Belarusian dissident fighters in Ukraine risking ‘sadistic torture’

Belarus: Enlistment announcement at the Barysau bus station

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In 2021, Mirik — his military call sign — gave up his job, his life, his friends, and his family to make the gruelling overland journey from Belarus to eastern Ukraine. Once there, he signed up to fight for the Ukrainian Armed Forces in an isolated but fierce war that had been raging for seven years. He was 21 years old. He did not envisage that in two years’ time, he would be fighting as part of a much larger regiment specifically set up for Belarusians like himself who wanted to stop a common enemy — Russia — in a full-scale war. “It is so much harder now,” he told from a wooded area somewhere in eastern Ukraine. “Every fight could be your last one. But we won’t give up.”

Giving up would mean sacrificing not only the future of Ukraine but to those who are a part of the Kastuś Kalinoŭski regiment the future of Belarus, too. It is their home, where they grew up, went to school, had their first jobs, and perhaps their first love. And it is where they plan to take the fight.

When Russia launched missiles at several Ukrainian cities on March 2, 2022, the Kalinoŭski battalion was formed, consisting of barely 40 Belarusians.

By March 5, 200 Belarusians had travelled to Ukraine to fight against Russia, and a further 300 were ready to cross the border from Poland. Many of these would later go on to serve within Kastuś Kalinoŭski.

From that point on, the battalion carried out various missions in the east of Ukraine alongside the Ukrainian Armed Forces, engaging in heavy combat and liberation missions. Many of the Kastuś Kalinoŭski top brass were killed in the process, others given Ukrainian state awards for bravery and commitment.

The 25-year-old would not say how many soldiers are in the regiment, but, through a wry smile, assured that it is a handsome figure. “Numbers are sufficient,” she said. “There are enough of us to achieve the set goal and to reach victory.”

The desired victory is two-fold. The first to crush Putin and his army, the second to depose Alexander Lukashenko from his role as Belarusian president.

Lukashenko’s rule is nostalgic, taken straight from the Soviet playbook, himself having played a crucial role in Belarus’ time as part of the USSR, back then known as Byelorussia.

He is the country’s first and only president, exerting total control over each of its power strings since he was first elected in 1994. There have been six presidential elections since then with each marred in the same controversy and allegations of foul play. It is said that he openly revels in this, describing himself as the “last dictator of Europe”.

By May 2022, the number of volunteer fighters had grown so much that the battalion became two full regiments, Kalinoŭski’s press secretary, Chabor — her call sign — explained to

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Lukashenko’s ‘strong man’ rhetoric means that he finds in Vladimir Putin a kindred spirit, and the two have for over a decade enjoyed a mutual benefits political relationship: if Belarus turns a blind eye to Russia’s shadier dealings, it can count on import and export privileges from Moscow to circumvent Western sanctions, and vice versa.

While the world is aware of their partnership, what flowered between Russia and Belarus from 1994 to 2022 was largely ignored.

Their level of trust has enabled Putin to convince Lukashenko to hand over large parts of Belarus to his military, with Belarusian military bases and aerodromes becoming the exclusive headquarters of Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. These places are also used to treat wounded Russian soliders, it is believed.

Lukashenko has even allowed Russia to fire land-based missiles at Ukraine from inside Belarus’ borders, effectively dragging the country into the war in all but name. The likes of Kalinoŭski’s volunteers fear that this all amounts to a Russian incursion into the territory of Belarus and that soon, the Kremlin will snatch those power strings from Lukashenko’s hands.


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For the majority of ordinary Belarusians, backing the war in Ukraine is a no-go. But this does not mean they are anti-Russian. A country torn apart by wars involving outside powers for hundreds of years has created an atmosphere of apathy, and a desire to avoid confrontation at all costs.

Consistent polling — difficult to gauge in a country where few, if any, independent pollsters exist — shows that Belarusians simply want their government to take a neutral stance on the war. To go and actively fight in a foreign country, then, is an act of rebellion. One that risks unimaginable consequences.

For Mirik, now 23 years old, the potential repercussions are graver. In his past life, he was part of the Belarusian police force, an enforcer of the regime’s authoritarian system. He said: “At a certain point, I realised that my position and views did not agree and align with those of Lukashenko and the Belarus state. It was a huge conflict for me, and I knew that I must do something.”

While dissent is dealt with in the same way across the board regardless of background — arrest and torture — if Mirik were ever caught, it would take on a whole new form.

“The physical aspect of it would be terrible, and they would make it worse because they consider me to be one of their own, a traitor, who crossed the line,” he said.

“The torture would be even more perverted and sadistic, more intense.”

In December, the Kastuś Kalinoŭski regiment joined forces with the Cyber-Partisans, an anonymous Belarusian collective of hackers. The meeting hinted at what is to come, the two sharing plans and common goals of “complex actions” that they say will “bring victory over the dictatorships of Putin and Lukashenko”.

What this all means, however, leaves much to the imagination. And for now, Chabor is vague when asked when it will happen: “When the time comes, everyone will see, the entire world will see what the Belarusians are all about.”

Kalinoŭski’s fighters are contracted by the Ukrainian Armed Forces and continue to fight the Russian military at close quarters. And while they long for the creation of a fully independent and democratic Belarus, their immediate goals are focused on defeating Russian forces in Ukraine.

Some have suggested that the war may come to an end in 2023, with Putin perhaps pulling his troops, or a decisive Ukrainian battle somewhere in the east of the country pushing Russian personnel back across their own borders.

Conservative strategists say the more likely scenario is that the war protracts and the world settles in for a conflict that will span much of the Twenties.

War fatigue is one of the main fears for global powers: how long can foreign governments continue to supply pro-Ukrainian fighters with aid? Perhaps the question should be: how long can pro-Ukrainian fighters last in what is soon becoming a bloody and lawless and desperate war?

Mirik is sage when he thinks about how long he has left in him. “From a physical perspective, it’s pretty simple,” he said. “It is for as long as I have my physical capabilities. Or, for as long as I am alive.”

But what about from a mental perspective? Between 2014 and the 2022 full-scale invasion, suicide had become the hidden toll of the war, Ukrainian fighters often unable to bear the weight of what they had witnessed in a country that was largely at peace.

“Well, that is different,” Mirik said. “It’s different because when you look at the Ukrainians beside you, you realise that these people, they have no other choice other than to fight. If they stop what they are doing, they will not be able to free Ukraine, their country, and themselves.

“For me, it has become similar. They inspire me with their attitudes and make me realise that if I stop fighting there is a good chance I will not see a free Belarus. And so I will, I must carry on as much as I am able to mentally.”

For the Belarusians fighting, Ukraine’s fate is intertwined with the future of their own country. A win for Ukraine is a win for Belarus. There is no other option.

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