Los Angeles Times

Belarus saboteurs disrupt Russia war effort

Guerrillas paralyze rails used to move the Kremlin’s troops and arms to Ukraine, and launch cyberattac­ks.


After Russia invaded Ukraine, guerrillas inside Belarus began carrying out acts of sabotage on their country’s railways, including blowing up track equipment to paralyze the rails that Russian forces used to get troops and weapons into Ukraine.

In the most recent sabotage to make internatio­nal headlines, they attacked a Russian warplane parked just outside the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

“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 serviceman who joined a group of saboteurs, told the Associated Press in a phone interview.

“The Russians must understand on whose side the Belarusian­s are actually fighting,” he said, speaking on the condition that his last name be withheld for security reasons.

More than a year after Russia used the territory of its neighbor and ally to invade Ukraine, Belarus continues to host Russian troops, as well as warplanes, missiles and other weapons. The Belarusian opposition condemns the cooperatio­n, and a guerrilla movement sprang up to disrupt the Kremlin’s operations, both on the ground and online. Meanwhile, Belarus’ authoritar­ian government is trying to crack down on saboteurs with threats of the death penalty and long prison terms.

Activists say the rail attacks have forced the Russian military to abandon the use of trains to send troops and materiel to Ukraine.

The retired serviceman is a member of the Assn. of Security Forces of Belarus, or BYPOL, a guerrilla group founded amid mass political protests in Belarus in 2020. Its core is composed of former military members.

During the first year of the war, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko realized that getting involved in the conflict “will cost him a lot and will ignite dangerous processes inside Belarus,” said Anton Matolka, coordinato­r of the Belarusian military monitoring group Belaruski Hajun.

Last month, BYPOL claimed responsibi­lity for a drone attack on a Russian warplane stationed near Minsk. The group said it used two armed drones to damage the Beriev A-50 parked at the Machulishc­hy Air Base. Belarusian authoritie­s have said they requested the early-warning aircraft to monitor their border.

Lukashenko acknowledg­ed the attack a week later, saying that the damage to the plane was insignific­ant but acknowledg­ing that it had to be sent to Russia for repairs.

The Belarusian president also said that the perpetrato­r of the attack was arrested along with more than 20 accomplice­s and that he had ties to Ukrainian security services.

Both BYPOL and Ukrainian authoritie­s rejected allegation­s that Kyiv was involved. BYPOL leader Aliaksandr Azarau said the people who carried out the assault were able to leave Belarus safely.

“We are not familiar with the person Lukashenko talked 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 Russian military aviation in Belarus.”

He said the group is preparing other operations to free Belarus “from the Russian occupation” and to free Belarus from Lukashenko’s government.

“We have a two-headed enemy these days,” said Azarau, who remains outside Belarus.

Former military officers in the BYPOL group work closely with the team of Belarus’ exiled opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanous­kaya, who ran against Lukashenko in the 2020 presidenti­al election, which was widely seen as rigged.

The disputed vote results handed him his sixth term in office and triggered the largest protests in the country’s history. In response, Lukashenko unleashed a brutal crackdown on demonstrat­ors, accusing the opposition of plotting to overthrow the government. Tsikhanous­kaya fled to Lithuania under pressure.

With the protests still simmering a year after the election, BYPOL created an undergroun­d network of anti-government activists dubbed Peramoha, or Victory. According to Azarau, the network has some 200,000 participan­ts, twothirds of them in Belarus.

“Lukashenko has something to be afraid of,” Azarau said.

Belarusian guerrillas say they have already carried out 17 major acts of sabotage on railways. The first took place just two days after Russian troops rolled into Ukraine.

A month later, thenUkrain­ian railways head Oleksandr Kamyshin said there “was no longer any railway traffic between Ukraine and Belarus,” and thanked Belarusian guerrillas for it.

Another group of guerrillas operates in cyberspace. Their coordinato­r, Yuliana Shemetovet­s, 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 depends directly on the military success of Ukraine,” Shemetovet­s said. “We’re trying to contribute to Ukraine’s victory as best we can.”

Last month, the cyberguerr­illas reported hacking a subsidiary of Russia’s state media watchdog, Roskomnadz­or. They said they were able to penetrate the subsidiary’s inner network, download more than 2 terabytes of documents and emails, and share data showing how Russian authoritie­s censor informatio­n about the war in Ukraine.

They also hacked into Belarus’ state database containing informatio­n about border crossings and are now preparing a report on Ukrainian citizens who were recruited by Russia and went to meet with their handlers in Belarus.

In addition, the cyberguerr­illas help vet Belarusian­s who volunteer to join the Kastus Kalinouski regiment that fights alongside Kyiv’s forces. Shemetovet­s said they were able to identify four security operatives among the applicants.

Belarusian authoritie­s have unleashed a crackdown on guerrillas.

Last May, Lukashenko signed off on introducin­g the death penalty for attempted terrorist acts. Last month, the Belarusian parliament also adopted the death penalty as punishment for high treason. Lukashenko signed the measure Thursday.

“Belarusian authoritie­s are seriously scared by the scale of the guerrilla movement inside the country and don’t know what to do with it, so they chose harsh repression­s, intimidati­on and fear as the main tool,” said Pavel Sapelka of the Viasna human rights group.

Dozens have been arrested, and many others have fled the country.

Siarhei Vaitsekhov­ich runs a Telegram blog where he regularly posts about Russian drills in Belarus and the deployment of Russian military equipment and troops to the country. He had to leave Belarus after authoritie­s began investigat­ing him on charges of treason and forming an extremist group.

Vaitsekhov­ich said his 15year-old brother was recently detained in an effort to pressure him to take the blog down and cooperate with the security services.

The Russian Federal Security Service “is very unhappy with the fact that informatio­n about movements of Russian military equipment spills out into public domain,” Vaitsekhov­ich said.

According to Viasna, over the last 12 months at least 1,575 Belarusian­s have been detained for their antiwar stance, and 56 have been convicted of various charges and sentenced to prison terms ranging from a year to 23 years.

Anton says he understand­s the risks. On one of the railway attacks, he worked with three associates who were each sentenced in November to more than 20 years in prison.

“It is hard to say who is in a more difficult position — a Ukrainian in a trench or a Belarusian on a stakeout,” he said.

 ?? Russian Defense Ministry Press Service ?? RUSSIANS TAKE part in drills at a secret location in Belarus in an image from video released Dec. 28. “Belarusian­s will not allow the Russians to freely use our territory for the war with Ukraine,” one guerrilla says.
Russian Defense Ministry Press Service RUSSIANS TAKE part in drills at a secret location in Belarus in an image from video released Dec. 28. “Belarusian­s will not allow the Russians to freely use our territory for the war with Ukraine,” one guerrilla says.

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