Ukraine’s Belarusian volunteers create headaches for Putin ally Lukashenka

In late March, Ukrainian MP Ihor Guz unfurled the flag of the Belarusian Kalinouski Regiment in the Ukrainian Parliament and paid tribute to the Belarusian volunteers helping to defend Ukraine against Russia’s invasion. This gesture was a reminder that Belarusians currently make up one of the largest contingents of foreign nationals fighting for Ukraine. Their growing presence is helping to shape the battlefield in Ukraine and has broader implications for regional security.

Belarusians have been part of the Ukrainian struggle against Russian aggression since 2014, when dozens joining the volunteer battalions that emerged in response to Russia’s seizure of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. When Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in Febuary 2022, Belarusians responded by forming their own battalion and naming it after Kastus Kalinouski, a nineteenth century Belarusian national hero who led an uprising against imperial Russia.

This Belarusian battalion has since expanded to become a regiment, with representatives claiming as many as 5,000 volunteers. Belarusian troops have taken part in some of the biggest battles of the war including the fighting around Kyiv, Mykolaiv, and Bakhmut. The Kalinouski Regiment now has its own recruitment and training structures, and has acquired a considerable arsenal of military equipment. While casualty figures are not publicly disclosed, there are reports of more than 40 Belarusian volunteers killed while defending Ukraine, with the total number likely to be significantly higher.

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The presence of so many Belarusians fighting alongside the Ukrainian military has long been a source of concern for Belarus’s pro-Kremlin dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Speculation over the potential dangers posed by Belarusian fighters in Ukraine has intensified in recent weeks amid a series of cross-border raids conducted by Russian volunteer units entering Russia from Ukrainian territory. Many are now asking whether Ukraine’s large Belarusian contingent may mount similar border zone operations inside Belarus.

For now, there is no sign of any plans for offensive activity along the Ukrainian border with Belarus. Instead, there are indications that Ukraine’s political and military leaders would rather avoid any escalation in the confrontation with Minsk at a time when they are fighting for national survival against Russia’s ongoing invasion.

In an October 2023 interview, Ukrainian Military Intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov spoke favorably of Lukashenka’s ability to prevent his country from becoming a direct participant in the Russian invasion. This caused considerable disquiet among the Belarusian pro-democracy opposition, with many viewing it as a signal of renewed readiness in Kyiv to deal with the Lukashenka regime.

Despite the absence of any offensive operations against Belarus, Lukashenka clearly views the Belarusians fighting in Ukraine as a serious threat to his own regime. He is well aware that many Belarusian volunteers regard victory in Ukraine as a stepping stone toward the overthrow of the current pro-Russian authorities in Minsk. Unsurprisingly, volunteer fighters face criminal prosecution if caught inside Belarus. Some family members have also reportedly been detained by the Belarusian authorities.

Lukashenka has good reason to be wary. His position has been precarious since 2020, when nationwide protests over a rigged presidential election threatened to topple his regime until Kremlin intervention and a brutal crackdown enabled him to cling onto power. While there is only relatively limited cooperation between the domestic population and Belarus’s exiled pro-democracy opposition, the danger of renewed protests remains.

Some Belarusians have accused the country’s exiled opposition of not doing enough to confront the Lukashenka regime. Leaders of the Kalinouski Regiment have urged opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to play a more active role in efforts to mobilize support for the regiment and increase assistance for Belarusians fighting for Ukraine.

There are some indications that the Kalinouski Regiment may have political ambitions of its own. The regiment has strengthened ties with the Cyberpartisans hacktivist group, which is a member of the Belarusian opposition’s Coordination Council. In January 2024, Kalinouski Regiment leaders announced plans to visit 12 European cities to meet Belarusian supporters. While in Warsaw, they spoke of their interest in developing a “political track.”

The Kalinouski Regiment is playing a significant role in Ukraine’s armed struggle against Russian imperialism and its leaders clearly have ambitions to eventually liberate their own country. However, the regiment is currently far too small to challenge the Lukshenka regime on its own.

Meanwhile, there is little sign of any Ukrainian appetite to expand the war. On the contrary, the absence of cross-border raids and the softer tone adopted in recent months by some in Kyiv hints at a more pragmatic approach toward ties with Belarus. Until this changes, the Kalinouski Regiment may keep Lukashenka awake at night, but it is unlikely to orchestrate his downfall.

Alesia Rudnik is a PhD Fellow at Karlstad University in Sweden and director of Belarusian think tank The Center for New Ideas.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

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Image: Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka arrive to attend the opening ceremony of a monument to civilians killed during World War Two, as part of events marking the 80th anniversary of the liberation of Leningrad from Nazi blockade during WWII, near the village of Zaitsevo, Leningrad region, Russia January 27, 2024. (Olga Maltseva/Pool via REUTERS)