By VANESSA GERA – Associated Press

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — One is a restaurant owner who fled Belarus when he learned he was about to be arrested for criticizing President Alexander Lukashenko. Another was given the choice between denouncing other opposition activists or being imprisoned. And we are certain that his brother was killed by the country’s security forces.

What unites them is their determination to resist Lukashenko by fighting Russian forces in Ukraine.

Belarusians are among those who responded to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s call for foreign fighters to travel to Ukraine and join the International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine, given the high stakes of a conflict that many see as a battle between dictatorship and freedom.

For Belarusians, who view Ukrainians as a sister nation, the stakes are particularly high.

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Russian troops used Belarusian territory to invade Ukraine early in the war, and Lukashenko publicly supported his longtime ally Russian President Vladimir Putin, describing him as his “big brother”. Russia, for its part, has pumped billions of dollars into bolstering Lukashenko’s Soviet-style state-controlled economy with cheap energy and loans.

Weakening Putin, Belarus volunteers say, would also weaken Lukashenko, in power since 1994, and create an opening to topple his oppressive government and bring democratic change to the nation of nearly 10 million people.

For many Belarusians, their base is Poland, a country on NATO’s eastern flank that borders Belarus and Ukraine and which became a haven for pro-democracy Belarusian dissidents before becoming a haven for refugees from Ukrainian war.

Some of the volunteer fighters are already in Poland, and some are just passing through on their way to Ukraine.

“We understand that it’s a long journey to liberate Belarus and the journey begins in Ukraine,” said Vadim Prokopiev, a 50-year-old businessman who ran restaurants in Minsk. He fled the country after a rumor spread that he would be arrested for publicly saying the government was not doing enough for small businesses.

“When the war in Ukraine is finally over, our war will only begin. It is impossible to liberate the country from Belarus without driving Putin’s fascist troops out of Ukraine,” he said.

Prokopiev leads a unit called “Pahonia” which trains recruits. The Associated Press interviewed him as he oversaw an exercise in which guns and other weapons were fired at old cars in simulated warfare scenarios. They were trained by a former Polish policeman turned private shooting instructor.

Prokopiev wants his men to gain critical combat experience, and he hopes that one day soon a window of opportunity will open for democratic change in Belarus. But he says it will require fighters like him to be prepared and members of the security forces in Belarus to turn against Lukashenko.

Belarus’ 2020 presidential election was widely seen as fraudulent, but massive street protests against the award of a sixth term to Lukashenko were met with a brutal government crackdown, leading Prokopiev to believe that no “velvet revolution” can be expected in Belarus.

“Lukashenko’s power can only be taken by force,” he said.

On Saturday, men from another unit, Kastus Kalinouski, gathered in Warsaw at the Belarus House, where sleeping bags, mats and other equipment bound for Ukraine were stacked. They sat together, talking and munching on chocolate and coffee as they prepared to deploy to Ukraine later in the day. Most did not want to be interviewed out of concern for their safety and that of their families back home.

The regiment, which was officially part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, was named after the leader of an anti-Russian uprising in the 19th century, considered a national hero in Belarus.

Lukashenko called them “crazy Belarusian citizens” and authorities put 50 members of Kastus Kalinuski on a wanted list and initiated criminal charges against them.

A 19-year-old Ales, who has been living in Poland for the past year, is ready to describe his motivations. He fled Belarus after the country’s security services, still called the KGB, arrested him and forced him to denounce an anti-Lukashenko resistance group in a video. He was told he would be imprisoned if he did not comply.

Dressed in all black with a hoodie to his boots, he admitted to feeling nervous as the time came to head to Ukraine. He had never received military training, but would receive it once he arrived in Ukraine. But how much and where it would be deployed, he did not yet know.

He said he was going to fight not only to help Ukraine “but to make Belarus independent”. He said it was also important to him that people realize that the people of Belarus are very different from the Lukashenko government.

It is a dangerous mission. At least four volunteers from the Kastus Kalinoski unit have already died. A deputy commander, Aliaksiej Skoblia, was killed in a Russian ambush near kyiv and later recognized by Zelenskyy as a Hero of Ukraine.

Yet fighting in Ukraine can sometimes seem less dangerous than seeking to resist Lukashenko at home, where many activists are in prison in harsh conditions.

Kastus Kalinouski’s recruit organization was Pavel Kukhta, a 24-year-old who had previously fought in Ukraine’s Donbass region in 2016, suffering from burns and loss of most of the hearing in one ear.

Kukhta said his half-brother, Nikita Krivtsov, was found dead by hanging in a wooded area outside Minsk in 2020. Police said there was no evidence of foul play, but Kukhta says he and the rest of the family are certain Krivtsov was killed for joining the anti-Lukashenko protests.

But he insisted his support for Ukraine was not about revenge, only about fighting for democratic change.

“If Putin is defeated, Lukashenko will be defeated,” he said.

Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine contributed to this report.

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