But he believes the best chance to topple Lukashenko, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, without whose support many in Belarus believe Lukashenko would quickly fall, has come with the war in Ukraine.
He is one of hundreds of Belarusians who have joined the fight here, inspired by their neighbor’s battlefield successes and determined to carry that momentum to Belarus to end Lukashenko’s 28-year rule.
Many of them have joined the “Kastus Kalinouski Battalion,” named after the leader of the Belarusian insurrection against Russia in the 1860s. It is made up of Belarusians who take advantage of Ukraine’s wartime decision to allow foreigners serve in the ranks of their armed forces, although not as officers. A dozen recruits interviewed by The Washington Post described their sense of common cause between pro-democracy movements in Ukraine and Belarus.
“Life is about leaps of faith,” Kulazhanka said during a break this week from training with an AK-47 assault rifle in a western suburb of kyiv. All around him, the sound of distant artillery fire rumbled through the air like an electrical storm. “Fighting Lukashenko was one. Fleeing Belarus was another. Throwing my life overboard in the United States was one more. And fighting here, we are doing the greatest of all.”
While Lukashenko’s army has yet to join Putin’s in Ukraine, Russian soldiers have been based in Belarus since before the war began and launched their main ground offensive in kyiv and northern Ukraine from there.
About 200 members of the volunteer battalion are serving on the front lines, including in Irpin, outside kyiv, where Ukrainian forces recently regained control, Kulazhanka and other recruits said.
They are financed and equipped mainly through donations from the Belarusian and Ukrainian diaspora, including in the United States. But the battalion’s recent incorporation into the armed forces meant that some received arms and armor, including some provided by NATO, from the Ukrainian military.
Those leading the recruitment effort say there are thousands more who have expressed interest, but researching them and obtaining equipment has created a backlog. Many are dissidents who were arrested during protests against Lukashenko’s 2020 election victory, which they and international observers say was brazenly robbed.
In March, Vadim Prokopiev, a Belarusian restaurateur who has become one of Europe’s leading organizers of Belarusian recruits, met 14 of them at the Polish-Ukrainian border before leading them to a training site.
Only a few allowed their faces to be photographed and none agreed to provide their last names, saying family members in Belarus could be targeted.
“Basically, there are two wings,” said Prokopiev. “One already in kyiv and one in western Ukraine. Here, we train recruits intensively for two weeks, from tactical issues to digital hygiene. Then they move east in small groups and head to the front.”
Prokopiev said that of the thousands who had expressed interest around the world, only a few hundred were currently in the pipeline. He said he expected more high-ranking defecting officers to join soon, but for now most were untrained recruits.
While most said they had no previous combat experience, some said they have been the recipients of Lukashenko’s brutality, which has imbued them with the spirit of revenge.
“I only spent three nights in prison during the 2020 protests,” said Aleksandr, 38. “But it was enough for me to leave Belarus. I saw women begging not to be hit, I saw a guy with long hair getting scalped. They put 70 of us in a small cell. It was pure brutality, as if we were enslaved people or animals. I am fighting here because until we topple Lukashenko, I cannot go back. Defeating Putin in Ukraine is the first step to freedom for both countries.”
One of the recruits who crossed the border that day, also named Aleks, had a Belarusian passport but was of Russian ethnicity. The 61-year-old, the oldest of the group, described himself as a freethinker and a proud Russian who wanted to show Ukrainians that not all Russians supported the war; in fact, there were some like him who would fight on his side.
“We have to show that the Soviet mentality cannot last forever,” he said. “Putin is against goodness, truth and freedom. He has opened old wounds. To cure them, unfortunately, we must fight, and that can take our lives.”
Since the war in Ukraine began, Belarusian dissidents have warned that an invasion of Ukraine by the Belarusian army is imminent. Ukraine’s military echoed those warnings, accusing Russia and Belarus of staging small-scale attacks against Belarus as a pretext for a Belarusian invasion, though those accusations have not been substantiated.
“According to my sources in the army, the battalions on the Belarusian side of the border are fully prepared for the invasion, they are just waiting for the order,” said Pavel Latushko, a former Belarusian culture minister who defected to Poland a decade ago and has since has organized protests, and now recruits to Ukraine, from there.
“To me, it’s obvious why Lukashenko hasn’t said he’s leaving yet,” Latushko said. “He is a master of self-preservation and he knows that invading Ukraine may be the end of him. The morale of his soldiers is zero for this war. They will desert en masse.”
Lukashenko dismissed the battalion as “crazy citizens” in a recent interview with Belarusian state media.
In Ukraine, however, hopes are high among Belarusian conscripts that if the Belarusian army were to invade, their soldiers would seize the opportunity to defect, and their Belarusian battalion was ready to welcome them.
“We are already considering how to make Belarusian troops defect to our ranks,” said Sergey Bulba, who along with Prokopiev leads Belarusian recruitment and training efforts in Ukraine. “Many soldiers in the army already know in their hearts that the destinies of Belarus and Ukraine are united. As soon as they get out of the propaganda bubble in Belarus, they will know what they have to do.”