Why Belarus is yet to join Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Belarus’ underground resistance campaign is disrupting Russian military transports – and preventing Lukashenka from joining the invasion of Ukraine directly
12 April 2022, 3.17pm
Alexander Lukashenka’s regime has acted as an accomplice to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine since February, providing its territory as a staging ground for the invasion.
But the Belarusian military itself is yet to directly enter into the conflict. The main deterrent? Belarusian society’s total rejection of the prospect of participating in the war.
For some people, the desire to help Ukraine has led to a non-violent partisan movement against Russian military activity in Belarus.
Indeed, the most striking manifestation of Belarus’ anti-war movement are the acts of resistance on the country’s railway network. In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a wave of sabotage swept across the country: people who oppose the war have tried to render the railways unusable, preventing Russian military equipment from moving through Belarusian territory.
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The fact that people have turned to direct acts of resistance speaks to the impact of the regime’s wave of political terror since Belarus’ 2020 elections: today, the price of going out on the street is too high. Some Belarusians have therefore turned to the underground.
The railway campaign has already racked up 80 acts of sabotage, according to the Belarusian Interior Ministry. Independent media dubbed this campaign a new “rail war” – the term for Belarusian partisan attacks against railway lines during the Nazi occupation. Participants are now referred to as “partisans”.
The most common form of sabotage is setting fire to signalling systems so that traffic lights stop working on certain sections of the Belarusian railway network. As a result, trains are forced to move at a speed of 15 to 20km an hour.
There are also simpler acts of sabotage: for example, in the town of Stolbtsy, a married couple was arrested for setting fire to logs to stop the movement of military transports [by bringing down signalling systems or slowing down trains]. These actions are not designed to derail military trains, engineer a crash or injure people directly.
“I will not specify the details, but I am grateful to Belarusian railway workers for what they are doing”
Apart from the sheer number of disruptions, the campaign has already had an effect. One Belarusian hacker group, the ‘Cyberpartisans’, disabled the computer network of the Belarusian Railways company at the end of February: as a result, the company was forced to temporarily switch to manual control for railway operations.
In early March, a Telegram channel for Belarusian railway workers claimed that Russian military transports had been suspended as a result of the “rail war”.
Oleksandr Kamyshin, head of the Ukrainian Railway company, also hinted in an interview that the actions of “partisans” had led to a halt in railway traffic for a certain time.
“I will not specify the details, but I am grateful to Belarusian railway workers for what they are doing,” Kamyshin said.
Rules of engagement
An organisation of former Belarusian security service personnel, ByPol, who fled the country after the 2020 protests, has been attempting to coordinate the campaign. And in response, the Lukashenka regime has taken the partisan threat extremely seriously.
To prevent sabotage, the authorities have scaled up patrols of railway sites by internal troops, and have launched a campaign of brutal repression against the partisans themselves.
From the very beginning, the Belarusian security forces announced that “any actions” against railway sites would be regarded as an act of terrorism – that is, participants would be charged with an offence that carries the death penalty in Belarus. At the moment, approximately 40 people have been detained on suspicion of committing sabotage. Some have been severely beaten during detention.
Like any classic anti-partisan operation, the actions of the security forces are aimed at intimidating the local population
Deputy interior minister Gennady Kazakevich even threatened to kill partisans: “As you know, you can’t negotiate with terrorists, you can only destroy them,” he said in early March. These words are not an empty threat: the Belarusian security forces have, in fact, received carte blanche to use firearms against the “partisans”.
At the end of March, it was reported that a unit of internal troops had opened fire on people who set light to a relay cabinet in western Belarus. No one was injured and the partisans managed to escape. But on 6 April, there were further arrests after relay cabinets were set on fire in the Bobruisk and Borisov regions: two people received gunshot wounds, one of whom was seriously wounded. According to unconfirmed reports, these individuals did not show any resistance – the troops allegedly shot them in the knees in order to intimidate them.
Kazakevich subsequently promised that any acts of sabotage on the railway would be suppressed with the use of firearms.
Though the Belarusian authorities justify their brutality towards the ‘partisans’ with the danger posed to civilians by their actions, it’s clear that the repression campaign is designed to dissuade others from joining. Like any classic anti-partisan operation, the actions of the security forces are aimed at intimidating the local population.
The human rights centre Viasna reports that after the start of the “rail war”, security forces carried out a series of raids in cities near sabotage sites – Stolbtsy, Dzerzhinsk and Baranovichi. People who were known to have previously participated in protests had their homes searched and their phones checked. If subscriptions to opposition Telegram channels were found, then they were sent to jail.
Separately, the security services have been investigating Belarusian railway employees: at the end of March, about 40 people were detained at once. Their ‘repentance videos’ – where they express regret on camera for their actions – later appeared on social media channels controlled by the authorities. Here, the principle of ‘preventive deterrence’ was at work once again: these people’s only offence was that they were subscribed to a specific Telegram channel for railway workers that the authorities declared ‘extremist’.
