Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Odesa’s Defense Stiffened by Belarusian Volunteers

For hundreds who fled Minsk’s oppression, Ukraine’s fight has become theirs.

By , a journalist covering conflicts and crises with a focus on Afghanistan and the wider Middle East.
Belarusian men who joined the Ukrainian territorial defense are in Odesa, Ukraine.
Belarusian men who joined the Ukrainian territorial defense are in Odesa, Ukraine.
Belarusian men who joined the Ukrainian territorial defense are in Odesa, Ukraine, on March 9. Some are wearing the Belarusian opposition coat of arms. Stefanie Glinski for Foreign Policy

ODESA, Ukraine—As Ukrainian army and territorial defenses resist a Russian invasion that has entered its third week, a small legion of Belarusians has joined the defenders, saying they would like to help combat a regime similar to the one that forced them to flee their own country.

Thousands of Belarusians are estimated to live in Ukraine. Many fled their homes after Belarus’s anti-government demonstrations in 2020 and 2021, which resulted in large-scale crackdowns and mass detentions of protesters. And hundreds are believed to have joined the Ukrainian defense forces so far. The majority of the volunteers work alongside the freshly created territorial defense units or offer auxiliary services.

In the critical Black Sea port city of Odesa, a group of about 20 Belarusian men has been deployed. They say there are about 30 more volunteers in the city. Here, they help secure the city center and are on the lookout for possible Russian saboteurs and spies. They check documents and set up checkpoints, saying they won’t let the Russians enter a city that has become their home as well. For more than a week, Odesa has braced for a Russian assault, including from the Black Sea, that has yet to arrive. In the meantime, residents have stiffened the city’s defenses with old-fashioned tank traps and sandbag barricades.

ODESA, Ukraine—As Ukrainian army and territorial defenses resist a Russian invasion that has entered its third week, a small legion of Belarusians has joined the defenders, saying they would like to help combat a regime similar to the one that forced them to flee their own country.

Thousands of Belarusians are estimated to live in Ukraine. Many fled their homes after Belarus’s anti-government demonstrations in 2020 and 2021, which resulted in large-scale crackdowns and mass detentions of protesters. And hundreds are believed to have joined the Ukrainian defense forces so far. The majority of the volunteers work alongside the freshly created territorial defense units or offer auxiliary services.

In the critical Black Sea port city of Odesa, a group of about 20 Belarusian men has been deployed. They say there are about 30 more volunteers in the city. Here, they help secure the city center and are on the lookout for possible Russian saboteurs and spies. They check documents and set up checkpoints, saying they won’t let the Russians enter a city that has become their home as well. For more than a week, Odesa has braced for a Russian assault, including from the Black Sea, that has yet to arrive. In the meantime, residents have stiffened the city’s defenses with old-fashioned tank traps and sandbag barricades.

Boris, a 40-year-old from Minsk in Belarus, works in Odessa on March 9 as part of the Ukrainian territorial defense.
Boris, a 40-year-old from Minsk in Belarus, works in Odessa on March 9 as part of the Ukrainian territorial defense.

Boris, a 40-year-old from Minsk, Belarus, works in Odesa, Ukraine, on March 9 as part of the Ukrainian territorial defense. Stefanie Glinski for Foreign Policy

Other Belarusians are in Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv and the western city of Lviv. They all wear yellow bands around their arms—marking them as part of the Ukrainian resistance—as well as either military uniforms or the Belarusian opposition coat of arms: a mounted knight holding a sword.

“Our work here is part of the Belarusian resistance,” said activist Olek Aleshko, a 33-year-old from Minsk who left Belarus after a police crackdown in 2020 and now lives in Odesa. “It’s dangerous there,” he added. “If I go back, I will be arrested because [Belarusian President Aleksandr] Lukashenko is a puppet of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s authoritarian regime. Resistance is always quelled; that’s why I left.” He acknowledged that there was some initial suspicion from Ukrainians, but he said he was determined to prove himself. 

“They can use all of us to fight the Russians,” he said.

Another Belarusian man, 40-year-old Boris, has also joined Ukraine’s territorial defense unit. He did not want to share his full name. “We hope the war will end with the fall of Russia,” he said. He talked up the resilience of Ukraine’s defenders, including those, like him, who come from elsewhere. “At this point, there’s no possible good end to this war for Putin.”

For years, Belarus had tried to balance close ties with Moscow and engagement with the West. But recently, Belarus turned decisively toward Moscow and remains one of its few allies, a rapprochement fueled by Belarus’s isolation after massive anti-government protests in 2020. 

“When Vladimir Putin extended support to Lukashenko in the aftermath of mass social protests and the political crisis in 2020, he guaranteed Lukashenko’s political survival at a time when the West started to adopt sanctions,” said Alena Vysotskaya Guedes Vieira, a professor of political science at the University of Minho.

Russia took advantage of Minsk’s compliance, deploying tens of thousands of troops to Belarus before beginning the invasion and using its neighbor as a launch pad for its assault on Ukraine. Since the beginning of the war, Ukrainian and Western officials have feared large-scale Belarusian involvement in the fighting, but Belarus has yet to really join the fray. 

On Friday, Putin met with Lukashenko in Moscow to discuss economic cooperation in the face of punishing Western sanctions on both countries, just as Ukraine accused Russia of carrying out so-called false flag attacks on villages in Belarus to finally kick-start Minsk’s active involvement in the war. 

When Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, eventually annexing the Crimean Peninsula and establishing separatist statelets in the east, hundreds of Belarusians joined the Ukrainian defenders—but many more took sides with pro-Russian separatists. 

“I’d say the ratio was 3 to 1,” said Artyom Shraibman of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Now, Belarusians see that they need to fight for Ukraine, with anti-Kremlin sentiments as the main motivation. The Kremlin is the ultimate donor of Lukashenko, and they prop up anti-liberal, anti-Western forces in the region. The same threat that Belarus was facing is looming over Ukraine.”

A majority of Belarusians oppose supporting Russian military action against Ukraine, according to a recent survey by Chatham House, and only a tiny fraction support sending Belarusian units into the fight. 

Aleksandra Aksana, a 32-year-old speech therapist who fled Belarus last year and is now living between Kyiv and Odesa, has joined a team of Ukrainian volunteers mainly preparing camouflage netting for the army and Molotov cocktails for the territorial defense units. She uses a pseudonym for her last name, wary that public recognition could lead to retribution against her parents, who still live in Belarus. She refused to be photographed, and while she showed her [Belarus] passport, she asked to have the name of her hometown omitted for security reasons.

She said she’s wanted in Belarus, where she has previously been detained and questioned by the KGB, the country’s secret service, for protesting against the regime. Going back home is impossible, she said, at least as long as Lukashenko is in power. Going to Russia isn’t an option either. Ukraine is her new home—one she is determined to protect. 

“I found the kind of safety here I never had in Belarus,” she said. “It’s an amazing feeling, to be free. If the Russians come here, they will die—and I will help make that happen.”

Stefanie Glinski is a journalist covering conflicts and crises with a focus on Afghanistan and the wider Middle East. Twitter: @stephglinski

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