Belarusian Volunteers Join Ukraine Conflict on Both Sides

Earlier this month the Belarusian media put out a story on the Belarusian military unit Pahonia, which is training in the Valyń region of Ukraine in order to join Ukrainian army.

Fighters did not reveal their names, fearing potential KGB pressure, but Ukrainian officials say many Belarusians have contacted them to join the unit.

Some Belarusians were also detected on the other side of the conflict. While they did not form any special unit and are trying to keep their involvement under wraps as Belarus' KGB has already initiated a number of criminal cases against them for being mercenaries.

At the same time it seems that Belarus is urgently trying to learn lessons from the Ukrainian conflict, while also seeking to retain full control of the situation domestically ahead of 2015 presidential elections.

This month the government ramped up its anti-terrorist legislation, while Lukashenka’s speeches have become increasingly loaded with security issues. He has been urging the authorities to strengthen Belarusian sovereignty on the basis of a strong economy and a heightened level of international authority.

Belarusians Ready to Fight for Ukraine

Since the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine, some Belarusian citizens have sought to personally join in on the military conflict in Ukraine. Ukrainian TV channels occasionally show stories of a Belarusian unit in the Valyń region of Ukraine training and preparing for combat in the country's south-east.

The unit has a name Pahonia and trains Belarusians who want to fight against the separatists. According to head of the Valyń City Council, Ihor Guź, the unit has been formed as part of an initiative of the Right Alliance youth organisation, which has cooperated with Belarusian oppositional youth groups and individuals for many years.

All of the volunteers who have joined are younger than 30 years old and many actively work with Belarusian NGOs. Belarusians do not dare reveal their names as to prevent repression against them and those associated with them at home. The Malady Front, an opposition organisation, confirmed that some of its members have made their way to Ukraine. “After we announced the unit's formation, about 50 people showed up and contacted us to join it. Sure, there are members of the Belarus KGB among them, but we will figure out a way of how to deal with it [later],” Ihor Guź said.

In an interview with the Rosbalt news agency, an anonymous Pahonia fighter explained that they crossed the Belarus-Ukraine border legally, and if they are questioned on their return home at border what they were doing in Ukraine, they will answer they simply reply that they were working in Kyiv.

“We don’t tell anyone about it, people would not understand. Only our closest relatives know that we went to war,” the Pahonia volunteer said.

Belarusian combatants say they decided to help the Ukrainians in their fight against Russia because Belarus may face the same threat in the future:

When Georgians said that Ukraine will be the next, nobody believed them. Lukashenka is quite smart, but Moscow will do away with him sooner or later. And we hope our Ukrainian brothers will help us just as we help them now. We are not being paid any money here.

Aide to Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine Anton Herashchenko confirmed that “there indeed are Belarusian citizens who want to fight against the terrorists in Ukraine. Ukrainian legislation does not allow for the use of foreign units, but they can easily obtain Ukrainian citizenship.”

Earlier, Semion Semenchenko, the leader of the Donbas volunteer battalion reported that 15 Belarusians joined them in order to fight against pro-Russian forces.

DNR Combatants Face KGB Pressure

As Belarus remains a nation divided over whether its future is with the EU or Russia, it is hardly surprising that Belarusian nationals have been appearing on the other side of the conflict as well.

Earlier this month Ukrainian security services reported that it detained a citizen of Belarus. Allegedly, he came to Odessa together with some Russians with an order from Russian intelligence services to destabilise the situation in the region. They established contacts with local radical groups, distributed leaflets and inspired anti-government protests.

In May, Ukrainian Security Service detained Belarusian citizen Alieh Šabalin, who was accused of carrying out preparations for a terrorist act. Despite this and other individual incidences of collaboration with pro-Russian forces, no organised units of Belarusians on the side of the separatists have yet to appear.

Natallia Krasoŭskaja became perhaps the most famous Belarusian in the pro-Russian camp. A few videos of her have appeared online, videos where she claims she is from Barysaŭ, Minsk region, and came to Ukraine back on 5 May to support the separatist forces.

Showing her Belarusian passport and addressing Lukashenka, she proclaims in one video that the Donetsk People's Republic has the backing of the Belarusian people.

However, the Belarusian authorities appear to not be all that enthused with this brand of flagrant pro-Russian patriotism. As Krasoŭskaja notes out in a later dispatch, the Belarusian KGB called her mother to inform her that they have filed a criminal case against her. She added that other Belarusian nationals in the DNR paramilitary army have also gotten word that criminal cases were opened against them.

Lukashenka’s Rhetoric

It seems that Belarus is desperately trying to learn as much as possible from the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. This month the government amended its anti-terrorist legislation which includes a section on financing terrorism, increased penalties for the recruitment of mercenaries as well as for training individuals with the purpose of having them participate in terrorist acts.

On 22 April, Lukashenka in his annual address to the nation ordered Belarusian security services to closely monitor and control those who promotes the “Russian issue” in Belarus and immediately curb these kinds of discussions, regardless of who starts them. And as the cases surrounding the Belarusian paramilitaries working on the side of the DNR has shown, the KGB is indeed carrying out its orders.

Publicly though, Lukashenka continues to maintain a diplomatic balance by utilising ambiguous and unclear statements whenever speaking about either side of the conflict. His rhetoric mainly involves urging all sides to end the armed conflict and restore Slavic unity.

Speaking at the Kupalle annual festival in his native village Aleksandryja on 6 July, Lukashenka stated that “Slavic unity has seriously fractured, and we should do our best to achieve peace in Ukraine.” He used similar words on 10 July at the opening of the Slavic Fair cultural festival in Viciebsk.

Both sides are both seeking to draw Belarus further into their camp. At the opening ceremony of the Slavic Fair, the Ukrainian ambassador to Belarus Mikhail Ezhel read a letter of greeting form Ukrainian president Poroshenko.

At the same time, Lukashenka has been increasingly frequently raising the issue of national security in his conversations with Belarusian officials. “The weak are abused, and the strong are respected in the new geopolitical reality, so we must be strong politically, and even more so economically,” he said at a gathering with Belarusian diplomats.

The Belarusian leadership, for its part, continues with its balancing act on the foreign affairs front, while trying to retain complete control of the situation domestically.

The fear of combatants returning, who may come back home as agents of foreign influence, is forcing the Belarusian authorities to their tighten up security measures.

Before the 2015 presidential elections, Lukashenka is not going to allow for hardly any political liberalisation, especially in an environment that is so highly volatile.

Vadzim Smok is the Ostrogorski Centre coordinator in Belarus and researcher at the Institute of Political Studies 'Political Sphere' based in Minsk and Vilnius.

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