As threatened, here is a Q&A following your questions about my recent visit to the training base of the Belarusian unit, The Kastuś Kalinoŭski Regiment.
Pictures in this post are exclusive in the sense that they haven’t been published elsewhere, but I didn’t take them, someone in the regiment did.
Thanks to all for the questions, as always very much appreciated! For more information you can just go to the unit website.
I would be remiss not to mention, they are recruiting again. Just saying. And without further ado, your questions:
Roy Cauldery: Hello Stefan. Are these boys mechanised and if so, what’s the typical unit vehicle? What’s their experience of being looked after by their Ukrainian Quartermasters?
They say they mostly travel in trucks and pickups. You can find video of them riding on tanks and MTLBs, and rare video of them aboard BMP or operating towed artillery. There is some video of them operating British Bulldog APCs and Soviet-era BTR-80. The way they describe themselves, you or I would probably call them motorized infantry, more or less.
They have mostly NATO-standard small arms and medium machine guns. You can find video of a few guys carrying Soviet-standard weapons. Crew-served I know they have included M2 .50, SPG 73mm, 81 or 82mm, and 120mm. A mortar commander told me they have rounds but they could use a lot more. Uniforms seemed fine, standard UAF. I asked about food and they said was regular, tasty and sufficient.
James Touza: Stefan, do these guys think Lukashenka can keep holding hands with Putin , or will be dragged into the war with a bear hug?
I’m not sure they are thinking that far ahead. In general, the mindset seems to be each individual decided to go fight, and now his/her focus is just on fighting. The ultimate goal is a free, normal Belarus but no one I talked to could describe to me the path for that. I got the impression that they think if Ukraine holds off Russia, then that will lead to a breakdown of the Putin regime and without that Lukashenko is vulnerable. I’m certain some of them understand that experience gained in Ukraine could overturn the regime in Belarus, at some point down the line. But none of them told me that.
Everyone I talked to described Lukashenko as a weasel or something similar who will do everything possible to stay in power. From the Belarusian internal point of view, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where a decision to go to war against Ukraine would not trigger mass disturbances. In Belarus they get western media big time, it’s not like Russia.
Based on past experience in Belarus, my read on the police is that they are glad to repress the population in the name of order and calm, but war with the West would be the opposite of that. So I personally very much doubt that if Lukashenko somehow got cornered into opening hostilities with Ukraine, the police would enforce it.
Severodonetsk. Bn commander Ivan Marchuk in action. (D: 26 June 2022).
Ole Johnsen: How will a soldier from this company be treated if captured by the Russians?
Obviously I don’t know for sure, but there is a video out there in which a Belarusian soldier says they don’t take prisoners.
James Sayer: Do you know how much they are being paid? And if so, is it different from a Ukrainian soldier? What is the pay of a UAF front line soldier?
Everyone told me they get the standard UAF soldier rate, which works out to about $800 for the bog standard private in the rear area, before deductions, and maxes out at, I hear, at about $3,000 for a high skill specialist in a frontline job. From what I was told, pay is identical with a UAF soldier. Some soldiers complained pay can be late, like months late when they process into the unit.
Kent Narling: Do you and other think that Ukraine would benefit or suffer from a potential insurrection/uprising in Belarus? Just thinking with the weakened state of Russia and its focus in Ukraine, there could be an opportunity for overthrowing Lukashenko, or?
I think that Ukraine would benefit in general, but exactly how and to what extent would depend on the unrest in Belarus. Russia might have to intervene and without major force they could have problems sustaining an occupation, because I would say the public opinion in Belarus is that association with Russia means danger of war, and the whole Belarusian regime is set up to get the population to agree to let Lukashenko do what he wants, but the social contract is he keeps the country peaceful and out of war.
Russia can’t do that in Belarus, the Russians — if they are thinking, which is not always a given — know that as well, so major unrest in Belarus is a problem that if Lukashenko can’t handle it, then no one can.
In Belarus the decisive parts of the equation are the army and the police, and how would they jump? Past experience dictates that they pretty much always choose the path that seems to give the most chances of stability and continuation of status quo.
In case of major unrest this could drag the police and/or the army into conflict with the people because the police and/or army leadership is widely assumed to be personally profiting, like tons of money in overseas bank accounts, from corruption which would end if a revolution or something like it came.
