Russia is recruiting Belarusians to fight, too. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said Wednesday that it had information that Belarusians were being offered a salary equivalent to $1,000 to $1,500 per month to fight for Moscow, as well as benefits for studying at Russian universities.

Mr. Suschik and Mr. Bespalov said that they were willing to die as part of Ukraine’s war, even if they ended up fighting their own compatriots.

“I understand that if this threat is not stopped now, then my country simply will not exist,” Mr. Bespalov said. But, he added, he was convinced of Ukraine’s eventual victory and believed that the battle would then continue in his home country.

“As soon as there is a signal, as soon as we win, everyone is waiting for the liberation of Belarus,” he said. “And many Ukrainians say they are ready to help us with this.”

Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.