Belarusian railway saboteurs helped thwart Russia’s attack on Kyiv
The attacks attracted little attention outside of Belarus amid the drama of the Russian offensive and the bloody consequences of Russia’s humiliating retreat. Analysts say fierce Ukrainian resistance and tactical mistakes by a poorly prepared Russian force were likely enough to thwart Russia’s plans.
But Belarusian railway saboteurs can at least claim their part in fueling the logistical chaos that quickly swept the Russians, leaving soldiers stranded on the front lines without food, fuel, and ammunition within days of the invasion.
Alexander Kamyshin, head of Ukrainian Railways, expressed Ukraine’s gratitude to the Belarusian saboteurs. “They are brave and honest people who helped us,” he said.
Members of the activist network said the attacks were simple but effective, targeting signal control cabinets essential to railroad operation. For days on end, train traffic was paralyzed, forcing the Russians to try to resupply their forces by road and contribute to the clash that halted the infamous 40-mile-long military convoy north of Kyiv.
Emily Ferris, a research fellow at London-based Royal, said the amount of chaos that can be attributed to sabotage and how poorly logistical planning by the Russians is is difficult to quantify, especially since there are no independent media reports from Belarus. United Services Institute. But without automated signals, trains had to slow to a crawl, and the number of passengers on the rails at any one time was severely restricted, she said.
“Given Russia’s dependence on trains, I’m sure it contributed to some of the problems they faced in the north. It could have slowed their mobility,” she said. “They couldn’t go further into Ukrainian territory and disrupt their supply lines,” she said. Because they had to rely on trucks.”
Yuri Ravavoy, a Belarusian activist and trade unionist who fled to Poland under threat of arrest during the anti-government protests that rocked Belarus in 2020, said the attacks also provided time for Ukrainian forces to craft an effective response to the Russian invasion.
“I can’t say we were the most important factor,” he said, “but we were an important brick in the wall.”
The saboteurs were inspired by an earlier episode in Belarusian history, during World War II, when Belarusians opposed to the Nazi occupation blew up railroads and train stations to disrupt German supply lines. Railroad warfare, as it is known, is venerated as a moment of victory for Belarus, taught in schools as the most successful tactics deployed by resistance fighters and which paved the way for Soviet forces to drive out the Germans.
Eight decades later, the Russian presence in Belarus has sparked opposition. The deployment of tens of thousands of Russian troops in Belarus in preparation for the invasion of Ukraine has sparked widespread internal opposition and revived opposition networks formed during the 2020 protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Hana Lyubakova, a Belarusian journalist living in exile in Lithuania, said.
The Second Rail War took a milder form than its predecessor. Ravavoy said supporters were careful not to inflict casualties. So they focused their attacks on damaged equipment to prevent the railways from operating.
We did not want to kill any Russian army or Belarusian train drivers. We used a peaceful method to stop them.”
He and other Belarusians involved in organizing the attacks refused to disclose exact details of how and who carried out the attacks, citing a need for secrecy and concerns about the safety of railway supporters, as the saboteurs are loosely known.
Three main groups took part, representing railway workers, security defectors and cyber specialists, said Lt. Col. Alexander Azarov, a Warsaw-based former security official who heads the security force group People.
Railway employees sympathetic to the revolutionaries have leaked details of the Russian moves and key rail infrastructure locations to a group called the Railway Workers’ Society, which it shares on its Telegram channels. Azarov said supporters on the ground are reaching out to carry out the attacks, but there is no formal chain of command.
“Our movement is not centralized,” he said. It is not as if there was a leader of the resistance. It’s horizontal, with dozens of groups working on the floor.”
The third group, Cyber Partisans, consists of Belarusian exile IT professionals who have carried out numerous cyberattacks on the Belarusian government since it joined in 2020.
Cyber partisans launched the first attack, hacking into the railroad computer network in the days before the invasion and igniting rail traffic before Russian forces crossed the border. Hacking into railroad computers was relatively easy, said Yuliana Shemitowitz, a New York-based spokeswoman for the group, because the railroad was still running Windows XP, an outdated version of the software with many vulnerabilities.
Beginning on February 26, two days after the invasion began, a series of five sabotage attacks against signal tanks brought trains to a near halt to traffic, said Sergei Wojciech, a former railway employee who now resides in Poland and is a leader in the community. of railway workers.
By February 28, satellite images began to appear of the 40-mile convoy of Russian trucks and tanks ostensibly heading from Belarus towards Kyiv. Within a week, the convoy came to a complete standstill because the vehicles ran out of fuel or broke down.
A full train to Kyiv, carrying anxious and optimistic returnees
Since then, the Belarusian authorities have made extensive efforts to prevent attacks and track down saboteurs. The Ministry of Interior decided that damaging the railway infrastructure is a terrorist act and a crime punishable by 20 years in prison.
Activists said dozens of railway workers were arrested at random and their phones were searched for evidence of contact with militants. According to human rights groups, there are at least 11 Belarusians in custody, accused of participating in the attacks.
In early April, the security police arrested three alleged saboteurs near the town of Bobruisk and shot them in the knees. State television broadcast footage of men bleeding with bandages on their knees and claiming they had been shot as they resisted arrest.
Azarov said the shooting had a chilling effect on the sabotage network. Belarusian forces are patrolling and drones have been deployed to monitor the railways. “It has become very dangerous to launch attacks,” he said.
But by the time of the police shooting, Russia’s withdrawal from the region around Kiev was in full swing and the Kremlin announced it would refocus its military efforts on controlling eastern Ukraine. The Pentagon says that the majority of Russian forces that entered Ukraine from Belarus are now in the process of being redeployed to the east.
“We believe that the fact that the Russians gave up taking over Kyiv is a consequence of our work because the Russians did not feel as safe in Belarus as they expected,” said Vrank Vyakorka, a spokesman for Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikanovskaya. Thousands of Russian soldiers did not receive food, did not receive fuel, did not receive equipment on time.
Now, there may be a new stage in the railway war. In recent days, railway activists have posted on Telegram photos of damage to signal tanks along Russian railways used to transport troops to eastern Ukraine. The attacks could not be independently confirmed, but Voitekhovich alleged the involvement of members of his railway network. “There is an open border between Belarus and Russia,” he said.