KYIV — The Belarusian volunteers snicker as they inform the story of considered one of their commanders who deceived the Russians into unleashing artillery salvoes on their own positions close to the war-torn salt-mining city of Bakhmut.
“After we overran a trench, the commander used a radio we found, pretended to be Russian and gave false coordinates for a Russian fire mission,” defined Pavel Shurmei, a 46-year-old former Olympic rower who’s been combating for Ukraine.
“And it worked,” chimed in a 25-year-old volunteer, with a rueful smile.
Belarus chief Alexander Lukashenko, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has dubbed the Belarusians combating for Ukraine “crazed citizens” — however of all the overseas troops battling in Ukraine, the Belarusian volunteers are largely seen by their friends as amongst the most disciplined and lionhearted.
They’ve received battle honors, having in the early weeks after the invasion helped to defend Kyiv and recapture Irpin, a suburban city north of the Ukrainian capital. Irpin, like neighboring Bucha, suffered a reign of terror beneath Russian occupation. They additionally fought fearlessly in the battles for Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk in Donbas final 12 months.
The second-in-command of the Belarusians, and considered one of the founders of their Kastuś Kalinoŭski Regiment, Aliaksiej Skobli, was killed north of Kyiv final March after main a rearguard motion whereas wounded. He was posthumously given the title of Hero of Ukraine by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The regiment, named after a Polish-Belarusian nationwide hero who led an 1863 rebellion in opposition to the Russian Empire, has misplaced at the very least half a dozen volunteers, together with sniper Zmytser Apanosovich, who died in the combat for Irpin after being caught in shelling.
And Shurmei got here near being added to the checklist just lately.
The Belarusians whom POLITICO interviewed take reward for his or her exploits modestly, insisting they’re no higher than others defending Ukraine. Similarly, Shurmei — who’s married to a Ukrainian — is matter of truth when explaining how he was wounded, saying when he obtained blasted by a tank shell he was in shock.
“I stood up and tried to walk away and I heard someone calling to me and one of the guys started to make a tourniquet. I then thought, ‘oh, my God.’ You are never prepared to get wounded. Only when you experience it can you know what it is like,” he stated.
Shurmei was hit in the proper arm after being caught in the open by a Russian tank. His unit took cowl in a dip, however a shell hit a tree spewing shards. One of his comrades was badly wounded and after stabilizing him they began to withdraw an hour later. It was then the ex-Olympian obtained hit by one other tank shell.
So why threat their lives?
Oleh Dashkevich echoes the official motto of the Kastuś Kalinoŭski Regiment — “First Ukraine, then Belarus.” He says, “Russia is our common problem. Belarus is a captive of Russia and Moscow is controlling Belarus and the people. So we need to fight Russia, which will help also Belarus. That’s why we are standing together.”
That’s not how Dashkevich’s dad and mom see it. They had been livid when he instructed them final August he was going to combat for Ukraine.
“They say I am a traitor,” he instructed POLITICO, including: “I have not talked with them since.”
A public opinion ballot performed final 12 months for Britain’s Chatham House recommended that 30 % of Belarusians assist Russia’s invasion.
The Kastuś Kalinoŭski Regiment was renamed a battalion final 12 months when the variety of Belarusian volunteers swelled. Neither Shurmei nor Oleh would verify what number of Belarusians at the moment are combating in Ukraine. “Several hundred,” was all they might acknowledge. Some estimates put the determine as high as 1,500. Whatever the quantity, they are usually in the thick of the combat.
“When we show up some of the Ukrainian soldiers complain — they know that things are likely to get hot,” stated Shurmei.
Aside from not eager to go into element about what number of Belarusians are combating for Ukraine, he and Dashkevich had been cagey about one different factor — the incidents of sabotage in Belarus, together with a drone assault in February that severely damaged a Russian navy plane.
The assault was claimed by a Belarusian partisan group, BYPOL, which stated it had used drones to strike the Machulishchy airfield close to Minsk. Are there any hyperlinks between the Belarusian volunteers in Ukraine and BYPOL? “We have no information on that,” stated Shurmei, in excellent unbroken English.
But they do know what the Russians consider the Belarusians on the Ukrainian entrance strains.
Dashkevich stated: “We avoid speaking Belarusian over the radio — when the Russians know we are opposite them they pull out all the stops to target us.”