The Belarusian authorities under longtime ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka may be setting up social-media traps to catch citizens seeking to fight for Ukraine, opposition leaders say.
Syarhey Hrybovich was detained earlier this month on charges of inciting social hatred and preparing to participate in a foreign conflict, pro-government Telegram channels reported on March 14.
In what appeared to be a forced videotaped confession, Hrybovich, 53, said he was detained after filling out a form on Telegram that was billed as an application to join other Belarusians fighting in neighboring Ukraine.
At least 200 Belarusians are believed to have taken up arms to defend Ukraine against invading Russian forces. Hundreds more are interested in joining, according to a Belarusian group that is recruiting volunteers.
Belarus has close ties with Russia, and Lukashenka allowed Russian forces to use his country as a staging ground for the February 24 invasion.
A Belarusian militia that calls itself the Kastus Kalinouski Battalion is using its Telegram channel to recruit men to fight against Russian forces in Ukraine and has set up a special chat within the social media app to exchange private, direct messages with potential volunteers.
It says it received no message from Hrybovich through the chat and warned he may have fallen prey to a fake chat set up by the authorities under Lukashenka. "If you are in Belarus or Russia -- do not use real names, hide your phone number from everyone, [or even] better -- buy a new SIM card," the Kastus Kalinouski Battalion wrote on its channel.
It would not be the first time Belarusian authorities have taken such steps to catch opposition activists and others opposed to Lukashenka, whose claim of victory in an August 2020 election that millions of voters believe was rigged led to massive protests and a merciless clampdown that still continues.
Alyaksandr Azarau, a representative of ByPol, which unites former Belarusian law enforcement officers who support the opposition, says his organization has documented fake chats in Telegram in the past to catch Belarusians.
He says the Belarusian authorities once used an existing Telegram page to promote a fake plan to attack an official and posted a link to a private chat for those interested in participating. Dozens of people may have been arrested through that trick, Azarau says.
There are two Telegram channels recruiting Belarusians to help Ukraine -- Kastus Kalinouski Battalion and one set up by opposition leader and restaurateur Vadzim Prakopyeu. Each has its own chat address.
However, ByPol found four chat addresses allegedly dedicated to helping Ukraine, suggesting that two are fake and may have been set up by the Interior Ministry's Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption (GUBAZIK), Azarau said.
The fake chats, which may be promoted on various Telegram information channels, operate in a similar way to spam e-mail that is meant to look like it's from a real company or organization. In some cases, fake chats have an address that differs from the legitimate chat by one alphanumeric symbol.
Some Belarusians have been fighting on behalf of Ukraine since 2014, when a war erupted between Kremlin-backed separatists and government forces in the eastern Donbas region.
Russia launched its latest invasion of Ukraine on February 24 after positioning nearly 200,000 troops near the country's borders, some of them in Belarus.
In statements posted on the Kastus Kalinouski Battalion channel, participants say their own country's future depends on the outcome of the war in Ukraine.
"I realize that if we surrender Ukraine to Putin, we will lose the independence of Belarus forever, and we and our children will have to bear the stigma of aggressors and occupiers," said Syarhey Bespalou, who said he was fighting in Kyiv.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been pressing Lukashenka for closer integration between their countries. Lukashenka has for years resisted forms of integration that would deprive him of power, but analysts say Belarus has now essentially lost its independence to Russia after Moscow helped prop up the longtime ruler following the tarnished 2020 presidential vote.
Western countries imposed tough economic sanctions on Belarus over the violent crackdown on protesters, isolating Lukashenka and increasing his dependence on Russia.
Aside from the roughly 200 Belarusians currently fighting on behalf of Ukraine, hundreds more are undergoing military training in Poland for later departure to Ukraine, according to the Kastus Kalinouski Battalion.
Some of the volunteers were headed to the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, where some of the heaviest fighting and Russian bombardments are taking place, the battalion said in a post on its Telegram channel this week.
Prakopyeu has said that said 5,700 Belarusians have signed up to help Ukraine behind the front lines.
At least two Belarusians have been killed so far in Ukraine since February 24. Both had been fighting for years against the separatists in the Donbas.
Some of the Belarusian fighters, like Bespalou, were living in Ukraine when the war broke out. Prakopyeu is also living in Ukraine.
Belarusians are "obliged to resist this Imperial Russian regime and show our teeth not toward Ukraine but toward Imperial Russia," an injured Belarusian fighter who only gave his name as Denis said in a post on Kastus Kalinouski Battalion's Telegram channel.