If a rough estimate puts several hundred people as direct participants in Belarus’ ‘railway war’, then thousands are likely involved as immediate supporters, including online.
This is directly related to the complete degradation of freedom of assembly in the country since protests rocked the country in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential elections – and the authorities launched a total campaign of repression against society. Thus, after people organised anti-war protests in response to Russia’s invasion in late February, roughly 1,100 people were arrested.
In the eyes of most Belarusians, the risk of protesting publicly seems unjustified; few people believe in the effectiveness of a peaceful street protest in the current situation. At any rate, Belarusian military is yet to directly enter into the war, meaning there has not yet been a trigger for protests.
As a result, Belarusian protest culture has begun to drift towards underground, ‘partisan’ forms of resistance.
People across the country have become the voluntary eyes and ears of Belaruski Gaiun, a monitoring service that records the movement of Russian troops across the territory of Belarus, missile launches, takeoffs and landings of military aircraft. They are thus able to pass on information about cases when Russian soldiers send items allegedly looted in Ukraine via Belarus to Russia, including seized cars.
Anton Motolko, who manages the project, said in an interview that it receives roughly 1,000 messages a day.
The main restraining factor is that Lukashenka is well aware of how anti-war sentiments dominate in Belarusian society
But the people who send information to Belaruski Gaiun also face potential criminal prosecution, and being forced to ‘repent’ on camera. Lukashenka’s security forces now not only prosecute any sign of dissent, but also place a special emphasis on defending Moscow’s interests. Belarusians are being arrested for editing articles about the war on Wikipedia, criticising the war in private conversations or simply tying a ribbon with the colours of the Ukrainian flag in a public place.
The Belarusian opposition believes the current situation in the country should be interpreted as a ‘dual occupation’ by the Lukashenka regime and Putin’s troops.
“Lukashenka seized power in August 2020 and surrendered the Belarusians [to Russia]. Now he has become Putin’s accomplice in the war,” said Franak Viačorka, senior adviser to the opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Waiting for an invasion
During March, rumours were repeatedly circulated that Lukashenka’s army was about to enter the war against Ukraine.
On 3 March, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine stated that Belarusian paratroopers had allegedly already received an order to cross the border. On 11 March, the Ukrainian leadership claimed that a Russian provocation was being prepared in the Kopani border region, which would be followed by a Belarusian army invasion the same day. On 20 March, the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine again announced signs of preparations for a Belarusian invasion; at that time the Ukrainian General Staff estimated that an attack in the Volyn region as highly likely. In all these cases, the information was ultimately not confirmed.
But these fears did not come from nowhere. First, Lukashenka himself promised in November 2021 that he would not stand aside “in the event of a war in the Donbas”. Second, the movement of Belarusian units towards the southern border was observed in March. Third, Lukashenka has alleged several times that Ukraine has launched ballistic missiles against Belarusian territory. He did not provide any evidence for this, but such statements look like an attempt to justify Belarus’ future entry into the war.
Yet the main restraining factor is that Lukashenka is well aware of how anti-war sentiments dominate in Belarusian society.
Polling data by Chatham House from early March shows that even the vast majority of people who support the dictatorship will not support a Belarusian invasion of Ukraine. Only 3% of respondents to the Chatham House poll supported participating in the war, with 28% agreeing that it was right to support Russia’s actions without directly entering into conflict.
An army operating in this kind of atmosphere at home is potentially unreliable, to the point of mutiny and revolution. Even in peacetime, the regime had little legitimacy left in the eyes of most Belarusians. Though it is hard to say how accurate Ukrainian intelligence is about the mood in the Belarusian military, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence has repeatedly claimed that the moral and psychological state of the Belarusian troops is extremely low – which is certainly plausible.
“It’s not a fact that [Lukashenka] won’t enter [the war],” said Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyi on 5 April. “We won’t know this until the end; the war is not over. But, nevertheless, [Lukashenka] needs to look at his people. And the people of Belarus are against the war with Ukraine.”
The threat of Belarus facing a significant crisis should it enter the conflict is most likely the argument that Lukashenka used in negotiations with Putin over his country’s direct participation in the Russian invasion. The current ‘rail war’ could have also played an important role in this discussion: for example, it could be argued that the Belarusian army is needed on home soil to protect Russian military transports.
By the end of March, when Russia began to retreat from Kyiv and Chernihiv, the likelihood of Belarus being directly involved in the conflict significantly decreased based on tactical considerations. According to data from Ukrainian and Western intelligence, the Russian military plans to concentrate its main efforts in the east and south of Ukraine. The Belarusian front, perhaps, is no longer a top priority. Yet military experts still do not rule out the involvement of the Belarusian army in the next stages of the war.
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Shoshana Zuboff Author of ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power’ and professor emerita at Harvard Business School
Susie Alegre International human rights lawyer and author of ‘Freedom to Think: The Long Struggle to Liberate Our Minds’
Chair: Mary Fitzgerald Director of expression at the Open Society Foundation, leading on global work to support journalism and tackle disinformation