In a wooded area on the Polish side of the Poland-Ukraine border, men dressed in crisp, clean, camouflage are given tourniquets. They kneel on the muddy ground and start to learn basic survival training.
They call themselves the Pohonia Battalion, a group of fewer than 30 Belarusian exiles living mostly in Poland and other countries across Europe, who hope to join hundreds of their compatriots already involved in the battle for Ukraine.
The aspiring volunteer fighters say that in order to free their country of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grip, he must first be defeated in Ukraine.
The group, whose ages range from 19 to 60, carry Kalashnikov replicas. Almost none have fighting experience.
Among them is a professional poker player, a rock musician and an electrician.
They are led by dissident and restaurateur Vadim Prokopiev. “We see a window of opportunity,” Prokopiev told CNN on Monday.
“I made the call for Belarusians to join the battle for Ukraine because that’s step one before step two, which is the battle for Belarus.”
Most of the members, including Prokopiev, were forced to flee their country in 2020, when Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko – a Kremlin-backed, Putin ally – cracked down on a mass protest movement after he claimed victory in a widely disputed election, which was marred by fraud.
“If Ukraine loses this war, Belarus will have zero chance to get free,” Prokopiev said. “If Ukraine wins this war that means Putin’s hands are too busy and he’s too weakened and he won’t be supporting Lukashenko with resources.”
Pohonia wants to join the International Legion of Defence of Ukraine, a military unit made up of foreign volunteers, but at the time of writing they have yet to be admitted.
Hundreds of other Belarusian volunteers are already on the ground fighting alongside Ukrainian troops. Four have been killed since the start of the war, said Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
“The people of Belarus understand that the fate of Belarus depends on the fate of Ukraine and now it’s very important to make Ukraine free for it to be easier to get rid of Lukashenko’s regime on our soil,” Tikhanovskaya told CNN on Wednesday.
Moscow uses Minsk as a satellite base for its unprovoked war on Ukraine. At the start of the conflict, Putin ordered troops into Ukraine through the Russian and Belarusian borders.
Belarus has been used as a springboard for many of Russia’s air operations in Ukraine, according to intelligence collected by NATO surveillance planes.
And the Ukrainian military says it has shot down several missiles fired towards its territory from Belarus.
After Russia failed to gain the ground it wanted around Kyiv, forces retreated back into Belarus to regroup and redeploy.
And NATO fears the Kremlin may even call on Lukashenko to deploy his army to bolster Moscow’s forces on the battlefield. It’s a prospect that would see Belarusian exiles and Minsk’s army on opposite sides of the frontline.
The Biden administration has punished Minsk with sanctions targeting Belarusian defense firms, the country’s defense minister and has suspended normal trade relations with the country.
But Lukashenko has shown no remorse for his role as a facilitator. “We didn’t start this war, our conscience is clear. I’m glad it started,” he told reporters in March.
And earlier this week, Putin thanked Lukashenko for his unwavering support, saying, “We never had any doubts that if somebody was to offer their shoulder to us, it would be Belarus.”
Belarus’s resistance, fractured and frail since the 2020 crackdown, said volunteer fighters are part of wider efforts to destabilize the Lukashenko regime.
“All those Belarusians fighters are real heroes,” Tikhanovskaya said of the volunteers. “Now they are defending Ukraine and maybe one day they could defend Belarus as well,” she said, referencing the opposition’s wish to see Lukashenko’s regime overthrown.
In Belarus, a railway line used by Russian forces to ferry supplies into Ukraine was partially severed by activists in April when Belarusian police opened fire and arrested three men calling it an act of terrorism, according to Belarus state news agency Belta.
And cyber activists recently hacked Belarusian state institutions involved in the war against Ukraine and continue to fight Russian disinformation online, Tikhanovskaya said.
But these small measures have yet to pose any real threat to the 28-year rule of Lukashenko, who is often referred to as Europe’s last dictator.
“A long journey starts somewhere so we build a small force to build a bigger force,” Prokopiev said.
The exiles now hope that Lukashenko’s reliance on Moscow ties his future to Putin, and the outcome of what, so far, is a faltering military invasion of Ukraine.