The Virtual Front: how the Belarusian resistance fights the Russian occupier5 min read
In 2020, the world learned both of the crimes of Lukashenka’s regime and of the resistance against it. For a short while, the stories of protests – praising the peaceful attitude of civilians, and condemning the brutal violence of OMON, have dominated the headlines. Then, the world media moved on. Belarus has not. The underground movement has been working tirelessly ever since and its development has turned out to be invaluable in a fight with a new-old enemy and an ally to the dictator: the Russian de-facto occupier.
The context of 2020’s protests is crucial in today’s Russian-occupied Belarus. It was during that time that the political opposition formed into what we know it to be today. Exiles and emigres are now rallying around Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who assumed the role of national leader to take a firmer stand against the Russian de facto occupation and advocate for solidarity with Ukraine.
The continuous repressions and brutal beatings of the protesters in 2020 triggered the forming of many groups with a shared aim of dismantling the dictatorship. Among them, there is one that gained special publicity in the last couple of months – the Cyber-Partisans, whose role has now proved to be instrumental in the ongoing struggle to stop the transfer of troops and equipment from Russia to Ukraine.
The Cyber-Partisans are an ethical hacktivist group active since September 2020. Although they started with what their spokesperson, Yuliana Shemetovets – calls ‘symbolic actions’, they have grown fast in both numbers and ambitions ever since. Their primary goal is to overthrow Lukashenka and ensure the transformation of the country into a democratic system. So far, their work has brought impressive results. The website of the resistance movement presents a long list of operations, which include infiltration and attacks on major institutions and state-run companies. Sensitive data such as home addresses of over 1,000 regime insiders have been exposed so far. Calls of security forces discussing the cruel treatment of detained protesters were published, spies and corrupt judges exposed. A cyber-security expert called their 2021 efforts to disclose the crimes of the KGB ‘the most comprehensive hack of a state one can imagine.’
As valuable as revealing the crimes of the regime and deanonymisation of its culprits is, the Cyber-Partisans’ actions go even further. One of their most recent campaigns, “Scorching Heat”, was perhaps the most radical and tangible attack in the history of hacktivism as a whole. Its target – the local railway lines, is a key infrastructure for the transport of the Russian troops and arms to Ukraine. At the end of February, Cyber-Partisans attacked their systems by putting the computer network into a state of collapse and disabling automation, which forced the staff to enter manual control mode. The operation stopped the movement of Russian echelons, together with their equipment and ammunition, and forced the Russians to look for alternative ways of their transfer. The organisation usually cooperates with people on the ground, and since then the new “rail-war” was joined by on-field guerilla units. However, it is worth noting that during the initial operation, “no one openly collaborated with Cyber-Partisans,” as Shemetovets says. “But,” she adds, “as we like to say, railway employees, helped with their inefficiency and incompetence.”
Western commentators have expressed both admiration and concern about the range and efficiency of the Cyber-Partisans. In recent years, many have commented that hacktivist attacks and random disclosures of sensitive data may seriously endanger the general public when done carelessly, even with good intentions. A successful attack on a railway system could put citizens at risk if the hackers in charge wished so.
Yet, Belarusian citizens do not seem to share the wariness of western observers. “The Cyber-Partisans have already become national heroes of Belarus,” Shemetovets states. “They inspired and are still inspiring many people. You can see how many people watch and follow our work. We receive dozens of messages of support from Belarusians every day and we are very grateful for that. Since the war started especially, many volunteered to join the group or help in any possible way.”
The group’s commitment to ethical conduct helps greatly in maintaining popular support. As Shemetovets assures me in our correspondence, it is crucial for them that their work does not affect innocent civilians. The sensitive data of regular citizens is unlikely to be compromised, as new volunteers do not gain access to any of it. The partisans also promise to hand over all the databases that they have secured – such as that containing passport data, to the future democratic government of Belarus. The care for the safety of the ordinary people and dedication to democratic values is evident in their own structure, too. Decision-making is not dependent solely on them nor any leader; instead, risk management is assessed in a coalition.
Collaboration with other groups is yet another unique trait of the Cyber-Partisans. The coalition in question is called Suprativ (Belarusian for resistance). Together with the Flying Storks, responsible for, among others, a drone attack on the Minsk riot police base, and the People’s Self-Defence squad, who teach the citizens both the first-aid basics and how to prepare a Molotov cocktail or a smoke bomb, Cyber-Partisans hold council meetings and choose their targets in a democratic manner. Suprativ also has political actors in its ranks, who keep in touch and negotiate with other Belarusian leaders. They work on strategies and political programs in partnership.
The group’s network of cooperation is not limited to local groups either. Shemetovets confirms that the Cyber-Partisans maintain contact with several Ukrainian hacktivist organisations, providing them with intel and sharing their experience. At the same time, some members of the Suprativ alliance help Ukrainians on their territory, along with other volunteers, such as the battalion Son.
Although it is difficult to make predictions in the current political climate, we can expect the resistance to only grow and continue their operations, both in Belarus and Ukraine. As the manifesto of the alliance says – they are planning to fight by all available means until the enemy – now made up of both Lukashenka’s regime and the Russian aggressor – is defeated.