Hours after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, an unexpected announcement surfaced online: a special hacker unit called the “Belarusian Tactical Group” had formed and was joining the fight. against Russia.
The announcement was made by a hacktivist collective called Belarusian Cyber Partisans (BCP) which emerged during violent protests in Belarus in response to President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s decision. fraudulent election. The group was already well established and previously worked with the investigation team Bellingcat and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Projectidentifying special forces and police informants working with the Lukashenko regime as well as corrupt government officials.
On Twitter, they called for volunteers to join them in the resistance and announced a partnership with Ukrainian hackers. “Ukrainians and Belarusians have a common enemy: Putin, the Kremlin, the imperial regime,” group spokeswoman Yuliana Shemetovets tweeted on February 24.
Although no one in the group expected Russia to launch a full-scale invasion, they had thought of possible responses in case the worst happened. From the first reports of a possible Russian attack, BCP prepared alongside its hacktivist contemporaries of the Suprativ movement: Flying Storks, and People’s Self-Defense Brigade, which formed in May 2021.
BCP initially made headlines on January 24 after launching Operation “Peklo,” Russian for “scorching heat.” They pirate Belarusian state railway lines, impeding the movement of Russian troops and artillery stationed in Belarus in preparation for the invasion of Ukraine. By infecting Belarusian Railway servers, databases and workstations with ransomware, the group demanded two things: “The release of the 50 political prisoners who most need medical attention. Prevent the presence of Russian troops on the territory of Belarus. Speaking in an interview with bne IntelliNews, Belarusian cyberpartisan, via Yuliana Shemetovets, explained the reason for the January 24 attack. Although none of these demands were met, the group still saw success in their action.
“The main reason for the attack was to show that Belarusians are against the presence of Russian military troops on Belarusian territory and the potential occupation of Belarus that has de facto occurred,” Shemetovets said. “Another important aspect was to show that Lukashenko does not control key infrastructure and no one can be trusted, even Putin.” This last point was further underscored when BCP discovered that the government had tapped conversations from the Russian Embassy in Belarus. They released the secretly recorded conversations last month, revealing that Minsk had spied on its closest ally.
“Even if the BCP created unpleasant conversations and increased distrust between Belarusian and Russian officials, the BCP would consider this a successful outcome,” Shemetovets explained. “It looks like Putin is doing everything possible to drag Belarus into this meaningless war, and we need to show that relations between Belarusian and Russian officials are not so smooth.” The attacks certainly affected Lukashenko who claims in March that cyber weapons are “more terrifying” than nuclear weapons and require more attention.
“The clown [Lukashenko] complains once again that it cannot do anything against our attacks,” the group told Telegram in response, “which means that we are on the right track and that we continue to shake the regime until our final victory”. Talk to well, Shemetovets agreed that Lukashenko’s reaction was proof that the attacks had hit their target, creating “a lot of damage for the regime”. Nevertheless, BCP realizes that cyber weapons cannot do much in the fight against “a strong oppressive dictatorship regime”.
“People and weapons on the ground are a decisive element and without this element the Belarusians don’t have much chance of overthrowing Lukashenko,” she said.
Although the war in Ukraine has the characteristics of an archaic 20th century war, with a crazed despot invading a neighboring country, the involvement of independent hacktivist militants is something completely new. The full impact of guerrilla cyber-militants remains to be seen.
“Cyber ops can be very successful, and in the case of cyber partisans, we can see everything they can accomplish – from uncovering crimes the regime has committed to disrupting the movement of Russian troops and helping to looking for spies,” Shemetovets said. “However, physical impact operations are much more influential in the end. Especially if it comes to war conflicts (…) The technology is not there yet to take all the resources from the conventional warfare operations. As such, BCP collaborated with groups on the ground, namely the “Community of Belarusian Railway Workers”. Carrying out both cyberattacks and “railroad sabotage activities on the ground”, they brought military trains carrying equipment and ammunition from Russian troops to a stop March 6.
Additionally, BCP also communicates with Ukrainian hacktivists, forming a group of volunteers called Kastuś Kalinoŭski Regiment. Here, important information is shared, such as the location of Russian or Belarusian troops.
But another obstacle is the lack of funding. Unlike the official armed forces, independent pirates do not have a prodigious flow of money, which limits their capabilities.
“Hacktivists in general aren’t paid or supported by any state agency (of course, if we’re talking about non-state actors like BCP) and it’s hard to consistently show significant results,” Shemetovets said.
Project expenses as of March 11, 2022
Nonetheless, their actions have inspired more and more hackers to join the Cyber Partisans, with the number of participants doubling since the war began. Currently, about 60 people are part of the team, although the members maintain their anonymity. Yulia Shemetovets is the only member to have publicly revealed her identity.
The group revolves around its desire for an independent Belarus, politically separate from Russia, which the BCP condemns as an “imperialist state”.
“Putin and his cronies do not consider Belarusians as a nation and will not leave Belarus outside the Russian sphere of interest,” says Shemetovets. “We still firmly believe that Belarusians should make a choice of civilization and return to the European family.” This line echoes Putin’s rationale for invading Ukraine, underscoring how closely the Belarusian and Ukrainian fights are intertwined.
“Without a free Ukraine, there is no chance for a free and independent Belarus. That is why the BCP is now doing everything possible to help Ukrainians,” she added.
Speaking on the future of Belarus and its possible direct involvement in the war, Shemetovets believes the decision will be costly and unpopular for Lukashenko.
“Belarusians do not support the involvement of Belarusian soldiers in this war, even supporters of Lukashenko,” she said. “The readiness level of Belarusian soldiers is very low – they don’t have the necessary experience, knowledge or motivation. There is a high risk that they will refuse to follow the order or turn around and go against the regime and Lukashenko understands that. Nevertheless, cyberpartisan expect the unexpected and are ready to react if Belarusian troops were to be deployed.
“BCP is already helping with information on how to reach out to Belarusian soldiers and their families (…) to discourage the military from participating in this meaningless war,” Shemetovets said.