LVIV, Ukraine — In Belarus, Konstantin Suschik was a graphic designer who used his skills to support the opposition movement against President Alexander G. Lukashenko, the strongman who has been in power for nearly 28 years. The movement plunged into a wave of repression after hundreds of thousands of people protested against Lukashenko’s fraudulent re-election in 2020.
Now Mr. Suschik is fighting him — and 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.
Suschik, 31, is one of hundreds of Belarusian dissidents who have joined the Kastus Kalinouski Battalion, a volunteer unit that helps defend Ukraine as part of the official military. Unlike the thousands of foreign fighters who have poured into Ukraine to fight against Russia, Suschik was already living in exile in Kiev, one of thousands of Belarusians who fled to Ukraine to avoid jail for their activism at home.
“As soon as the war started, we decided to stay here because there is really nowhere to run, our country is lost under the occupation,” Mr Suschik said in a telephone interview from a training center in an unnamed suburb of the Ukrainian capital. because shots could be heard in the distance.
“Kiev is being bombed and we realized that this is probably the only real chance – the last chance – to win back Belarus, protect Ukraine and make this world a better place.”
From the beginning of the war, Mr. Lukashenko allowed Moscow to use Belarus, which has a 674-mile border with Ukraine, as a staging area. Russian troops have poured into Ukraine from Belarus in an attempt – so far unsuccessfully – to take Kiev. Western intelligence services are closely monitoring whether Belarus can send its own troops to assist the Russian attack.
“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 started this war.”
Mr Bespalov said in a telephone interview that the fates of Ukraine and Belarus have been mixed up.
“If Kiev falls, it will be bad for everyone, including Belarus,” he said. “Belarus is already occupied. Russian troops are in Belarus. Russian supplies are sent from Belarus, Russian soldiers are treated there, and missiles target Ukraine from Belarus territory.”
Belarusian opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, pronounced on Twitter her support to the battalion by posting pictures 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 the Ukrainian flag.
The battalion was formed in the days after the large-scale invasion began. Belarusians who were part of other groups, as well as new recruits, announced the unit on March 9, named after a 19th-century Belarusian who led an uprising against the Russian Empire. to Ukraine! Long live Belarus!” Both are slogans of the pro-democracy movements of each country.
“Every Belarusian is responsible for the situation in Ukraine,” read a fundraising request posted on Telegram on March 10. “Because silence is also murder.”
Suschik said more Belarusians arrived to join the battalion, which has “hundreds and hundreds” of members, although there was no way to confirm his claim. Many come from places such as Poland and Lithuania, both of which are home to large Belarusian communities after the crackdown that began in 2020.
“This is important for me and for many people to distance themselves from the Lukashenko regime, which is only supported by a small part of society, from the majority who support Ukraine or would absolutely not participate in the invasion,” Pavel said. Slunkin, a former Belarusian. diplomat who retired in 2020 and is an analyst at the European Council for Foreign Relations.
Four days after the war, Lukashenko held a widely considered rigged referendum to relinquish Belarus’ non-nuclear status, raising the specter that Russia could deploy nuclear weapons at close range in Belarus. .
“These people in the battalion reveal a different picture,” Mr. Slunkin said. “They show Ukraine that Belarusians demand freedom and help fight for freedom in Ukraine.”
He added: “In 2020, the struggle between democracy and autocracy took place in Belarus. But Belarus did not get enough support. Now the battle is in Ukraine.”
Mr Slunkin said he also believed the involvement of the exiles was important for the country’s long-term reputation as many Belarusians abroad, most of whom left because of Mr Lukashenko, were seen as coming from from an aggressor country and faced prejudice about the war, similar to what has sometimes happened to Russians who have fled Putin’s crackdown.
Many of the tens of thousands of Belarusians who fled to Ukraine are now on their way again, Mr Slunkin said, but they are in trouble because many have never been granted residence permits and therefore do not have the same rights to legal protection. in the European Union as Ukrainian refugees. Many are also destitute 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 area by Russia, they had been received with suspicion in the early days of the war and interrogated by the police. Although their main motivation was to defeat Mr Putin and Mr Lukashenko, both said they also wanted to show Ukraine and the world that Belarusians did not support the destruction caused by the war.
“Our main mission here is not to lose what we have achieved in 2020,” said Mr Suschik, referring to Belarus’ protest movement, which has been praised worldwide for its courage. “And not to become allies of our enemy, so that Belarusians around the world are not seen as the same invaders and enemies.”
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
Lukashenko denounced the Belarusian fighters at a March 15 meeting with representatives of his country’s security forces, accusing them of stealing the money raised.
‘They cry, ‘No to war, no to war!’ everywhere, forming battalions of insane civilians,” he said. “Even if the diaspora or someone abroad is raising money and sending it to them, 99 percent of this money will end up in their pockets.”
In fact, the battalion is not particularly well equipped. A Belarusian man in the Czech Republic started raising money for the battalion to buy body armor.
“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 in Belarus are also helping in other ways, such as disabling the railways used to supply the Russian soldiers across the border.
“There is currently no rail link between Ukraine and Belarus,” Oleksandr Kamyshin, the director of Ukraine’s national railway company, told Current Time, a Russian-language media outlet supported by the US government. “I am grateful to the railway workers of Belarus 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 Azov Battalion’s Belarus Territorial Defense Company, was killed on March 4 after fighting in the battles for Bucha, outside Kiev, on 4th of March.
On March 13, 31-year-old Aleksei Skoble, who had fought for Ukraine since the start of the war in 2014, was also killed.
Russia is also recruiting Belarusians to fight. Ukraine’s defense ministry said on Wednesday it had information that Belarusians were being offered a salary of $1,000 to $1,500 a month to fight for Moscow, as well as benefits for studying at Russian universities.
Mr Suschik and Mr Bespalov said they were willing to die as part of the war in Ukraine, even if they ended up fighting their own compatriots.
“I understand that if this threat is not stopped now, my country simply will not exist,” Mr Bespalov said. But, he added, he was convinced of Ukraine’s eventual victory and believed that the struggle 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.”