In ‘land of partisans,’ Belarus activists fight their government’s support of Russian war – National

When the Russian army invaded Ukraine nearly two months ago, activists in Belarus took to the streets to protest, but that was not all they did.

They sabotaged railway lines and hacked government websites to disrupt Russian military equipment heading to Ukraine via Belarus.

They took photos and videos of Russian troop movements in Belarus and alerted Ukraine. Some joined Ukrainian forces.

A former Soviet republic of 9 million people, Belarus shares borders with both western Russia and northern Ukraine, making it a key part of Moscow’s strategy.

Under President Alexander Lukashenko, Russia rallied in Belarus under the guise of a joint exercise and entered Ukraine on 24 February.

But while the Lukashenko regime is a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, citizens of Belarus are a different matter.

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“Belarusians do not want war,” Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, leader of the country’s democratic opposition, told Global News in an interview.

Tikhanovsky ran against Lukashenko in the 2020 presidential election following the arrest of her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, an opposition candidate.

She was also arrested after questioning about Lukashenko’s claim to have won the vote and then fled to Lithuania, where she remains in exile.

In Tikhanovsky’s view, Lukashenko was caught between domestic distaste for war and the debt he owed Russia for supporting his regime.

“Lukashenko’s position now is very fragile,” she said. “On the one hand, he doesn’t have the support of most Belarusians. On the other hand, he is definitely under a lot of pressure from () the Kremlin”.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko at the Osipovichi training range during the Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus Alliance military exercise near Osipovichi, Belarus on February 17.

Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr / AP

Opposition to the invasion and Lukashenko’s role in it have sparked protests that have included mass arrests and mistreatment of detainees, she said.

“So our people now work underground more.”

As well as tracking the movements of the Russian military, the anti-war movement has carried out cyberattacks and engaged an all-Belarusian battalion in Ukraine.

In Poland, Belarusians run the Warsaw Mobilization Center, which supplies the battalion, and ZYVI, an organization that helps refugees fleeing war.

“Belarus is a land of parties,” wrote Franak Viačorka, a senior adviser to the opposition movement Tsikhanouskaya, on Twitter.

“Our heroes intercept Russian trains, damage Russian equipment, distribute leaflets to prevent Belarusian troops from entering Ukraine.”

“Ukraine will prevail, Belarus will also be liberated.”

Exiled leader of the opposition Belarusian democracy movement Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, at the policy institute Chatham House, in London, Thursday, March 10, 2022.

AP Photo / Matt Dunham

Lukashenko once positioned himself as a mediator between Moscow and Kyiv, but since then he has become what Tsikhanouskaya calls a “co-invader”.

By allowing Russian troops to concentrate in Belarus and flood Ukraine, he is said to have facilitated the failed attack on Kyiv.

Canada accused the Belarusian regime of supporting and abetting the invasion, but Lukashenko could hardly deny it.

He receives “diplomatic, financial, military, media and intelligence support” from Russia, according to Global Affairs Canada.

The Canadian government also accused the 2020 presidential election, which he claimed to have won, was “ruined by widespread irregularities” and a “systematic campaign of repression”.

The election sparked massive protests that have been suppressed with what Canada calls “state-sponsored violence” and widespread human rights abuses.

In the midst of the uprising, Putin came to Lukashenko’s rescue, swore to send Russian troops and lend Belarus $1.5 billion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko shake hands after their joint press conference following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia on February 18.

Sergei Guneyev / Sputnik / Photo of Kremlin Pool via AP

For his part, Lukashenko is one of Putin’s most staunch defenders, and has powered his disinformation campaign.

When the two leaders met last week, Lukashenko claimed without providing evidence that the Russian war crimes uncovered in Bucha were forged by British agents.

While pro-Russian propaganda dominates Belarusian television, “a lot of people know what’s going on,” said one activist.

Andrzej Kushnirou said he felt ashamed that Lukashenko had participated in Belarus’ war, so he left the country and joined a Belarusian battalion fighting alongside Ukrainian forces.

Andrzej Kushnirou is a member of the Belarusian battalion of the Ukrainian armed forces.

Jeff Semple / Global News

“What our country has done is not right, what Lukashenko has done, for me is unacceptable,” he said.

“We need to do a few things. And many people try to do something. Some go to protest. Some will try to fight in our battalion.”

“And a lot of people in Belarus try to do some guerrilla resistance on the railways and so on, and a lot of people try to do some volunteer work,” he said.

Global News sent questions to the Belarusian embassies in Canada and the US but did not receive a response.

The Belarusian government and Ministry of Defense have faced isolation and sanctions for their supportive role in the Russian invasion.

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Meanwhile, Ukraine has warned that the Belarusian military is preparing to become directly involved in the conflict and that Lukashenko’s dependence on Russia has fueled speculation that he may have no other choice.

But that didn’t happen, and while Putin may want Belarus to join the effort to take over Ukraine, it could spell disaster.

Professor Alexander Lanoszka said Belarus does not have a capable military and the regime is vulnerable, making participation politically risky.

“It will be very expensive for the Ukrainians, but it will be extremely expensive for Belarus,” said the University of Waterloo professor.

Tikhanovsky said the Belarusian soldiers were dismayed at the possibility of being sent to fight with their “brothers and sisters” in Ukraine and possibly disobeying orders to enter Ukraine.

“Also, our military understands that they don’t have any experience in war and they can be killed there. For what? So they don’t want to fight.”

But she believes that Ukraine’s victory will open the door for Belarusians to overthrow Lukashenko and hold elections.

Vladislav, a member of the Belarusian battalion of the Ukrainian armed forces, April 14, 2022.

Jeff Semple / Global News

Belarusian activists agree that their fate is tied to that of Ukraine, which is part of why they entered the conflict.

“Our numbers are increasing day by day,” said Vladislav, a member of a Belarusian battalion fighting alongside Ukrainian forces. He does not want his full name published for security reasons.

The 24-year-old has credited Belarusian anti-war activists for helping to thwart Russia’s plan to capture the Ukrainian capital.

During the initial Kyiv push, Belarusian cyberattacks on the railway system caused supply problems for Russia, he said.

A Belarusian software engineer, Vladislav said he moved to Ukraine in 2020. The Russian invasion prompted him to join the Kastus Kalinouski Battalion.

Named after a 19th-century revolutionary who fought against the Russian occupation of the region, the Belarusian battalion is said to number in the hundreds.

“I see that as the only option a man of honor can make in a situation like this,” he told Global News in an interview.

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He said fighting was a way of showing that Belarusians did not want war with Ukraine and was angry that Lukashenko had dragged their country into it.

“One of the big goals of our battalion is to support the Ukrainian people and make our name clear, because for me personally, the Russian tank invasion of Ukraine from the territory of the land,” he said. My country is a very shameful thing.

“It’s horrible to feel that, and not be able to sit and do nothing about it.”

Vladislav said he has friends and relatives in Ukraine, but he is also fighting for the future of Belarus, which he believes is under some form of Russian occupation.

“We love Belarus. We love our house. And this is one of the reasons why we are here,” he said. “Because we are patriots and we want freedom for our country.”

“We know that Belarus will be liberated. We saw it in our dreams, and we knew that we would return home and it would be a new republic.”

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