The Belarusian Fighters

The Belarusian Fighters

Illustrations by Joan Wong

No revolutionary posters line the streets, “flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues,” as they did when George Orwell left Barcelona to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Nor can you hear loudspeakers “bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night,” as Orwell did in 1936. Instead, gathered in a basement on a quiet, tree-lined street, the Belarusians preparing to leave Warsaw to join the Ukrainian army look more like a bunch of computer programmers getting ready for a long car trip.

Maybe that’s because they are a bunch of computer programmers—or anyway, some of them are—gathered in a basement on a quiet, tree-lined street, getting ready for a long car trip. Canned food, dried sausage, and bags of nuts and raisins are neatly stacked on the floor beside a pile of backpacks. A couple of SUVs are parked just outside. The cars have been donated by Polish or Belarusian sympathizers, or else were left behind by others who have departed for the front. The group I am meeting will be leaving for the Ukrainian border in an hour, and they are speaking with me on the condition that I don’t take pictures and don’t ask for names. If they are identified, members of their families could be visited, harassed, even arrested by the Belarusian police. “Our relatives are hostages,” one of them told me. Already, mothers of Belarusian soldiers fighting in Ukraine have been forced to make public statements denouncing their children.

I can tell you that they are young, in their 20s and 30s, and that they are on their way to join the Kastus Kalinouski Regiment, a military unit founded in March as a part of the Ukrainian army but with a separate, Belarusian status. I can also tell you that, appearances to the contrary, they and their leaders are thoroughly grounded in the international history of armed rebellion. They know their 19th-century antecedents: Kastus Kalinouski fought in the failed 1863 uprising against the Russian occupation of what was then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. They know their 20th-century antecedents too, among them not just Orwell in Spain but Józef Piłsudski, a Polish general who fought with the Austrian army in 1914 because he hoped, eventually, to liberate Poland. Although Kalinouski was executed and Orwell’s cause ultimately failed, Piłsudski marched his Polish Legions into Warsaw. By 1918, he was the leader of independent Poland. The men in the basement are going to Ukraine both because they are, like Orwell in Spain, sympathizers with another country’s democratic cause, and because they hope, like Piłsudski in Poland, to eventually liberate Belarus from the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for nearly three decades.

[From the August 1923 issue: Józef Piłsudski, Aristocrat-Revolutionary]

Hope is tempered with realism—they are headed for the front line of one of the most brutal wars of the 21st century—and bolstered by desperation, the feeling that other, better roads to political change have disappeared. K, a man in his 20s—floppy blond hair, green T-shirt, ripped shorts—told me he had begun his career working in a government office in Minsk, but quickly realized what that meant. “Your work, everything that you do, is to make sure that the Lukashenko regime remains in power,” he said. During a series of mass protests following a stolen election in 2020, a moment all of them call “the revolution,” K and a friend distributed leaflets with slogans criticizing the regime. The friend is now in prison, serving a four-year sentence (K tells me his name; later I find it on a list of political prisoners). After Russia invaded Ukraine, K was racked with guilt, unable to sleep, angry that the failure of the Belarusian revolution meant that Russian rockets could be launched at Ukraine from Belarus. “I understood that we have an obligation to go to Kyiv,” he says. “And afterwards, we will go to Minsk.”

We didn’t finish our revolution, we didn’t remove Lukashenko, we didn’t prevent Russian troops from crossing our border to attack Ukraine—all of these are reasons, now, to fight in Ukraine. A long-haired man, R (one of the computer programmers), told me that he, too, took part in the 2020 demonstrations, and that he, too, left Belarus afterward. But then R returned home for a visit. What he saw shocked him. People had stopped protesting: “People aren’t fighting. This life”—he means life under the dictatorship—“is enough for them.” How can they just go on as if nothing is happening, as if rockets are not flying? “To me it’s surreal.”

Most of the men I spoke with have other options; they could have good lives outside Belarus if they wanted to. B, wearing a white T-shirt printed with the slogan INSPIRE, revealed halfway through our conversation that he speaks good English, and we switched from Russian. He has family in the U.S., and has been there several times (“Bay Area … Yosemite National Park …”). His dream was to watch Woody Allen playing jazz in New York, but on the night he went to Café Carlyle, Allen wasn’t there. He describes himself as a “digital nomad”—“or maybe better to say international homeless”—and has been traveling around Europe for the past few years. He, too, works in the world of computers, but he has wanted to fight in Ukraine since the war began. In March, “it was very cold, and I was very scared.” Although “I am still scared,” he said, those “emotional videos,” watching them one after another, over and over again, “month by month, week by week,” finally persuaded him to sign on with the Kalinouski Regiment.

