One of them is Yan Mielnikau (23 years old), member of the Tactical Group Belarus – unit fighting on the Ukrainian side. He has been active in Ukraine since January 2014 when he arrived at Maidan. In our conversation, he talks about himself, his formation and other foreign fighters.
Arkadiusz Legieć: Why did you decide to go to Ukraine?
Yan Melnikau: Ukraine is very close to my country, and Ukrainians are like our brothers. Our nations are similar and we both underst and what Russia is – an aggressor who seeks to renew the imperial model of the USSR.
Have you tried to go back to Belarus?
No, I haven’t, unfortunately, I cannot. For Lukashenka, I’m a terrorist.
Is Lukashenka afraid of you?
Of course, but there are two sides to this. There are Belarusians fighting on the Kiev’s side, but there are also Belarusians who are fighting on the side of separatists. They don`t have any problems, they can go back to Belarus any time.
People like me don’t get that chance – immediately after crossing the border we would be arrested. Our families are constantly harassed by the KGB.
Do you receive any compensation for your activities fighting in Ukraine?
I`m a volunteer and I don`t receive any money. I get by thanks to the support of Ukrainians and other Belarussians. This support enable us only to continue our engagement on the front.
Some of Belarussians are on a contract in the ranks of regular units of the Ukrainian army – they receive money.
Also, some of the fighters on the separatists’ side boasted that they were receiving money. However, in the interviews they said they are not mercenaries, because the money is not their main motivations to fight on the side of separatists.
Why do you give interviews, travel to other countries, advertise your group’s activities? Isn’t it safer for you to act more quietly?
We need to gain attention. Many Belarussians who came to Ukraine wouldn`t do so if they didn`t hear about us. Furthermore, we are volunteers, and at the same time there are large centers of Belarusians abroad ready to support us financially. These are people who share our views and understand that if we do not stop Russia in Ukraine, then Belarus might share the same fate.
Without this attention, we would be more susceptible to be blackmailed and threatened by the actions of Belarusian authorities. Now we are fighters that many people have heard about. We have numerous contacts with politicians in Ukraine and other countries. If anything happens to us, it will gain media attention immediately.
I`m dealing with media on behalf of the group because I don’t have much to lose. Only my father stayed in Belarus and he is supporting what I`m doing in Ukraine.
Fighting in Ukraine, Belarussians have something, that they can`t have in their own country – standing up against Russia?
Fight against Russia isn’t our main objective – the goal is to defend Ukraine. Russia’s presence in Ukraine was never as significant as now, because of propaganda of “Russki Mir” conducted in the media. It denies Belarusians the right to their own identity. It is said that there is no Belarusian nation and it is questioned whether Belarus as an independent state is needed. This is the same propaganda that the Russian media used during Maidan and the annexation of the Crimea.
How many Belarusians are fighting in Ukraine?
Unfortunately, more Belarussians are fighting on the side of separatists. Throughout the duration of the conflict about 1,000 Belarussians could have participated in the fighting on their side. According to my knowledge, on the Ukrainian side, this number oscillates around 300. In total, in my opinion, Belarussians are the third largest group in terms of numbers – after Chechens and Georgians.
In our group – Tactical Group Belarus – there are about 30 people. It changes over time – someone comes, someone leaves. In total, over 50 people have passed through our group.
The Tactical Group Belarus was created as a part of the Right Sector, but since 2015 we have been functioning as an autonomous structure. We are the only one Belarussian formation in Ukraine, but there are also Belarusians scattered across various units – such as the Battalion Donbas, where there was a group of 40 Belarussians, some in the Azov Regiment, Aidar Battalion, some in the regular army on a contract.
What about other nationalities?
Chechens are the biggest group. I heard a lot about their two battalions – Sheikh Mansur`s and Jodi Dudayev`s.
There are a lot of Georgians. We have good relations with them. The Georgians hold more together, especially in the Georgian Legion, so they are not split up in different units. Many of them are former soldiers with experience in the fight against Russia.
I also know about the Americans on the Ukrainian side, among whom some say they were militaries with experience from Iraq. There are several people from Lithuania in the Voluntary Ukrainian Corps. One person from Latvia. Several Estonians in the Donbass Battalion. French people are on both sides – among them there are many former militaries, experienced in the wars in Africa.
