(CNN) — In a wooded area on the Polish side of the border between poland and ukraine, men dressed in crisp, clean camouflage are given turnstiles. They kneel in the muddy ground and begin 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 European countries, hoping to join hundreds of their compatriots already engaged in the battle for Ukraine.
Aspiring volunteer fighters say that in order to free their country from the control of Russian President Vladimir Putin, they must first defeat him in Ukraine.
The group, whose ages range from 19 to 60, carry replica Kalashnikov weapons. Almost none have combat experience.
Among them are a professional poker player, a rock musician and an electrician.
They are led by dissident businessman Vadim Prokopiev. “We see an opportunity,” Prokopiev told CNN on Monday.
“I called on the Belarusians to join the battle for Ukraine because it is the first step before the second, which is the battle for Belarus.”
Most members, including Prokopiev, were forced to flee their country in 2020, when Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a Kremlin-backed ally of Putin, cracked down on a mass protest movement after he claimed victory in a widely contested election, which was marred by fraud.
“If Ukraine loses this war, Belarus will have zero chance of breaking free,” Prokopiev said. “If Ukraine wins this war it means that Putin has his hands too full and is too weak and will not support Lukashenko with resources.”
Pohonia wants to join the Ukrainian International Defense Legiona military unit made up of foreign volunteers, but as of this writing they have not been admitted.
Hundreds more Belarusian volunteers are already on the ground fighting alongside Ukrainian troops. Four of them have been killed since the start of the war, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said.
“The Belarusian people understand that the fate of Belarus depends on the fate of Ukraine and now it is very important to liberate Ukraine so that it will be easier to get rid of the Lukashenko regime on our soil,” Tikhanovskaya told CNN on Wednesday.
Moscow uses Minsk as a satellite base for its unprovoked war against Ukraine. At the beginning of the conflict, Putin ordered the entry of 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 information gathered by NATO surveillance planes.
And the Ukrainian Army claims to have shot down several missiles fired at its territory from Belarus.
After Russia failed to gain the ground it wanted around Kyiv, the forces withdrew to Belarus to regroup and redeploy.
And NATO fears the Kremlin may even ask Lukashenko to deploy his army to bolster Moscow’s forces on the battlefield. It is a perspective that would see Belarusian exiles and the Minsk Army on opposite sides of the front line.
The Biden administration has punished Minsk with sanctions targeting Belarusian defense companies and the country’s defense minister, and has suspended normal trade relations with the country.
But Lukashenko has shown no remorse for his role as facilitator. “We didn’t start this war, we have a clear conscience. 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 doubt that if someone had to offer us their shoulder, it would be Belarus.”
The Belarusian resistance, fractured and fragile since the 2020 crackdown, said the volunteer fighters are part of broader efforts to destabilize the Lukashenko regime.
“All those Belarusian fighters are true heroes,” Tikhanovskaya said of the volunteers. “Now they defend Ukraine and maybe one day they can also defend Belarus,” she said, referring to the opposition’s desire to see Lukashenko’s regime overthrown.
In Belarus, a railway line used by Russian forces to transport supplies to Ukraine was partially cut off by activists in April, when Belarusian police opened fire and detained three men, calling it a terrorist act, according to the Belarusian state news agency Belta. .
And cyber activists recently hacked into Belarusian state institutions involved in the war against Ukraine and continue to fight against Russian disinformation on the Internet, Tikhanovskaya said.
But these small steps have yet to pose a real threat to the 28-year rule of Lukashenko, who is often called Europe’s last dictator.
“A long journey begins somewhere, so we build a small force to build a larger force,” Prokopiev said.
Exiles now hope that Lukashenko’s reliance on Moscow will tie his future to that of Putin, and to the outcome of what, so far, is a wobbly military invasion of Ukraine.