After Russia invaded Ukraine, guerrillas from Belarus began carrying out acts of sabotage on their country’s railways, including blowing up rail equipment to cripple the rails Russian forces used to get troops and weapons into Ukraine.
In the most recent sabotage that made international headlines, they attacked a Russian warplane parked just outside the Belarusian capital.
“Belarusians will not allow the Russians to freely use our territory for the war with Ukraine, and we want to force them to leave,” Anton, a retired Belarusian soldier who joined a group of saboteurs, told me. in a telephone interview to The Associated Press.
“The Russians need to understand whose side the Belarusians are actually fighting on,” he said, on the condition that his surname would not be revealed for security reasons.
More than a year after Russia used the territory of its neighbor and ally to invade Ukraine, Belarus continues to receive Russian troops, as well as fighter jets, missiles and other weapons. The Belarusian opposition condemns the cooperation and a guerrilla movement has sprung up to disrupt the Kremlin’s operations, both on the ground and online. Meanwhile, the authoritarian government of Belarus is trying to crack down on saboteurs by threatening the death penalty and long prison terms.
Activists say the rail attacks have forced the Russian military to refrain from using trains to send troops and equipment to Ukraine.
The retired military man is a member of the Association of Security Forces of Belarus, or BYPOL, a guerrilla group formed in 2020 amid mass political protests in Belarus. The core consists of former military members.
During the first year of the war, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko realized that involvement in the conflict “will cost him dearly and unleash dangerous processes in Belarus,” said Anton Matolka, coordinator of the Belarusian military control group Belaruski Hajun.
Last month, BYPOL claimed responsibility for a drone attack on a Russian fighter jet stationed near the Belarusian capital. The group said it had used two armed drones to damage the Beriev A-50 parked at Machulishchy Air Base near Minsk. Belarusian authorities have said they have requested the early warning plane to guard their border.
Lukashenko acknowledged the attack a week later, saying the damage to the plane was insignificant, but admitted it had to be sent to Russia for repairs.
The ironclad leader also said that the perpetrator of the attack was arrested along with more than 20 accomplices and that he has ties to Ukrainian security services.
Both BYPOL and Ukrainian authorities rejected allegations that Kiev was involved. BYPOL leader Aliaksandr Azarau said the people who carried out the attack were able to leave Belarus safely.
“We are not familiar with the person Lukashenko was talking about,” he said.
The attack on the plane, which Azarau said was used to help Russia locate Ukrainian air defense systems, was “an attempt to blind the Russian military aviation in Belarus”.
He said the group is preparing other operations to liberate Belarus “from Russian occupation” and to liberate Belarus from Lukashenko’s regime.
“We have a two-headed enemy these days,” said Azarau, who remains outside Belarus.
Former military officers in the BYPOL group are working closely with the team of exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against Lukashenko in the 2020 presidential election, widely regarded as rigged.
The disputed voting results gave him his sixth term in office and sparked the largest protests in the country’s history. In response, Lukashenko unleashed a brutal crackdown on demonstrators and accused the opposition of plotting to overthrow the government. Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania under pressure.
With protests still simmering a year after the election, BYPOL created an underground network of anti-government activists called Peramoha of Victory. According to Azarau, the network has about 200,000 participants, two-thirds of whom are in Belarus.
“Lukashenko has something to be afraid of,” Azarau said.
Belarusian guerrillas say they have already committed 17 major acts of sabotage on the railways. The first took place just two days after Russian troops rolled into Ukraine.
A month later, the then head of Ukrainian railways, Oleksandr Kamyshin, said that there was “no more train traffic between Ukraine and Belarus”, thanking the Belarusian guerrillas for it.
Another group of guerrilla fighters operate in cyberspace. Their coordinator, Yuliana Shametavets, said some 70 Belarusian IT specialists are hacking into Russian government databases and attacking websites of Russian and Belarusian state institutions.
“The future of Belarus directly depends on Ukraine’s military success,” Shametavets said. “We try to contribute as much as possible to Ukraine’s victory.”
Last month, the cyber guerrillas reported that they had hacked into a subsidiary of Russia’s state media watchdog Roskomnadzor. They said they were able to penetrate the subsidiary’s internal network, download more than two terabytes of documents and emails, and share data showing how Russian authorities are censoring information about the war in Ukraine.
They also hacked into the Belarusian state database of border crossing information and are now preparing a report on Ukrainian citizens who were recruited by Russia and met their escorts in Belarus.
In addition, the cyber guerrillas help vet Belarusians who volunteer to join the Kastus Kalinouski regiment fighting alongside Kiev’s armed forces. Shametovets said they were able to identify four security agents among the applicants.
Belarusian authorities have cracked down on guerrilla fighters.
Last May, Lukashenko signed the death penalty for attempted terrorist acts. Last month, the Belarusian parliament also approved the death penalty as a punishment for high treason. Lukashenko signed the measure on Thursday.
“The Belarusian authorities are very shocked by the size of the guerrilla movement in the country and do not know what to do with it, so they chose harsh repression, intimidation and fear as the main tool,” said Pavel Sapelka of the human rights organization Viasna. group.
Dozens have been arrested, while many others have fled the country.
Siarhei Vaitsekhovich runs a Telegram blog where he regularly posts about Russian exercises in Belarus and the deployment of Russian military equipment and troops in the country. He was forced to leave Belarus after authorities began investigating him on charges of treason and forming an extremist group.
Vaitsekhovich said his 15-year-old brother was recently detained in an attempt to pressure him into taking the blog offline and cooperating with security forces.
Russia’s Federal Security Service “is very unhappy that information about movements of Russian military equipment is entering the public domain,” Vaitsekhovich said.
According to Viasna, at least 1,575 Belarusians have been detained over the past 12 months for their anti-war stance, and 56 have been convicted on various charges and sentenced to prison terms ranging from one year to 23 years.
Anton says he understands the risks. In one of the railroad attacks, he worked with three associates who were each sentenced to more than 20 years in prison in November.
“It is difficult to say who is in a more difficult position – a Ukrainian in a trench or a Belarusian on guard,” he said.