Journalist or soldier? Meduza dissects allegations that Roman Protasevich (arrested in the Ryanair Minsk incident) served with a neo-Nazi Ukrainian paramilitary unit
The head of the Belarusian KGB is directing the public’s attention to Roman Protasevich’s past activities in eastern Ukraine, apparently hoping to bolster allegations against the opposition journalist, whom state officials arrested earlier this week after his international passenger flight was diverted from Lithuania and forced to land in Minsk. Pro-government news outlets and bloggers in Belarus and Russia have also reported that Protasevich fought with the ultra-nationalist Azov Battalion in eastern Ukraine as a mercenary. Meduza breaks down the evidence to support these claims and weighs how they matter in Protasevich’s case.
On May 26, during a meeting with President Alexander Lukashenko and members of the Belarusian Parliament, KGB Chairman Ivan Tertel argued that Protasevich’s supposed combat experience in Ukraine puts “blood” on his hands:
It’s undeniable that this individual fully meets the definitions of a terrorist, a mercenary, and a participant in many blood-soaked events perpetrated by the infamous Azov Battalion and the deaths of civilians in southeastern Ukraine. And this isn’t based just on our data and investigations but also on the facts presented in the media with Protasevich’s personal confessions, which are widely available.
Almost as soon as Protasevich was arrested at the airport in Minsk, pro-government news outlets and Telegram channels in Belarus and Russia started aggressively promoting claims that the journalist fought in the Azov Battalion. One of the first to advance this theory was Anatoly Shariy, a pro-Russian blogger in Ukraine who posted the cover page of the Azov Battalion’s Black Sun magazine from July 2015, which features a man armed and in uniform who looks like Roman Protasevich. As further evidence of Protasevich’s participation in Azov, Shariy ran the image through facial recognition software and declared that “separate programs” confirmed the resemblance.
In an interview last September with Russian YouTube star Yury Dud, Protasevich said he’d spent time inside Ukraine’s war zone and freelanced for a year as a journalist doing camerawork. He never joined the fight, Protasevich told Dud, but he was wounded at the front.
Pro-government media outlets in Belarus and Russia have tried to refute any claims that Protasevich wasn’t an active combatant in eastern Ukraine. “He said he was just covering events as a correspondent for Radio Liberty, [but] there is correspondence where Ukrainian nationalists — members of the Azov Battalion — talk about Protasevich. He was there at the line of contact, and the fact is that he was on the side of the Azov national corps,” argued Russia Today employee Konstantin Pridybailo.
Meanwhile, Komsomolskaya Pravda journalist and pro-Kremlin columnist Alexander Kots shared a clip from an interview Current Time conducted with Protasevich’s father during mass protests in Minsk in August 2020 where he said, “They started opening cases against my son back in 2014 when he was in the Donbas and fighting on Ukraine’s side.”
Next, on May 26, the pro-government Belarusian Telegram channel Zheltye Slivy published two photographs showing a man who closely resembles Protasevich posing in tactical gear with a rifle. Kots also shared screenshots from archival footage of the Azov Battalion featuring a man who looks very much like Protasevich lined up with other soldiers.
Other bloggers and media outlets sympathetic to Alexander Lukashenko have pointed out that one of the same photographs allegedly depicting Protasevich in uniform also appears as the cover image (albeit with the face obscured) in a Radio Liberty interview from September 2015 with an anonymous Azov Battalion soldier identified only as “Kim.”
One of many Belarusian fighters in the so-called “Pogonya” (Pursuit) detachment, “Kim” said he was “serving now in Mariupol” and warned that the “war isn’t just for Ukraine but also for Belarus” because “our country could be next if the Russian Putinist horde isn’t stopped now.” He also said he’d been in combat against soldiers from Russia and sustained an injury.
But not everything “Kim” told Radio Liberty lines up with Protasevich’s biography: he claimed to be 22 years old, though Protasevich was only 20 at the time.
This wasn’t the only interview with “Kim.” When he spoke to the Ukrainian news outlet Focus in June 2015, he described himself as a journalist without combat experience or formal military schooling, though he said he underwent training with the Azov Battalion.
On May 26, Azov founder Andriy Biletsky stated on his Telegram channel that Protasevich never fought with the battalion:
Roman was indeed together with Azov and other military units that fought against the occupation of Ukraine, though his weapon as a journalist wasn’t an automatic rifle but the written word.
In an interview with Meduza, Protasevich’s mother Natalia also denied her son’s combat role in Ukraine, saying, “He was there as a journalist. All this [about him fighting] is a bunch of nonsense. We were already asked all these questions. He went there as a photographer and a freelance journalist.” Protasevich’s father, whose claim that his son “fought on Ukraine’s side” has been circulated widely, now says, “I don’t know myself about him fighting in the Donbas.” He also told Current Time, which conducted the initial interview in August 2020, that his words have been misinterpreted:
When there’s a battle happening and a war is going on, and they’re shooting all around you, do people just stand around? They’re participating in war, right? He was there as a journalist, as part of a camera crew.
On May 27, the independent Belarusian news outlet Nasha Niva spoke to an anonymous Azov soldier who offered a different explanation for the photographs showing an armed Protasevich in uniform:
I remember him in Urzuf [outside Mariupol, where Azov operated a training base]. He was this young guy. Biletsky didn’t trust him because he showed up and started with “So where are the other Belarusians? Let me at ’em.” People figured he was collecting information, so there was never much trust and they didn’t involve him in any operations. He did a bit of basic training, took some selfies with a weapon at the shooting range, and probably realized that he wouldn’t be joining the team, so he left. Did he fight? If so, I don’t think it was with Azov.
So what’s all this mean?
The debate about Roman Protasevich’s alleged combat experience in Ukraine with the Azov Battalion adds little to the Belarusian authorities’ felony allegations against him. KGB Chairman Ivan Tertel hasn’t even tried to explain how Protasevich’s arrest in Minsk relates to anything that happened in the Donbas, except to say that Protasevich “actively used” his fighting experience after returning to Belarus. The only example he’s offered, however, is that the journalist “is the head of one of the online channels we’ve legally designated as extremist.”
Back in 2014, however, Tertel’s predecessor Valery Vakulchik declared that any Belarusian national who fought on either side in the war in eastern Ukraine could face criminal prosecution back home for illegal mercenary activity. In 2017, a court in Gomel handed down the first of these convictions, sentencing Vitaly Kotlobay to two years in prison for fighting with the self-declared Luhansk People's Republic. According to an investigation published in February 2018 by the Polish television network Belsat TV, roughly 1,000 Belarusian nationals fought in Ukraine.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock