“A long journey”: Volunteers from Belarus fight for Ukraine

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WARSAW, Poland — 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, given the high stakes in a conflict which 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 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.

For many of the Belarusians, their base is Poland, a country on NATO’s eastern flank that borders Belarus and Ukraine and which 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. 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 has been training recruits. The Associated Press interviewed him as he oversaw an exercise involving 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.

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