Belarusian rail saboteurs helped thwart Russia’s assault on kyiv

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When Russian troops first crossed the border from Belarus into Ukraine for what they assumed would be a blitzkrieg assault on kyiv, they intended to rely on the region’s extensive rail network for supplies and reinforcements.

The Russians had not taken into account the railway wreckers from Belarus.

From the first days of the invasion in February, a clandestine network of rail workers, hackers and dissident security forces swung into action to disable or disrupt rail links connecting Russia with Ukraine through Belarus, wreaking havoc on rail lines. Russian supplies.

The attacks have drawn little attention outside of Belarus amid the drama of the Russian attack and the bloody aftermath of Russia’s humiliating attack. withdrawal. Fierce Ukrainian resistance and tactical errors by an ill-prepared Russian force was likely enough to thwart Russia’s plans, analysts say.

But Belarusian rail wreckers can at least claim a role in fueling the logistical chaos that quickly engulfed the Russians, leaving troops stranded at the front without food, fuel and ammunition within days of the invasion.

Alexander Kamyshin, head of the Ukrainian railways, expressed Ukraine’s gratitude to the Belarusian saboteurs. “These are brave and honest people who have helped us,” he said.

The attacks were simple but effective, targeting signal control cabinets essential to the operation of the railways, members of the activist network said. For days, train movement was at a standstill, forcing the Russians to try to resupply their troops by road and contributing to the mess that brought the infamous 40-mile military run to a standstill. convoy north of Kyiv.

It’s hard to say how much of the chaos can be attributed to sabotage and how much to poor logistical planning by the Russians, especially since there are no independent media reports from Belarus, said Emily Ferris, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute. But without automatic signalling, trains were forced to slow to a crawl and the number of them traveling on the tracks at any one time would have been severely restricted, she said.

“Given Russia’s reliance on trains, I’m sure it contributed to some of the problems they had in the north. It would have slowed down his ability to move,” he said. “They couldn’t go any further into Ukrainian territory and blocked their supply lines because they had to rely on trucks.”

The attacks also bought time for Ukrainian troops to formulate an effective response to the Russian invasion, said Yury Ravavoi, a Belarusian activist and trade unionist who escaped to Poland under threat of arrest during anti-government protests that rocked Belarus in 2020.

“I can’t say we were the biggest factor, but we were a major brick in the wall,” he said.

The wreckers were inspired by an earlier episode in Belarusian history, during World War II, when Belarusians opposed to the Nazi occupation blew up train lines and stations to disrupt German supply lines. The Rail War, as it is known, is revered as a moment of triumph for Belarus, taught in schools as the most successful tactic deployed by resistance fighters that paved the way for Soviet troops to drive out the Germans.

Eight decades later, it is Russia’s presence in Belarus that has sparked dissent. The deployment of tens of thousands of Russian troops to Belarus in preparation for the Ukraine invasion sparked widespread domestic opposition and reignited opposition networks formed during the 2020 protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, said Hanna Liubakova, a Belarusian journalist who lives in exile in Lithuania.

This second Rail War has taken a more benign form than its predecessor. The partisans were anxious not to inflict casualties, Ravavoi said. So they focused their attacks on damaging the equipment to prevent the operation of the railways.

“We did not want to kill any Russian army or Belarusian train drivers. We used a peaceful way to stop them,” he said.

He and other Belarusians involved in organizing the attacks refuse to reveal precise details of how the attacks were carried out and by whom, citing the need for secrecy and concern for the safety of railway supporters, as he vaguely knows the saboteurs.

Three main groups have been involved, representing railway workers, security force deserters and cyber specialists, said Lt. Col. Alexander Azarov, a former security official who lives in Warsaw and heads the security forces group called bypol.

Railway employees sympathetic to the partisans have leaked details of Russian movements and the locations of key rail infrastructure to a group called the Railroad Workers Community, which shares them on Telegram channels. Supporters on the ground band together to carry out the attacks, but there is no formal chain of command, Azarov said.

“Our movement is not centralized,” he said. “It is not that there is a leader of the resistance. It is horizontal, with dozens of groups working on the ground”.

The third group, the cyber partisansis made up of exiled Belarusian IT professionals who have carried out several cyberattacks against the Belarusian government since they joined in 2020.

The Cyber ​​Partisans launched the first attack, hacking into the railway’s computer network in the days leading up to the invasion and snagging rail traffic before Russian troops crossed the border. Breaking into computers on the rail network was relatively easy, said Yuliana Shemetovets, a spokeswoman for the New York-based group, because the rail company still uses Windows XP, an outdated version of the software that contains many vulnerabilities.

Starting Feb. 26, two days after the invasion began, a succession of five sabotage attacks on signal cabinets brought train traffic to a near halt, said Sergey Voitekhovich, a former railway employee now based in Poland. and is a leader in the Community. of railway workers.

By February 28, satellite photos began to appear of the 40-mile convoy of Russian trucks and tanks apparently heading from Belarus toward kyiv. Within a week, the convoy came to a complete stop because the vehicles ran out of fuel or broke down.

A packed train to kyiv, with worried and hopeful returnees

Since then, the Belarusian authorities have launched an intense effort to prevent attacks and hunt down saboteurs. The Ministry of the Interior has decreed that damaging railway infrastructure is an act of terrorism, a crime that carries a sentence of 20 years in prison.

Dozens of railway workers have been randomly detained and their phones checked for evidence they were in contact with partisans, campaigners say. At least 11 Belarusians are in custody, accused of involvement in the attacks, according to human rights groups.

In early April, security police captured three suspected saboteurs near the town of Bobruisk and shot them in the knees. State television broadcast images of the bleeding men, with bandaged knees, and claimed they had been shot while resisting arrest.

The shootings have had a chilling effect on the network of saboteurs, Azarov said. Belarusian troops are patrolling and drones have been deployed to monitor railway lines. “It has become too dangerous to attack,” he said.

But when the police fired, Russia’s withdrawal from the area around kyiv was in full swing and the Kremlin had announced that it would refocus its military effort on capturing eastern Ukraine. Most of the Russian troops that entered Ukraine from Belarus are now in the process of being redeployed to the east, the Pentagon says.

“We believe that the fact that the Russians gave up on taking kyiv is the result of our work because the Russians did not feel as safe in Belarus as they had hoped,” said Franak Viacorka, a spokesman for the Belarusian opposition leader. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. “Thousands of Russian troops did not receive food, did not receive fuel and did not receive equipment in time.”

Now, a new phase in the rail war may be underway. In recent days, railway activists posted on Telegram photos of damage to signal cabinets along Russian rail lines used to transport troops to eastern Ukraine. The attacks cannot be independently confirmed, but Voitekhovich claimed that members of his rail network are involved. “There are open borders between Belarus and Russia,” he said.

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