Charlie Hutchinson: What kind of guys are they? Are they nomads, with no friends/family/jobs in Belarus to tie them down, fighting because it’s a bit of money and the alternative is poverty/prison? Or are they educated, ideological, motivated, hoping that they can change the status quo in their homeland too?
That was my basic question as well. Who joins a third party war and cuts all ties with one’s own country? From what I could see, it was one of these “everyone has his own story” deals.
One dude was sort of dim but seemed like he found his way into the protest movement. One guy was really sharp, had an excellent small business, and just got fed up with all the tax inspections and government officials with their hands out. But he has a wife and baby and they need support.
One guy was a card-carrying member of the Belarusian Opposition with a capital “O”, who lived on foreign support basically before the war, and now found himself swept up into the regiment. I came across a couple of dudes who said they deserted from the French Foreign Legion. One guy had a bunch of relatives in Poland and said he was fighting because all Poles want to fight the Russians, but most Poles can’t go fight in Ukraine because of work etc. There were a couple more, I got the feeling they were there because some friend or lover or something was there and they were just following.
But also, they are recruiting non-Belarusian foreigners. I met a Pole who was one of these “private military company” dudes, combat engineer, senior sergeant in the Polish army, he was pretty open that he was half there to defend freedom and do the right thing, and half there because in his line of work combat experience increases value. They told me if it’s not a Belarusian they’re looking for people with proper military skills.
Education was mixed but certainly not of a low level. I’d say a reasonable selection of Belarusians but without the rubes from the hinterlands, everyone seemed pretty urban now that I think about it. If you read European history it was a pretty close fit to the old saw that the first nationalists in whatever European country you want were the ones who have enough leisure time and education to think about the National Idea, but for whatever reason were locked out of the ruling class.
I’d say all in all everyone I met had at least partial idealistic reasons and the belief that they were in a moral fight and that this is about freedom and fighting evil, that seemed real. But they were quite open that they have lives and economic commitments and being paid is normal for a person doing work. They certainly weren’t jihadis.
A final interesting factoid is, in Sep. 2023 they announced they had recruited two battalions to full strength, so, at that point the regiment was maybe 700 soldiers, give or take. No confirmation of course, but, if they were able to attract recruits in Sep. 2023, then clearly they have a bigger potential volunteer pool than most UAF units.
That being said, as I write this they are looking to beef up their western contingent.
Recon operator Dmitriy Apanasovich, Irpen’, March 2022. (D: 24 Mar. 2022.)
Jeff Stokes: If Belarusians are fighting for Ukraine, do they believe that when the situation arises, Ukrainians will similarly fight for Belarus? Or do they think that the war in Ukraine will be the war to sort out the Russian problem?
Great question. I asked it a couple of times, the answer was “we hope so” but I didn’t get the impression that they were expecting the UAF to intervene in a major way. A couple of them had bad things to say about the Belarusian army (Soviet, corrupt, all parades can’t fight, nothing runs, etc. etc.).
Thomas Brayford: Do they believe that by helping Ukraine to victory they can also help their own country? Also did you talk Belarusian politics — what are their thoughts about Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and the Belarusian opposition? Did any of them participate in the 2020–21 protests?
I talked to several people who had gone to protests and who told me they were part of the Opposition. I didn’t talk to them about Tsikhnouskaya so no information there. In past days I covered Belarusian politics and there was a time when everything but everything was political in Belarus, if you were an opposition person, and life was a matter of finding battles where the opposition could demonstrate its existence without getting everyone thrown in jail. This could be something like showing up at a WW2 victory celebration with the red-white Free Belarus flag instead of the nasty green and red Lukashenko Belarus flag. There was a time when what flag you planned to carry, and where, was a very big deal with people opposing Lukashenko and his regime.
The people I was talking with aren’t like that. They’re at war. They talk in terms of friends that have been killed or wounded, what they’re doing that will hopefully keep them and their friends alive, and what they’re doing, or might want to be doing, to kill the enemy, which is Russian. A part of the unit — maybe most of it, no way of telling — is on the line somewhere. Based on open sources they’re probably around Bakhmut. I know they are taking casualties.
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