There are also numerous Russian groups on the Ukrainian side. There was one Czech, Pole, Norwegian and Ukrainian with German origins and 4 Azers.
On the side of separatists there are many Russians, many Buriats from Russia who even have their own battalion. I heard about the presence of Armenians, as well as Czechs and Slovaks.
Russia says that those who fight on the Ukrainian side are fascists …
There is such propaganda. Of course, there are representatives of radical views on the Ukrainian side, but these are individuals. I am, for instance, an antifascist.
In the Azov Regiment, which is much talked about in this context, from the very beginning there was a group of people with radical views – the so-called “Black Corps”. They were young people with extreme right-wing views, but it was also a minority. Nowadays, for fascist symbols and welcomes Azov is punishing by „jama” (sitting in the hole in the ground).
What do you need to do to become a member of Tactical Group of Belarus?
First, you have to be a Belarusian. In the beginning we had one Ukrainian, but it was an exception, because it was our old friend from Maidan. Today group is made up only of Belarusians.
You also cannot be associated with the Belarusian government, intelligence. We have the ability to check people – if someone comes to us, we want to see his passport and check it.
We have our ways. It is not 100% sure, but there are people who help us.
We had many candidates that we rejected. There were cases when they were normal boys, which we verified positively, but for that moment we did not have a demand, so we did not accept them.
This was the case in 2015 – we had some organizational problems with the funeral of one of our colleagues then.
We also rejected many people who rose our suspicions. There were also those who wrote on Facebook under the influence of evening, alcoholic raptures, and the next morning they regretted what they had written the previous night and retreated.
How do you rate your skills? Are you more amateur or professional?
Fifty-fifty. Our actions are coordinated with the regular Ukrainian army. With time, we improve our skills. None of us had any previous wartime experience, but on the other hand most of us have already gained 3 years of experience in the ongoing conflict. 3 years is more than standard service in the military of many countries. Our experience is a battlefield, not a marching exercise.
What about your opponents?
There is no rule – sometimes we encounter amateurs. However, you can find people with experience of the Chechen campaign. They have experience, their own tactics, habits, know your position strategy…
What are your further plans?
We are aware that Russia needs an obedient Belarusian leader who will not question the instructions from Moscow. It is always possible that the current president may be changed to somebody worse than Lukashenka himself.
That is why we are developing a training program for Belarussians, which we have been running since 2015. We want them to have a basic knowledge of armed conflict and be prepared for a situation in which Russia will start aggression in Belarus just as it did in Ukraine. Belarussians must be able to defend themselves their country.
These trainings take place both in Ukraine and in other European countries, where there are Belarusian congregations. That is why I am traveling to the Belarusian diasporas in Europe – I was in Lithuania, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Italy and the Czech Republic. We are building contact networks. We do not do anything wrong, we do not violate the laws of those countries where we are staying, we do not threaten their safety.
What is your training?
We are building contacts with people. It is well known that in 2-3 days it is hard to give people combat experience, but at least they can relate and learn some habits. Those more interested can take a longer, deepening course. As a result of such training, we create our network of people.
In the event of possible Russian aggression on Belarus, such people can be raised ready to fight Russian troops. Those who have undergone our training would be able to resist. They would organize grassroots civic units, like volunteer battalions in Ukraine.
The Belarusian army would not fight Russia. The situation in the Crimea would seem to be a real struggle against the resistance in the comparison with the Belarusian army.
At the beginning of the war in Donbas, I did not see a regular army on the front for the first half of the year, but only volunteers like me. Not an army, but the Ukrainian people were able to organize themselves and stop the front. We also want Belarusians to be able to do so.
And your personal plans – you have been fighting in Ukraine for more than 3 years now – isn’t it enough for you?
You can already be tired of war. The front has been stabilized for a long time and no major changes have taken place, but the situation is still dynamic.
In the future, I would theoretically be able to get The Polish Card because I meet the initial conditions. I could also apply for the status of political refugee from Belarus, in some other country. I can also stay in Ukraine and live here. There are our people in Kiev, but also in Poland, in Warsaw there are two Belarusians who have applied for the status of political refugees. There are various possibilities…