Some Belarusians want to fight the Russians in Ukraine. They also hope to free their country from the grip of Putin




CNN

In a wooded area on the Polish side of the Polish-Ukrainian border, men dressed in crisp, clean camouflage are given tourniquets. They kneel on the muddy ground and begin to learn basic survival training.

They call themselves the Pohonia Battalion, a group of less than 30 Belarusian exiles living mostly in Poland and other countries in Europe, who hope to join hundreds of their compatriots already involved in the battle for Ukraine.

Budding volunteer fighters say that to free their country from the grip of Russian President Vladimir Putin, it must first be defeated in Ukraine.

The group, whose ages range from 19 to 60, carry Kalashnikov replicas. Almost none have combat experience.

Among them are a professional poker player, a rock musician and an electrician.

They are led by dissident and restorer Vadim Prokopiev. “We see a window of opportunity,” Prokopiev told CNN on Monday.

“I called on Belarusians to join the battle for Ukraine because this is the first step before the second, 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 – suppressed a mass protest movement after claiming victory in a a widely contested election, which was marred by fraud.

“If Ukraine loses this war, Belarus will have no chance to break 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.”

Pohonia wants to join the International Defense Legion of Ukraine, a military unit made up of foreign volunteers, but at the time of writing, they have not yet been admitted.

Hundreds of other Belarusian volunteers are already on the ground to fight alongside Ukrainian troops. Four have been killed since the start of the war, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said.

“Belarusian people 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 the Lukashenko regime on our soil,” he said. Tikhanovskaya told CNN on Wednesday.

A group of Belarusian dissidents learn basic survival skills on the Polish-Ukrainian border.  Aspiring volunteer fighters want to join the fight for Ukraine.

Moscow is using Minsk as a satellite base for its unprovoked war against Ukraine. At the start of the conflict, Putin ordered troops to enter Ukraine through the Russian and Belarusian borders.

Belarus has been used as a springboard for many Russian air operations in Ukraine, according to intelligence 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, forces retreated to Belarus to regroup and redeploy.

And NATO fears that the Kremlin will even ask Lukashenko to deploy his army to reinforce Moscow’s forces on the battlefield. It is a perspective that would see Belarusian exiles and the Minsk army on opposite sides of the frontline.

The Biden administration punished Minsk with sanctions targeting Belarusian defense companies, the country’s defense minister and suspended normal business relations with the country.

But Lukashenko showed no remorse for his role as facilitator. “We did not 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 doubted that if anyone were to offer us their shoulder, it would be Belarus.”

Most Pohonia members fled Belarus in 2020 when Lukashenko brutally suppressed a mass opposition movement in Belarus.

The Belarusian resistance, fractured and fragile since the 2020 crackdown, said the volunteer fighters were part of wider efforts to destabilize Lukashenko’s regime.

“All these Belarusian fighters are real heroes,” Tikhanovskaya said of the volunteers. “Now they are defending Ukraine and maybe one day they could also defend Belarus,” she said, referring to the opposition’s wish to see the Lukashenko regime overthrown.

In Belarus, a railway line used by Russian forces to transport supplies to Ukraine was partially cut off by militants in April when Belarusian police opened fire and arrested three men, calling it an act of terrorism, according to the Belarusian state news agency Belta.

And cyber activists have recently hacked into Belarusian state institutions involved in the war against Ukraine and continue to fight Russian disinformation online, Tikhanovskaya said.

But these small measures do not yet pose a real threat to the 28-year rule of Lukashenko, often called 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 has been a faltering military invasion of Ukraine.


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