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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

The Rail War: How Belarusians Are Secretly Fighting Putin And Lukashenko

It remains unclear whether Belarus' strongman Alexander Lukashenko will join Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Yet as popular support for the war remains low, many in the country are actively fighting back by sabotaging the rail network.

Photo of a railway tracks in Belarus

Railway tracks in Belarus

Anna Akage

On March 24, exactly one month after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Vitaly Melnik set fire to trackside railway electrical cabinets, resulting in massive delays for 22 freight and 17 passenger trains. Earlier this month, a regional court in Belarus convicted Melnik, a 40-year-old man from Minsk, to 13 years in a maximum security colony.

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Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Melnik had also "posted negative messages on the Internet about [Belarusian President] Alexander Lukashenko," announced the prosecutor.

On Dec. 27, three other Belarusian citizens were sentenced to prison for terms of 21 to 23 years. Their crime? Trying to prevent the transportation of military equipment to Ukraine during the early days of the Russian invasion.

The main target for those in Belarus who want to resist the war are the railroads. These are crucial because they are used to transport Russian military equipment and ammunition on the territory of Belarus. It’s a phenomenon that’s becoming known as the "rail war".

An unpopular war

Since the first days of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Belarus (a neighbor of both countries) has been sharply divided. Belarus has traditionally been a strong Russian ally. The government has sided with Vladimir Putin, though it has not yet officially engaged in clashes with the Ukrainian army.

But the majority of the population supports neither war nor Lukashenko. According to a Chatham House poll conducted in August, 45% of Belarusians do not support war with Ukraine. And many Belarusian citizens are playing an active part in making sure Russia loses.

Belarusian opposition activist Franak Viacorka says: "Since the beginning of the war, 30,000 people have signed up for… a mobilization plan for organizing various actions on the railroad, roads, and administration sites.”

The news feed regularly features news about sabotage on Belarusian railroads and military units, all of which are actions by Belarusian war objectors.

Photo of guns being sent to Belarus by railway

2S3M Akatsiya self-propelled guns sent to Belarus


National pride of spies and sabotage

During World War II, most of Belarus was under German occupation from 1941 to 1944. The only way to fight Nazi Germany was sabotage and reconnaissance. These years of occupation and resistance greatly influenced the formation of the national identity of the Belarusians. At the time of the USSR, Belarusian resistance was the stuff of legends.

It is important to note that any resistance to the war with Ukraine in Belarus is mostly motivated by self-interest. They are motivated for the sake of their own country, by the idea of an independent and sovereign Belarus without dictators or life and freedom ultimately controlled by the Kremlin.

Ukraine has mined the entire forested area on the border.

The actions of the Belarusian resistance and the anti-war mood in society, coupled with the fact that Lukashenko holds power in the country by force, have resulted in the Belarusian dictator not daring to enter into open warfare with Ukraine, even under pressure from Putin.

Ukraine has mined the entire forested area on the border with Belarus so that an overland attack would be fatal for Lukashenko. In addition, the mood among the officers of the Belarusian army is different from that of the country’s elites: the actual army command does not support Lukashenko and does not want to oppose Ukraine.

"The mood of the officers in the Belarusian army differs from that of the political leadership in Belarus,” says Ivan Yakubets, former commander of the airborne assault troops of Ukraine. “There is no stable environment and mutual understanding between the political and military leadership, especially at a middle management level. And they lead the troops into battle, not the generals."

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Vulnerable Are The Russians In Crimea?

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.

Photograph of the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters with smoke rising above it after a Ukrainian missile strike.

September 22, 2023, Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia: Smoke rises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters after a Ukrainian missile strike.

Kyrylo Danylchenko

This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Russian authorities are making a concerted effort to downplay and even deny the recent missile strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea.

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Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.

The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.

But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.

Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”

Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?

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