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Anti-war resistance in Belarus: Rail partisans slow Russian troops

On 23 April, The Washington Post wrote about a clandestine Belarusian network of railway workers and dissidents who helped to stop Russia’s assault on Kyiv. Since the start of the war, certain Belarusians have disrupted the transit of Russian equipment through...

On 23 April, The Washington Post wrote about a clandestine Belarusian network of railway workers and dissidents who helped to stop Russia’s assault on Kyiv. Since the start of the war, certain Belarusians have disrupted the transit of Russian equipment through their country, documented Russian troop positions, and shared information with Ukrainians.

Belarusian “rail partisans” have physically damaged railway signalling equipment, while hacker groups, known as cyber partisans, have interfered with railroad software systems. Partisans say their actions do not affect passenger safety.

Authorities have responded with violence and charges of terrorism. Punishments range from long prison sentences to the death penalty. The authorities accuse the rail partisans of being in the pay of Western governments. They claim the so-called partisans seek to perpetrate disasters and mass human casualties. But only partisans have suffered physically so far.

What has happened since the start of the war?

Today’s rail partisans trace their history to Belarusian resistance in the Second World War. In 1943, partisans disrupted German reinforcements and supplies, destroying more than 90,000 rails, 1,061 trains, and 72 railroad bridges in Belarus alone. The “rail war” during WWII is a part of the school curriculum in contemporary Belarus.

Since the start of the Russian war against Ukraine, both state and independent Belarusian media have reported an increasing number of incidents on the Belarusian railways. Incidents at this scale have not been seen since WW2. However, a distinctive feature of the new “rail war” is modern partisans do not destroy trains or railway tracks.

The most common form of sabotage is the arson of relay cabinets. As a result, automatic signalling systems for trains and switches stop working, disrupting schedules, and forcing the trains to move at reduced speeds of 15–20 km per hour.

On 25 March, rail partisans damaged relay cabinets on the Barysau-Navasady section of Belarus’ railway. Source: Twitter @HannaLiubakova.

On 25 February, a cyber partisan group attacked Belarusian railway software systems in order to slow down the movement of Russian military equipment. Various systems, including electronic tickets sales, were down for more than two weeks, disrupting railway operations.

ByPol, a Poland-based group of former security officers who left Belarusian law enforcement agencies after the rigged 2020 elections and police violence that ensued, took responsibility for damaging railway equipment across Belarus. On 2 March, the Interior Ministry partially confirmed sabotage acts on the country’s railways, mentioning several incidents in Mahiliou, Homiel, and Minsk regions.

Authorities have been releasing information about arrests in order to intimidate participants of the anti-war movement. At the same time, independent media reports have been intermittent due to the serious risks that anti-war protesters could face if exposed. Therefore, it is not yet possible to evaluate the scale of the current “rail war.” Acts of sabotage are estimated to number more than 80.

Ukraine’s military command has acknowledged Belarusian resistance. On 23 March, Ukraine noted, “Sympathetic Belarusians, condemning the contribution of the current illegal Belarusian authorities to the war against Ukraine, have partially disrupted railway traffic between the Republic of Belarus and Ukraine.” On 24 April, Ukrainian presidential adviser Olexiy Arestovych also indicated he was aware of the contributions of Belarusian partisans in disrupting enemy railway operations.

The intimidation campaign against rail partisans

A map showing railway resistance that took place in March 2022. Source: Twitter @franakviacorka.

In mid-February, police began a two-week operation of searches and arrests in Stoubcy (Minsk region). Security forces detained and persecuted people for subscribing to “extremist” channels on Telegram, an instant messaging service. Human rights defenders linked these raids to damaged automated railway systems near Stoubcy.

In early March, Belarusian Prosecutor General Andrej Shved opened a criminal case of terrorism for “offences against traffic safety and transport operations.” The Interior Ministry placed railway facilities under guard. Deputy Interior Minister Henadz Kazakevich has openly threatened partisans with the death penalty.

Kazakevich’s threats preceded a shooting incident in the Mahiliou region of Belarus on 30 March. Police detained three Babrujsk residents for the alleged destruction of a relay cabinet in the Asipovichy district. Officers claim they opened fire at the suspects for “actively resisting arrest.” By contrast, railway community Telegram channels assert the suspects did not resist. They allege officers deliberately shot the suspects the kneecaps after they were already detained.

In the last week of March, independent Telegram channels reported the arrests of more than 40 railway workers. The authorities charged the detainees with high treason, espionage, and terrorist acts. By 30 March, Telegram channels affiliated with the security forces posted more than three dozen “confession” videos featuring arrested railway workers.

Anti-war resistance online

Belarusian opponents of the war have also been disseminating information about Russian troop movements in Belarus. At first glance, this may seem a less risky form of resistance. But Belarusians can face extremism charges for the sharing of sensitive information. Guilty sentences can carry prison terms of up to six years.

For instance, on 5 April, the police arrested Iryna Abdukeryna, a former teacher from Hojniki, a town in the Homiel region. She was charged with taking pictures of a Russian military convoy and sharing them with the Belaruski Hajun Telegram channel. She is now one of 1,143 political prisoners in Belarus as of 24 April. Throughout March and April, human rights defenders have reported an increase in the number of arrests on similar charges.

The Belaruski Hajun project aims to uncover the movements of the Russian troops in Belarus. Belarusian opposition activist and blogger Anton Matolka is the originator of the project. The project’s Telegram channel has almost 400,000 subscribers and features user-generated content about Russian troop movements in Belarus. Warnings of Russian missile launches and aircraft missions from the Belarusian territory also appear on the channel.

Matolka told Radio Liberty that his team has been receiving nearly 1,000 messages daily. In response, Belarusian authorities recognised all projects linked with Anton Matolka as extremist groups. The activist thinks that his various initiatives have contributed to the redeployment of Russian troops away from Belarus. He believes Russian soldiers did not feel secure and they did not expect the population would display such levels of hostility towards them.

Belarusians who oppose the regime’s logistical support of Russia’s war have faced brutal repression. Activists, who have been driven underground, must now use more covert forms of protest. The campaign of intimidation suggests the authorities are troubled by such developments, which are perceived as a direct threat to the regime’s continued hold on power.

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Lizaveta Kasmach
Lizaveta Kasmach
Lizaveta Kasmach holds a PhD in History from the University of Alberta, Canada.
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