November 8, 2022 - 10:00am

As purges gripped 1930s Soviet society, a poster of the era reveals the regime’s preoccupation with one particularly dangerous class of saboteur — the railway worker. Admonishing the Soviet proletariat to “be vigilant” and “detect saboteurs in transport”, it is a placard which Russian President Vladimir Putin may soon find himself recycling for contemporary use. 

Last week, former president and current deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitri Medvedev complained of foreign students disabling railroad facilities in the Russian city of Ufa “because they disagree with the policies” of the country. Further alleging that pro-Ukraine Russian citizens are committing acts of sabotage from within, he warned that Russia’s moratorium on the death penalty could be “overridden” for these cases and that the suitable punishment for “such scoundrels” is “execution without trial”.

Medvedev has reason to be concerned. The UK Ministry of Defence last month noted that Russia’s military is heavily reliant upon railway transport for sending soldiers and supplies to the frontline in Ukraine. However, with lines stretching over 33,000 km, often in isolated areas, the authorities cannot realistically hope to secure every part of the network against the risk of saboteurs. 

It appears that, with anti-war protests brutally suppressed, activists have been taking matters into their own hands. Just last month, it was reported that an explosive device had damaged the main rail link between Russia and southern Belarus near the village of Novozybkov.

Indeed, saboteurs have been successfully impairing Russia’s war effort since the outbreak of the conflict. The Washington Post reported that Russia’s hopes for a 72-hour invasion were dashed by Belarusian railway workers, dissident security forces and hackers who, in the earliest days of the invasion, damaged signal control cabinets. This, in turn, forced the Russian military to re-supply by road and thereby created the conditions for a 40-mile military convoy to stall outside Kyiv and slow the Russians’ advance.

Railway sabotage, 1930s style.

As early as March, Belarusian special forces were going undercover in train stations to detect wreckers, while the Ukrainian General Staff thanked “caring citizens” for hampering the movement of Russian equipment by partially disabling a railway line between Ukraine and Belarus. 

This situation is especially troubling for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Propped up by the Kremlin since the 2020 protests against his 28-year rule, the former collective farm manager offered Belarus as a launching pad for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, rendering his country’s territory and railway lines vital for resupplying Russia’s troops. 

His use to the Kremlin is now diminishing with every successful act of sabotage on Belarusian land. Consequently, the strongman is showing signs of worry. In May, Lukashenko widened the application of the death penalty to include attempted acts of terrorism. 

Last month, the Belarusian dictator blamed the sabotage on foreign influence, informing a State Security Council meeting that “the training in Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine of militants, including Belarusian radicals, to carry out sabotage and terrorist attacks and organise a military rebellion in Belarus is becoming a direct threat.” Around 60 Belarusian “railway guerrillas” have been arrested, with those convicted facing sentences of up to 15 years in prison.

Yet both Lukashenko and Putin will struggle to tackle these “radicals”, thanks to the profusion of information and resources available online. Activists have been forming networks and posting helpful advice on channels such as Telegram, whether through ‘Stop the Wagons’ (an organisation advising on sabotage techniques and suitable locations), the ‘Community of Railway Workers’ (a channel sharing details of Russian military movements and the locations of key infrastructure) or ‘Cyber Partisans’ (a network of exiled Belarusian IT experts hacking their homeland’s rail infrastructure from abroad). 

Revelling in their victories online, activists are even taking inspiration from Soviet partisans who struck at the railway infrastructure during Nazi occupation, naming their struggle the “Rail War” in their honour. 

Sabotage efforts are exacerbating an already faltering war effort. Now, Russia is facing opponents not just on the battlefield but at home. As such, Vladimir Putin is realising there is no enemy quite so dangerous as the one within.