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Are Belarusian 'guerrilla' activists targeting Russia?

Emma Levashkevich
March 1, 2023

Belarusian activists have claimed that they caused severe damage to a Russian surveillance plane, likely used against Ukraine, in an act of sabotage in Belarus. There has been no response from Minsk or Moscow.

A Russian A-50 surveillance plane in mid-flight
A Russian A-50 surveillance plane was severely damaged at an airbase near MinskImage: Alexander Zemlianichenko/REUTERS

On the morning of February 26, several explosions occurred near the Machulishchy airbase near Minsk in Belarus. The Association of Security Forces of Belarus, known as BYPOL, a Belarusian anti-government group comprised of former law enforcement officers, some of whom are located abroad, whose aim it is to  restore democracy in the country claimed responsibility for what they said was an act of sabotage that had seriously damaged a Russian A-50 surveillance aircraft.

The Belarusian Hajun project, which tracks the activity of the airspace of Belarus, confirmed the act of sabotage, as did the Telegram channel Zamkadomby. The Russian military journalists Yuri Kotenok and Semyon Pegov reported that the aircraft had most likely been attacked by drones. At the time of writing, there were neither photographs nor videos of the incident. Nor had any officials expressed themselves on the matter. 

On February 27, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko met with the secretary of the country's security council, the minister of the interior, the head of the KGB, and border security, but no explanation for the explosions was proffered. Dimitri Peskov, spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin, also did not address the media about the issue.

Ex-security forces take credit for sabotage

In spring 2022, after the full-scale invasion Ukraine, Belarusian activists began sabotaging the railroads to impede Russian military shipments. Subsequently, several so-called "railway guerrillas" were arrested. Many of them have since been convicted of terrorism and sentenced to lengthy prison spells, some of over 20 years.

But according to Alexander Azarov, the founder of BYPOL, the government wasn't able to find most of the guerrillas. He told DW that further radical action was planned . "We have found potential targets for other guerrilla actions," he said, adding that the Belarusian security forces had "relaxed" after the arrests and had removed many guards.

A plane taxiing at the Belarusian Machulishchy airbase near Minsk
Russian aircraft also use the Belarusian Machulishchy airbase near MinskImage: Russian Defence Ministry/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

Azarov said that the attack on the airfield required four months of planning. "It's difficult to communicate and clarify things with guerrilla activists in Belarus from outside of the country. It's also hard to deliver the necessary supplies, arrange an escape route and organize security," he explained. He said that it was no accident that the surveillance aircraft had been selected as a target. "It's very important for the Russian military. It's like the flagship of their air fleet. It does reconnaissance on Ukrainian territory and delivers exact data on the targets of missile attacks."

According to BYPOL, there was only one Russian A-50 surveillance aircraft in Belarus — in the city of Machulishchy, where it was attacked by drones. "There were two explosions — in the middle section of the plane where its satellite is located, and on its fuselage," Azarov said. He believes the aircraft suffered irreparable damage: "Whether it can be flown again remains to be seen." Azarov didn't reveal how many people took part in the action, or whether or not members of the military were among them. However, he did insist that it was a "group of Belarusians that have since left the country and are now in safety."

A $330 million aircraft

The Belarusian Hajun project has reported that a Russian A-50 aircraft with the registration number RF-50608 landed in Belarus on January 3, 2023. It has apparently been deployed 12 times since arriving. 

The same aircraft was in Belarus on February 24, 2022, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. According to the Hajun project the Russian air force has nine such aircraft, six of which have been updated. Each is estimated to be worth around $330 million (€309 million).

A slew of Russian soldiers on the border between Belarus and Ukraine
A slew of Russian soldiers on the border between Belarus and UkraineImage: Ales Petrowitsch/DW

Mykhailo Samus, director of the New Geopolitics Research Network, says that Russian surveillance aircraft can find targets from up to 500 kilometers (310 miles) away on the ground, in the air or on the sea. These include mobile and stationary missiles, aircraft, tanks, rocket launchers, and air defense systems. The data is then shared with destructive weapons. "There aren't many planes like those. Some sources say there are only 10 of them. They're being actively used a lot in the war in Ukraine," says Samus.

Ryhor Nizhnikau from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki, believes that the destruction of the surveillance aircraft is comparable to the sinking of the Moskva missile cruiser in the Black Sea in April, 2022. "Sure, the Moskva was the only ship of its kind, and Russia has 10 planes [like the one that was recently sabotaged]," he emphasized. "But in light of the sanctions against Russia, it will be difficult to find a replacement. An aircraft like that is full of microchips and technologies that are imported from the West."

Minsk and Moscow aim to maintain relationship

Nizhnikau thought politicians in Minsk and Moscow were covering up the incident. "They were completely unprepared and somewhat shocked,” he said. He explained that the act of sabotage had occurred when Minsk had already warned that any "operation" against Belarus could compel the country to enter the war. But neither Russia nor Belarus wanted to change their relationship. "Moscow is satisfied with the situation in Belarus and Lukashenko wants to demonstrate that he has control in his country. The attack is untimely for both parties, which is why they're choosing to ignore it," said Nizhnikau. 

He added that if it turned out that Ukrainians were responsible for a sabotage attack in Belarus it would be worse for the regime in Minsk than reports about an aircraft having been blown up by Belarusian activists. In the latter case, he speculated that Lukashenko could tell the Kremlin something along the lines of "you want us to take part in the war, but we're being attacked ourselves."

A connection between the attack and Ukraine on the other hand, would constitute a devastating political setback for Lukashenko, who "has stated repeatedly that he would be forced to react to an attack from Ukraine, and that he would definitely stand by Russia if that happened." Nizhnikau added that Russia did not want to react because it had neither the resources nor the will to do so.

Is Putin ruining Ukraine, Belarus, Russia?

However, Nizhnikau expected a strong reaction within Belarus: "There will be a desire to demonstrate that such actions can't go unpunished – whether they're aimed at the state or the Russian army, as was the case with the railway guerrillas." He said that he would not be surprised if people were arrested for liking posts about the explosions in Machulishchy on social media. Even people who were near the airfield and, therefore, merely at the wrong place at the wrong time, could be subject to repression.

Minsk would also want to show Moscow that Belarus is capable of protecting Russian aircraft on its territory, he added: "They'll want to be sure this doesn't set a precedent, which could cause Russia to send troops to monitor its military equipment in Belarus."

BYPOL's Azarov said that a young woman who lives near Machulishchy had already been arrested. There were also indications that additional patrols had been deployed in Belarus. "There are a lot of armed soldiers on the border to Ukraine," Azarov said. "Intensive vehicle border inspections are being carried out as well. In the meantime, the secret service is trying to find out who took part in the sabotage action in Machulishchy."


This article was originally written in Russian.