Want to hear more from Anne Applebaum about Russia’s war on Ukraine? Join her, George Packer, and Franklin Foer at The Atlantic Festival, Friday, September 23. Register and find out more here.

K, R, and B might all be roughly described as Minsk intellectuals. Their leaders, organizing papers in the next room, tell me that among the volunteers are also recent high-school graduates, factory workers, ex-policemen. Some arrive in Warsaw on overnight buses from Belarus with no money and no plans, other than to join the Ukrainian army. On the front gate of the Kalinouski Warsaw headquarters is a sign with a phone number, in case volunteers show up when no one is around. How do they know where to go? “Everyone knows,” one of them told me.

I was also told about much rougher recruits, including former criminals, though I didn’t encounter any myself. One of the exiles who staffs the Warsaw recruitment office put it like this: “Certain kinds of people are drawn to the idea of weapons, fighting.” Several former members of the Belarusian military and security services are also known to be fighting with the Ukrainian army, some in the Kalinouski Regiment and some in other units. Slowly, they are linking up with one another, and with sympathizers elsewhere. On August 9, a congress of the unified Belarusian opposition appointed Valery Sakhashchik, the former commander of a legendary paratrooper unit in the Belarusian army, as the effective minister of defense in exile; I spoke with him while he was in a car, driving to Ukraine for his first formal meeting with the Kalinouski Regiment. Sakhashchik left Belarus six years ago—it was impossible “to be a free person” there, he told me—and has been running a successful construction firm in Poland. He thinks the regiment might not yet be important militarily, “but it is important emotionally, because a lot of people believe it represents the future of the Belarusian army.”

Whether they make contact in advance or just appear on the doorstep, whether their background is in the military or at a university, all of the volunteers go through a verification process. Pavel Kukhta, the head of the Kalinouski Warsaw recruitment office (and one of the few people who has been public about his association with the regiment), told me that Belarusian kiberpartizanti—cyberpartisans—have hacked most of the databases used by the Belarusian KGB and can check whether residential, educational, and professional information is genuine. If it’s not, the men get sent on to the border anyway, where Ukrainian border guards will stop them and question them further. What happens after that to those who have given false information, Kukhta doesn’t know.

[Anne Applebaum: Russia’s war against Ukraine has turned into terrorism]

Kukhta doesn’t know a lot of things. He won’t say where the new recruits will be training, or where they will be sent afterward. He can’t say with any precision exactly how many of them are already fighting (“hundreds”). The less you know, the less you can accidentally reveal.

Even putting aside the need for operational security, Kukhta, who has been fighting with the Ukrainian army since 2016, originally in the Donbas, is clearly a man of few words. For this role, he doesn’t need many. A couple of times while I am talking with the new recruits, he comes into the room where the men are waiting. He collects their passports, checks their names. There are no inspirational speeches and no drama: Everyone here has already made their decision and accepted the consequences. When I leave, they are lining up in the garden.

The next time I see them—or I think I see them—is a week later, in a scraggly field behind a parking lot in a suburb in central Ukraine. New recruits, perhaps including some I met in Warsaw, are dressed in camouflage, carrying weapons, and, in a nod to my presence, wearing balaclavas to hide their faces. Their uniforms were crowdfunded or donated by sympathizers in both Poland and Belarus. Their guns came from the Ukrainian army. Their trainer is from one of the Baltic states. He is particularly valued by the Belarusians because he has passed several NATO courses, and they want to learn to fight like NATO soldiers. One of the many ironies of the current moment is how many opponents of Putin’s Russia, from the Baltic to the Black Sea (and indeed all the way to Central Asia), share Russian as a common language and can use it to organize, even to teach American military doctrine, across national lines.

I watch them with “Rokosh,” the alias of a man who has been part of different Belarusian-democracy movements since the 1990s. He explains that today’s exercises involve training to fight in cities. On other days they go to the Ukrainian army’s shooting ranges, or practice trench warfare; the field has been dug up for that purpose. They follow a strict schedule—morning exercise, all-day training, films or lectures in the evenings—and live together in a run-down dormitory nearby.

