Belarusian government fears spill-over from Russian war in Ukraine
On 10 May, Belarusian General Staff Head Viktar Hulevich announced the country was facing a growing “military threat.” Minsk is worried about both the short-term danger of the war spill-over into Belarus after Putin’s failures in Ukraine and more distant risks related to the rapidly increasing militarisation of the region. Driven by these concerns, the Belarusian military held exercises along the border with Poland and Ukraine, deployed troops there, and publicly discussed new arms acquisitions.
Unprecedented visits and drills
On 11 May, the State Secretary of Security Council Alyaksandr Valfovich made an unprecedented, publicised visit to Belarusian army units deployed on the Ukrainian border. They were stationed there following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Their numbers were reinforced after 4 May, when the army conducted a surprise check of its rapid response forces. Troops took positions along the Ukrainian border and with bordering NATO countries.
Belarusian state media gave extensive coverage of these troop movements but provided no context. In fact, it was escalation along the Russia-Ukrainian border that triggered these reinforcements and readiness checks along Belarus’ borders. In recent weeks, Ukrainian troops have finally begun to fire on Russian territory. Minsk apparently is worried the Ukrainian army could do the same to Belarus. After all, some Russian troops remain stationed in Belarus and, most probably, continue to be involved in Putin’s military operations in Ukraine.
Belarusian state media also omitted other crucial details about the deployments. First, while the deployment on the border with Poland and the Baltics has added to numerous units already there, the units deployed on the Ukrainian border are only temporary.
The second omitted detail is the 10 May military exercises in the Kobryn and Lida districts began with about 430 territorial troops. In the past, such exercises only featured half this number of soldiers. The increased numbers demonstrate Minsk’s increased concern.
No new money for arms
Concurrently, Minsk has demonstrated its armament plans. On 10 May, Belarusian security officials held a conference to discuss its annual plan for military purchases. Reporting from the meeting, state media revealed that last year Belarus purchased 80 armoured personnel carriers (Russian-made BTR-82A), four drones, more than 2,000 anti-tank guided missiles, and 10 aircraft were overhauled.
Belarusian Defence Minister Viktar Khrenin, however, announced that Minsk was not going to increase its defence budget. Moreover, Khrenin said the army would buy as much as possible from the national arms industry. As for the purchases abroad, Khrenin said that some expensive weapons—like Su-30SM aircraft, helicopters, Tor-M2 missile systems, etc…—would be purchased by drawing from the remainder of a Russian loan used for the construction of a nuclear power plant.
Minsk aspires to continue an earlier course aimed at building an army that fits Belarusian needs by discarding heavy and costly equipment. Talking at the conference on 10 May, Belarusian dictator President Alexander Lukashenka said the emphasis laid a decade ago on increasing Belarusian army mobility had proven right.
Lukashenka went on to discuss “some lessons of Ukrainian war.” In this regard, he even cautiously praised the Ukrainian army saying, “The most efficient, including on the part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, were mobile groups that instantly, unexpectedly approached the enemy, which is much superior to them in power.”
To emulate this approach, Lukashenko continued, vehicles are needed so that within an hour or two using the developed road infrastructure of Belarus, they can approach enemy units detected by reconnaissance and strike:
We need very agile units. And we need to concentrate on this. Of course, the S-400 [surface-to-air missile system], ultra-modern aircraft, etcetera, are good. But, as we have seen, large high-tech forces, whether it be the United States or NATO, have a tremendous capability to destroy all sorts of airfields, etcetera, in one-to-two hours. And where will you land your planes? Moreover, the survivability of these planes is next to zero. Therefore, wherever you look, mobility is needed.
The Belarusian government is also continuing its missile programme. On 10 May, the State Committee for Military Industry Chairman, Dzmitry Pantus, announced that Belarus was about to test new missiles in May and August for the Palanez, a multiple-launch rocket system (apparently adapted for cruise missiles, as well), and for the BUK surface-to-air missile system. “Manufacturing rockets and missiles today is one of the key priorities of the State Committee for Military Industry,” Pantus stated.
Russian nukes and Minsk
Of course, Belarusian officials also referred to military cooperation with Russia. Lukashenka stated this week:
We were always aware of what our army could do against NATO (this is a colossus!) … But we must not forget that behind us stands Russia, a nuclear power. And we have a corresponding agreement. And we have been talking on this topic very often lately with the president of Russia.
This statement appears to be in reaction to recent regional developments. First among them is the finalisation in April of a Polish contract with the United States on the purchase of Abrams tanks. And second is in reaction to Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s statement to the effect that Warsaw is willing to deploy American nuclear weapons and more American troops on its territory.
Besides the general rhetoric of Russian nuclear might, Minsk recently revealed more specific arrangements with Moscow. Reportedly, S-400 air defence systems will “be left” in Belarus (it was not clear, under whose command). Minsk is going to purchase Russian Iskander ballistic missile systems currently deployed in the country.
Besides this, Moscow promised Russian experts’ help in developing a Belarusian missile, “similar to the Russian Iskander” ballistic missile. Minsk may try to develop such a missile to be launched from its own Palanez platform. So far, the Palanez has been developed with non-Russian, mostly Chinese technology, in a probable collaboration with Azerbaijan. Even the testing for the Palanez has taken place outside in Russia.
Belarus is sending somewhat contradictory signals about its intentions in the security sphere. These contradictions reflect pressures from different directions. On the one side, there is the deep dependence on Russia that developed after the 2020 collapse in relations with all other neighbours. On the other side, there is a fear of over-dependence on Russia combined with an aversion to fighting with Putin against Ukraine. This suggests Belarus is not hopelessly lost to Putin and there are still ways to prevent it from being dragged into the ongoing war in Ukraine.
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 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 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
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.