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These Belarusians join the fight against Russia, defying their Moscow-backed regime

Volunteers from Belarus practice at a shooting range near Warsaw, Poland, on Friday, May 20, 2022. Belarusians are among those who have answered a call by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for foreign fighters to go to Ukraine and join the International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine. (AP Photo/Michal Dyjuk)
Volunteers from Belarus practice at a shooting range near Warsaw, Poland, on Friday, May 20, 2022. Belarusians are among those who have answered a call by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for foreign fighters to go to Ukraine and join the International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine. (AP Photo/Michal Dyjuk)

WARSAW, Poland — Inside a sunny classroom in a leafy neighborhood, a burly man in army fatigues and a black martial arts T-shirt holds up a tourniquet.

"We use this for serious gunshot and shrapnel wounds, or if we have severed limbs because of explosions," he says in Polish to about 30 men.

An interpreter repeats the instructions in Russian for the class — all men are from the small, former Soviet republic of Belarus. They're learning first aid before heading to Ukraine, where they will join the Kastus Kalinouski Battalion, an all-Belarusian volunteer brigade that fights alongside Ukrainian soldiers.

"We have this motto — for our and your freedom," says Pavel Kukhta, a brigade leader in charge of new recruits who says he receives 100 applications a day. "We're totally in solidarity with Ukrainian people."

Belarusians like Kukhta see Ukraine's defense against Russia as inextricably linked to Belarus' fate as a future democracy free of Kremlin influence. The idea is that Russia's defeat in Ukraine would both deal a blow to the Russian President Vladimir Putin's imperial ambitions and bring down his close ally, Belarusian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko.

The resistance includes volunteer soldiers as well as activists and ex-spies opposed to Belarus's authoritarian president. Lukashenko has been in power since 1994, and is the only European leader who openly supports Russia's war in Ukraine. Most available polls show the majority of Belarusians oppose it.

"If the Ukrainians will lose the fight," says Artyom, a 34-year-old accountant and one of the battalion recruits, "we don't have any chance as a country."

Artyom won't reveal his last name. He says he fears his family could be harassed by Lukashenko's government or its allies in the Kremlin.

Kukhta, the commander, stands nearby packing a van full of supplies including flak jackets, blankets, sleeping bags and fatigues. He says this kind of sentiment is not just paranoia.

"Lukashenko throws its [government] critics in jail," he says.

They're pushing for a new Belarus

"We have elections which are suspicious, we have protests, we have repression, we have people arrested, and we have people forced to flee the country," says Belarusian activist Hanna Kaniewska. "This is the story of the Belarusian diaspora."

Kaniewska leads a youth hub and co-working space for other Belarusians in Warsaw.

"We see this difference between old Belarus — Lukashenko's Belarus — and new Belarus," she says. "Everybody believes that Belarus can be better because people really want it."

Lukashenko's quarter-century reign has earned him the title, "Europe's last dictator." His most serious challenge came in 2020, when Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a charismatic English teacher, drew huge crowds supporting her candidacy for president. She ran for office after Lukashenko arrested her husband, Sergei Tsikhanousky, one of the opposition candidates.

Lukashenko declared a landslide victory in the election but observers said it was rigged. Tens of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets to protest. Putin lent his support to help quell the protests. Kaniewska says the European Union largely left the pro-democracy movement to fend for itself. That's despite the EU joining the United States in hitting the Lukashenko regime with rounds of sanctions.

"We couldn't win," she says. "We didn't have enough support, and Lukashenko had Putin. So for Putin's help, he had to promise something."

Kaniewska and other activists say that's why Lukashenko allowed Putin to use Belarus as a staging ground for Russian forces to launch an attack on Ukraine from the north. She says that explains why Ukrainians she encounters are suspicious of Belarusians at first.

"I tell the Ukrainians I meet in Poland that Belarus is not Lukashenko," she says.

Warsaw serves as sanctuary — and base of operations

Poland's capital, Warsaw, has become something of a refuge for Belarusian dissidents forced to flee after challenging Lukashenko.

In an unremarkable building off a busy street, former Belarusian military police officer Aleksandr Azarov works to investigate the Lukashenko regime for human rights abuses, and to undermine Putin's efforts to wage war on Ukraine from Belarus.

Azarov runs BYPOL, which stands for Union of Security Forces of Belarus. It includes former Belarusian police officers and former Soviet spies who oppose Lukashenko — all of whom would be arrested if they returned to their country.

"I am on a terrorist list in KGB website," he says with a smile, referring to the Belarusian national intelligence agency, which kept its Soviet-era name. "You can find my surname on that list."

BYPOL claims to have an extensive secret network inside Belarus. This network includes railway workers who helped sabotage Russian efforts to transport equipment and troops through Belarus into Ukraine.

"We destroyed railway equipment," he says, describing operations early in the Russian invasion. "And Russian troops couldn't move for one week."

BYPOL and Ukrainian officials say this slowed down Russian forces and gave Ukrainians time to defend their capital, Kyiv.

"Now we are cooperating with Ukrainian law enforcement agencies," he says. "We have more actions in mind."

Azarov says he predicts Belarus could face an economic crash due to sanctions and pressure from Putin to send Belarusian troops to Ukraine. Those troops, he adds, keep Lukashenko in power.

"Maybe this war will break him," he says. "That's why Ukraine must win."

Kateryna Korchynska contributed to this report from Warsaw. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.