Rokosh earlier joined me for a longer conversation in an unremarkable basement bar with three other Belarusians associated with the regiment or with the Belarusian opposition. All of them belong to a different generation from the men in the field. They have watched the rise and fall of various opposition movements and leaders since 1994, when Lukashenko first came to power. They watched his regime turn from the soft authoritarian rule of a collective-farm boss into a vicious, violent autocracy that tortures political prisoners and allows the Russian army to launch missiles into Ukraine from its territory. They remember the Soviet Union, and they do not want their country to become part of a neo-Soviet empire. What they want instead, one of them told me, is “a radical change in the political system, legal system, economic system, and deep reforms of the entire society to bring Belarus to the principles of democracy and the rule of law.” But they do not believe the current regime will disintegrate peacefully.

Like everybody else in the post-Soviet world, Rokosh and the other men have read Gene Sharp, the philosopher of nonviolent revolution and civic activism who died in 2018. They admire his ideas, but they don’t think they apply to their situation anymore. Nonviolence was tried in Belarus. It failed. “Flowers and demonstrations could not change this situation,” one of them says, so it is time to try something else. They tell me about partisan underground movements inside their country—one of them is called “Flying Storks”—which have, they say, racked up a few minor victories, including a drone attack on the headquarters of OMON, the Belarusian riot police, in Minsk. They also say they have distributed clandestine training videos designed to help people counter the tactics of the riot police: “The people’s right to revolt is justified because all civilized methods of changing the situation were exhausted,” one said. Even so, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a turning point, a different level of threat, a shock to the system, a “spit in the face.” If Ukraine does not win, one of them told me, “we will have to say goodbye to any idea of a free Belarus.”

Illustration including map of Ukraine and Russia in green, black-and-white photo of Kalinouski, and photo of army regiment in red
Illustration by Joan Wong. Sources: Raúl Moreno / Laski Diffusion / PeterHermesFurian / Getty.

They aren’t the first to draw that conclusion. In the very early days of the war, inspired by another piece of history—the Belarusians who blew up railway lines and train stations to stop the Nazi advance into the Soviet Union in the early 1940s—a group of Belarusian railway workers, helped by the kiberpartizanti, sabotaged some of the Russian trains carrying soldiers and supplies to the front. They mixed the signals, snarled the tracks, took down the computer system, damaged equipment. One group of saboteurs came under police attack while setting fire to a signaling box. A Belarusian Telegram channel, “Belaruski Gayun,” also helped by providing constantly updated information from anonymous subscribers on troop and equipment movements along the border, allowing Ukrainians to prepare. The channel is still going, and is still read carefully by those guarding the territory of northern Ukraine.

The members of the Kalinouski Regiment are motivated by a belief that the Belarusian regime is both much weaker and much more dangerous than many assume. Lukashenko, they argue, is deeply unpopular. They reckon that no more than 10 to 20 percent of the population supports him—mostly pensioners, bureaucrats, and security-service employees who depend on the state for jobs in a failing economy—and he knows this. Lukashenko has no ideology, but he will do anything to stay in power. That means that when Russian President Vladimir Putin threatens, as he did at the end of June, to transfer nuclear missiles to Belarus, the world should pay attention. Putin might want to avoid the geopolitical consequences of using nuclear weapons for the first time since 1945—but Lukashenko might not care.

Putin could also force Lukashenko to send Belarusian troops to fight in Ukraine, but that kind of decision could have unintended consequences. Kukhta, Rokosh, and the others all say their regiment has been contacted directly by soldiers and officers now serving in the Belarusian army who want instructions on how to surrender if they are ordered to cross the border into Ukraine. Kukhta, the man of few words, gave them blunt advice: “Put your hands up and your weapons down.” He predicts that the majority of the Belarusian army’s tanks and trucks would wind up in the control of the Ukrainian army. Although there is no way to verify that claim, at least one Belarusian border guard has successfully escaped to the Ukrainian side already, declaring that he wanted to join the fight against Russia. Sakhashchik, who also predicts that the majority of ordinary soldiers would not fight, made a video appeal back in February, calling on Belarusian soldiers not to join the invasion: “This is not our war. You will not defend your homeland, home, or family and will not receive glory—only shame, humiliation, and death.”

The Kalinouski fighters think Belarus has another kind of significance too. After all, if the Russian leader wants to reunite Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine into some kind of neo-Soviet empire, Lukashenko’s loyalty is a necessary ingredient. But what if the Belarusian pillar disappears? Then everything else—the empire, the war with Ukraine, Putinism itself—might crumble as well. This, they want the world to know, is an opportunity that should be taken, not least because, as one of them put it, “Lukashenko is easier to unseat than Putin.” Right now nobody other than the Poles and of course the Ukrainians is assisting the Kalinouski fighters. But maybe someday others will. Rokosh tells me that he wants the fighters eventually to get access to better Western and NATO intelligence about what goes on inside their country so that they can plan their next steps better. The Biden administration’s warnings last autumn about the coming war in Ukraine convinced many people across Eastern Europe, Belarus included, that the Americans know a lot more than they let on. Alongside Gene Sharp, the fighters have also read Charlie Wilson’s War, the book that describes how, in the 1980s, a single congressman persuaded Washington to help the Afghans overthrow their Soviet occupiers. If it happened once, maybe it could happen again?

