They call themselves the Pohonia Battalion, a group of fewer than 30 Belarusian exiles who live mainly in Poland and other countries throughout Europe, and who hope to join hundreds of their compatriots already involved in the struggle for Ukraine.
The aspiring volunteer fighters say that in order to free their country from the grip of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he must first be defeated in Ukraine.
The group, whose age ranges from 19 to 60, wears Kalashnikov replicas. Almost no one has combat experience.
Among them are a professional poker player, a rock musician and an electrician.
They are headed by dissident and restaurateur Vadim Prokopiev. “We see a window of opportunity,” Prokopiev told CNN on Monday.
“I called on Belarusians to take part in the struggle for Ukraine, because it is step one before step two, which is the struggle 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 claiming victory in a highly controversial elections which were marked by fraud.
“If Ukraine loses this war, Belarus has no chance of getting free,” Prokopiev said. “If Ukraine wins this war, it means Putin’s hands are too busy and he is too weakened and he will not support Lukashenko with resources.”
Hundreds of other Belarusian volunteers are already on the ground, fighting alongside Ukrainian troops. Four have been killed since the start of the war, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said.
“The people of Belarus understand that the fate of Belarus depends on the fate of Ukraine, and now it is very important to make Ukraine free so that it will be easier to get rid of Lukashenko’s regime on our soil,” Tikhanovskaya told CNN on Wednesday.
Moscow is using Minsk as a satellite base for its unprovoked war against Ukraine. At the beginning 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 gathered by NATO surveillance aircraft.
And the Ukrainian military says it has fired several missiles fired at its territory from Belarus.
After Russia failed to gain the territory it wanted around Kiev, the forces withdrew to Belarus to regroup and relocate.
And NATO fears that the Kremlin may even call on Lukashenko to deploy his army to bolster Moscow’s forces on the battlefield. It is a view that would see Belarusian exiles and the Minsk army on opposite sides of the front line.
The Biden administration has punished Minsk with sanctions against Belarusian defense companies, 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 did not start this war, our conscience is clean. I am glad it started,” he told reporters in March.
And earlier this week, Putin thanked Lukashenko for his unwavering support, saying, “We have never been in any doubt that if anyone were to offer us their shoulder, it would be Belarus.”
Belarus’s opposition, broken and fragile since the repression in 2020, said volunteer fighters are part of broader efforts to destabilize the Lukashenko regime.
“All these Belarusian warriors are real heroes,” Tikhanovskaya said of the volunteers. “Now they are defending 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 interrupted by activists in April when Belarusian police opened fire and arrested three men calling it a terrorist act, according to Belarusian 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 moves have not yet posed any real threat to Lukashenko’s 28-year rule, often referred to as Europe’s last dictator.
“A long journey starts somewhere, so we build a small force to build a larger force,” Prokopiev said.
The refugees now hope that Lukashenko’s dependence on Moscow binds his future to Putin, and the result of what has so far been a shaky military invasion of Ukraine.