An untold number of foreigners hailing from several dozen countries are fighting on the Ukrainian side in its war against Russian aggression. In the hours before the nightly curfew, at Irish bars from Lviv to Kyiv to Odesa, groups consisting of various American, European, and even Japanese and Korean volunteers can be overheard swapping stories and discussing upcoming trips to the front lines.
While none of the volunteers is an active-duty member of their respective countries’ militaries, most served in the armed forces at some point, often in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although several speak openly about the inadequacies of their native political leaders, only one contingent is actually using the war in Ukraine as a training ground for executing regime change back home: the Belarusians.
“After Ukraine’s victory, our fight will only be beginning,” a Belarusian fighter who has served in Severodonetsk and Bakhmut, told Newsweek. “For us, the war in Ukraine is just the first step towards the liberation of our homeland.”
In August 2020, after Belarusian president Aleksander Lukashenko was declared the winner of his sixth presidential election claiming an official vote share totaling 80.1%, town squares across the country almost instantly filled up with tens of thousands of citizens peacefully protesting a result that was not recognized as legitimate by any Western country.
Although it looked at times as if the public pressure might compel the Lukashenko regime to seek some form of political compromise with its constituents, a combination of aid from Vladimir Putin‘s Russia plus brutal crackdowns from the domestic riot police was enough to keep Lukashenko ensconced in the presidential palace.
“We learned in 2020 that, sadly, Belarusian civil society cannot affect political change without at least threatening to use violence,” the Belarusian fighter explained.
While most of the soldiers in the Belarusian volunteer units fighting in Ukraine served a mandatory tour in their country’s military, the experience they have gained in combat sets them apart from their peers back home, even those in Lukashenko’s security services.
“Just a year ago, very few of us were experienced soldiers, but that situation changes by the week,” he said. “I knew how to shoot on the training ground, but we didn’t know what it meant to go up against tanks and artillery. Now that we do, the riot police do not scare us.”
“We will defeat Putin in Ukraine,” he added. “And without Putin, there is no more Lukashenko.”
It is not only Belarusian front line soldiers who understand the reality of Lukashenko’s political vulnerability. Up until February 24 of this year, Aliaksei Frantzkevich, head of the Belarusian Crisis Center in Lviv, Ukraine, was focused on helping Belarusian political exiles abroad. Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, however, his work has focused on achieving a battlefield victory over Putin’s forces.
“Ukrainians are fighting with everything they have,” Frantzkevich told Newsweek. “They donate money to the army because they know their only hope for the future depends on winning the war, and Belarusians understand the same.”
While Western governments continue to supply Ukraine with the modern weaponry it will need in order to liberate those parts of its territory still living under Russian occupation, Frantzkevich’s efforts are part of a less-appreciated international campaign to ensure that the men and women doing the fighting remain as clean, comfortable, and well-fed as is possible under the circumstances.
“We’ve been gathering canned meat, boots, pickup trucks, and any of the other little things that are needed on the front,” Frantzkevich said. “The entire civilized world supports Ukraine, and real Belarusians are a part of this too.”
The Belarusian fighter, just like the thousands of Ukrainian soldiers currently sitting in icy trenches along the war’s front lines, expressed his appreciation.
“We get cigarettes from Ukrainian volunteers, warm pants from Great Britain, food rations from France,” he said.
“In Severodonetsk I was so dirty that, when I saw my reflection in the mirror, I went to greet the guy who I was seeing,” the soldier said. “I thought it was a different person, that it wasn’t me.”
“We couldn’t wash ourselves, but thanks to France, at least we had bleu cheese,” he added. “That makes a difference.”