Before I leave the scruffy field, I watch the volunteers get put through their paces. They are walking in groups of three, one behind the other, as if they were in an occupied city. Some of them are slow and awkward, giving the impression that this is the first time they’ve ever held a gun. Some move faster, seem more experienced; one of them told me back in Warsaw that he’s had some police training, and I wonder if he is one of the men moving lightly, adeptly, across the field. Several other people, including a young woman, are watching from the sidelines, listening intently to the words of the Baltic trainer. One of them has a Cossack haircut—shaved head, except for a ponytail—and arms covered in patriotic tattoos.

The trainer turns on heavy-metal music, and that adds a bit more drama to the scene. The sun beats down on the suburb, and I begin to feel bad about the balaclavas. The trainees repeat the same exercises over and over again. Rokosh explains that the idea, as with all military training, is for these moves to become automatic, instinctive. Computer programmers, high-school graduates, government bureaucrats, and maybe the odd thief must learn in just a few weeks to react without thinking when they are attacked.

However wearisome the exercise might be, this is the easy part, the predictable part. They will train, they will prepare, they will be sent to the front—all of that, they know. What they don’t know is the true nature of the historical moment they inhabit, or how it will end. They have made a bet, but is it the right one?

Here is one more story told to me by the group in the basement bar: In 2021, a few members of the Belarusian underground started communicating clandestinely with some senior Belarusian officers who said they were ready to oppose the regime. After many months of conversation, the partisans finally agreed to travel outside the country, to Russia, in order to meet them; the officers said they didn’t dare do so at home but could not travel abroad anywhere else. The meeting was a trap. As soon as the Belarusian-underground leaders arrived, they were all arrested and imprisoned.

I hear the historical echo in the story, as do the Kalinouski fighters. In the winter of 1945, 16 officers of the Polish resistance, all veterans of the struggle against Hitler, began to communicate clandestinely with Ivan Serov, the Red Army general who had just arrived to run the occupation of Poland. Convinced he wanted to help, they arranged to meet him in March. But it was a trap. They were all arrested, flown to Moscow, and imprisoned in the Lubyanka, the Soviet Union’s most notorious prison, where three of them eventually died.

That story unfolded at a moment of maximum Soviet strength, when the Second World War was mostly won, the Yalta Agreement had already divided Europe into spheres of Soviet and Western influence, and no outsiders—not the British, not the Americans—were in a position to help the Poles. In 1918, by contrast, Piłsudski liberated Warsaw from czarist occupation at a moment of maximum Russian weakness, when the Bolshevik revolution had begun, the Russian army had collapsed, and Europe’s other imperial autocracies, in Germany and Austria-Hungary, were failing as well.

But is this 1918, with Russian power waning? Or is this 1945, when it is finally consolidating? The Belarusians don’t know, of course, but they want to influence the answer. In the bar, I asked the men if they are waiting for the right moment to return home. “We are not waiting for the moment,” one of them corrected me. “We are working on creating the conditions” that will make the right moment arrive.

They believe that if they lean hard on the scales of history and help the Ukrainians win, then both Russia and its Belarusian satrap will be far weaker. They could pay a high price—not just with their time and effort but with their lives. On June 26, the commander of one of the Belarusian battalions died during the battle for Lysychansk. Ivan Marchuk, alias “Brest,” was 28. Others have also been killed, wounded, or captured.

But if they don’t fight, they might pay another kind of price: If Ukraine loses and Russia is empowered, then Belarus will remain a dictatorship, and they will never be able to go home. Those of us who live in luckier countries, with better geography, don’t know what it feels like to have a choice between fighting and exile, but all of the people sweating in this field truly do. Back in Warsaw, one of the volunteers told me that since leaving his country in 2020, he had done nothing but move from place to place, trying to make a different life but never really finding a home. Belarus is his only home, but before he can return there, he has to help change it. “I run. And I run. And I run. I would like to stop running.”

This article appears in the October 2022 print edition with the headline “The Kalinouski Regiment.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

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