When Russian troops first streamed across the Belarusian border into Ukraine for what they had assumed would be a lightning assault on Kyiv, they were intending to rely on the region’s extensive rail network for supplies and reinforcements.
The Russians hadn’t taken into account the railway saboteurs of Belarus.
Starting in the earliest days of the invasion in February, a clandestine network of railway workers, hackers and dissident security forces went into action to disable or disrupt the railway links connecting Russia to Ukraine through Belarus, wreaking havoc on Russian supply lines.
The attacks have drawn little attention outside Belarus amid the drama of the Russian onslaught and the bloody aftermath of Russia’s humiliating retreat. Fierce Ukrainian resistance and tactical errors by an ill-prepared Russian force were likely enough to thwart Russia’s plans, analysts say.
But the Belarus railway saboteurs can at least claim a role in fueling the logistical chaos that quickly engulfed the Russians, leaving troops 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. He said, “They are courageous and honest people that have helped us.”
The attacks were simple but effective, targeting the signal control cabinets essential to the functioning of the railways, members of the activist network said. For days on end, the movement of trains was paralyzed, forcing the Russians to attempt to resupply their troops by road and contributing to the snarl-up that stalled the infamous 40-mile military convoy north of Kyiv.
How much of the chaos can be attributed to the sabotage and how much to poor logistical planning by the Russians is hard to tell, especially as there is no independent media reporting from Belarus, said Emily Ferris, a research fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute. She said that trains had to be slowed to a crawl without automatic signaling and thus the train number would have been limited.
“Given the Russian reliance on trains, I’m sure it contributed to some of the problems they had in the north. She said that it would have hindered their movement. “They couldn’t push further into Ukrainian territory and snarled 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 the anti-government protests that rocked Belarus in 2020.
“I can’t say we were the most important factor, but we were an important brick in the wall,” he said.
The saboteurs drew inspiration from an earlier episode in Belarusian history, during World War II, when Belarusians opposed to the Nazi occupation blew up railway lines and train stations to disrupt German supply lines. It is regarded as a victory for Belarus and is taught in schools to be the best of Soviet resistance tactics that allowed for the Germans to flee.
Eight decades later, it is Russia’s presence in Belarus that has stirred dissent. The deployment of tens of thousands of Russian troops in Belarus in preparation for the invasion of Ukraine triggered widespread domestic opposition and rekindled opposition networks formed during the 2020 protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, said Hanna Liubakova, a Belarusian journalist living in exile in Lithuania.
This second Rail War has taken a more benign form than its predecessor. Ravavoi stated that the partisans were careful not to cause casualties. They focused their efforts on destroying equipment that would prevent the railways’ functioning.
“We didn’t want to kill any Russian army or Belarusian train drivers. He said that they used peaceful means to defeat them.
He and other Belarusians involved in organizing the attacks decline to reveal precise details of how the attacks were carried out and by whom, citing the need for secrecy and concerns for the safety of the railway partisans, as the saboteurs are loosely known.
Three main groups have been involved, representing railway workers, security force defectors and cyber specialists, said Lt. Col Alexander Azarov, a former security official living in Warsaw who heads the security force group called Bypol.
Railway employees sympathetic to the partisans have leaked details of Russian movements and the locations of key railway infrastructure to a group called the Community of Railway Workers, which shares them on Telegram channels. Azarov stated that the attackers are aided by those on the ground, although there isn’t a formal hierarchy of command.
“Our movement is not centralized,” he said. He said, “It is not like there are leaders of resistance. It’s horizontal, with dozens of groups working on the ground.”
The third group, the Cyber Partisans, is formed of exiled Belarusian IT professionals who have carried out several cyberattacks on the Belarusian government since joining 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 snarling rail traffic before Russian troops had even crossed the border. According to Yuliana Shemetovets (a spokesperson for Cyber Partisans), it was easy to hack into the railway’s computer network. This is because Windows XP is an old version that has many flaws.
Starting on Feb. 26, two days after the invasion began, a succession of five sabotage attacks against signaling cabinets brought train traffic to an almost complete halt, said Sergey Voitekhovich, a former railway employee now based in Poland who is a leader in the Community of Railway Workers.
By Feb. 28, satellite photographs began to appear of the 40-mile convoy of Russian trucks and tanks ostensibly headed from Belarus toward Kyiv. The convoy slowed down after vehicles ran out or stopped working within a week.
The Belarusian authorities have since launched an intense effort to prevent attacks and hunt down the saboteurs. The Interior Ministry has decreed that damaging railway infrastructure is an act of terrorism, a crime that carries a 20-year prison term.
Dozens of railway workers have been randomly detained and their phones searched for evidence that they were in touch with the partisans, the activists say. At least 11 Belarusians are in custody, accused of participating in the attacks, according to human rights groups.
In early April, security police captured three alleged saboteurs near the town of Bobruisk and shot them in the knees. The three saboteurs were captured by security police near Bobruisk in April. They had their knees wrapped and broadcast the footage to state television.
The shootings have had a chilling effect on the saboteur network, Azarov said. The presence of Belarusian troops patrolling the area and deployments of drones to inspect railway tracks have made it possible for them to deploy these drones. He said, “It is too dangerous to conduct attacks.”
But by the time of the police shooting, Russia’s withdrawal from the area around Kyiv was in full swing and the Kremlin had announced it would refocus its military effort on capturing the east of Ukraine. According to Pentagon, most of the Russian soldiers that arrived in Ukraine from Belarus are currently being transferred to the east.
“We believe the fact that the Russians gave up on taking Kyiv is a result of our work because the Russians didn’t feel as safe in Belarus as they had expected,” said Franak Viacorka, spokesman for Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. “Thousands of Russian troops didn’t receive food, they didn’t receive fuel, and they didn’t receive equipment on time.”
Now, a new phase in the rail war may be underway. Telegram has seen photos of rail activists posting images showing damage to signaling cabinets on Russian lines used for transporting troops to eastern Ukraine. Voitekhovich claims that members of his rail network were involved in the attacks, although they can’t independently confirm them. He stated that “there are open borders between Belarus, Russia.”