Belarusian exiles join the Ukrainians

For political refugees from “the last dictatorship of Europe”, the fight to keep Ukraine free from Russian rule is seen as the first step to liberate their own country from the rising authoritarian regime of Moscow.

The Belarusian opposition abroad united for the defense of Ukraine.

Since the beginning of Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, hundreds of Belarusian citizens have taken up arms on the side of Ukraine. Most of them are part of the Kastus Kalinovsky Regiment, a unit of the Ukrainian military that is made entirely of the Belarusians. At least 16 people died during this full scale war.

“After I finished my military service in the Belarusian army, I decided that I would never do military service again,” Max, the soldier in the Kalinovsky regiment, told Newsweek. “But the situation turned out to be exactly the opposite.”

Like many men in his unit, Max left Belarus months before the current war between Russia and Ukraine began. For him, the fact that agents of the Belarusian KGB, which is still called the country’s main state security service, brought him in for questioning on political matters became a sign that it was time to flee.

“I ran away from Belarus to avoid prison, but I don’t want to keep running,” Max said. “Many Belarusian exiles went to Europe, but if you run to the west, the orcs (in Ukrainian slang for “Russian soldiers”) will simply follow you. It is better to risk the life as a free man than to continue to run”.

There is no doubt that Max’s life is in danger. He gave some details about the reality on the front line.

The political émigrés like Max have been aided by a network of the Belarusian opposition activists in Ukraine, who see their temporary new home as an ideal base from which to continue their fight against the Moscow-backed regime of Oleksandr Lukashenko in Minsk.

“Since February 20 of this year, Belarus has been under Russian military occupation,” Oleksiy Frantzkevych, the head of the Belarusian Crisis Center in Lviv, told Newsweek.

“The Russian troops, which were in Belarus in February under the guise of so-called “exercises”, have not left our territory,” he said. “We understand that if Russia is not defeated in Ukraine, Belarus cannot be free either. That is why we are here fighting together with the Ukrainians against our common imperial enemy as part of the process of deoccupation of Belarus.”

Frantzkevych found a refuge in Ukraine after August 2020, when a nationwide peaceful protest movement threatened to overthrow the regime of Aleksandr Lukashenko. Despite the 80.1% of Lukashenko’s votes the presidential election was recognized as illegitimate by the European Union, the United States and much of Belarusian civil society, Lukashenko remains the de facto leader in Minsk till these days.

However, Lukashenko’s seizure of power depends more on Moscow’s support than on the will of the Belarusians themselves.