Russia: Train saboteurs attempt to prevent transfer of military equipment to Ukraine
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Activists in Russia are trying to sabotage railways to prevent trains from taking military equipment to Ukraine. They have been posting pictures of damaged rails on Telegram, as well as instructions on how to carry out such sabotage acts. The Observers team spoke to a member of an anarchist organisation that has claimed responsibility for sabotage operations.
On June 28 2022, a Russian anarchist group published six photos and a video of broken train tracks on their Telegram channel. They wrote the acronym 'BOAK' (Organisation of Anarchy-Communist Struggle) on one of the rail tracks. According to them, the operation was carried out on a railway line leading to a military base 90 kilometres north-east of Moscow. An electric wire was attached to the rail tracks to prevent the electric signal from being cut and the train from perceiving disturbances on the track. In the end, "the track disturbance was detected, but the train traffic was delayed anyway," our Observer told us.
A few months after the invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, anti-war activists began sharing images of rail sabotage on Telegram channels. In their messages, they encourage people against the war to follow their example. The aim is to disrupt the passage of trains carrying Russian military equipment to Ukraine.
Such acts are severely punished in Russia: saboteurs risk ten to fifteen years in prison, up to twenty years if the suspect belongs to an organised group. While activists claim to be doing everything they can to avoid accidents involving passengers, acts of sabotage can endanger train staff and passengers.
'It is a fairly cost-effective method of fighting in terms of cost, safety and efficiency'
The militant anarchist group BOAK has been active on the Russian social network Vkontakte since October 2018. In November 2019, the group had already claimed responsibility for an attack on a telecommunications tower of the Turkish company Turkcell near Kyiv. According to its members, the aim was to protest against President Erdogan's repressive policy towards the Kurds in Syria. Since February 2022, the group's activity on Telegram has focused on fighting the war in Ukraine.
A member of the group, who wishes to remain anonymous, told the Observers how the rail sabotage acts take place:
"We organised long before the massive attack on Ukraine in February, but the war was, of course, a powerful stimulus for us to step up our activities and publicise them.
[Sabotage of railways] is a fairly cost-effective method of fighting, in terms of cost, safety and efficiency. It doesn't require seasoned professionals and can be successfully carried out by novice guerrillas."
Additional footage of a sabotage operation was published by BOAK on May 23 2022. BOAK says it carried out the operation on a railway line regularly used by trains carrying military equipment to a military base near Sergei Possad, a city north of Moscow. One of the activists says the operation was a test run, with photos taken by members of the group and published before the accident was confirmed. In the Russian press, there was no mention of any disruption.
To ensure their safety, activists act anonymously and take care not to leave any trace of their identity:
"We avoid video cameras, we do a reconnaissance of the area and we take care to think about the routes. We make sure we don't leave fingerprints at the scene of the action. We change our appearance, making it unrecognisable. We remove metadata from photos and videos, and anonymise online publications."
Assessing the real extent of the movement remains difficult. No official statistics on the number of train accidents are available. However, the independent Russian media outlet The Insider has noted an increase in train accidents compared to last year: between March and June 2022, the press reported 63 freight train derailments in Russia, whereas in the same period in 2021, there were 1.5 times less accidents.
The Russian railway company's news agency RJD blames poor rail conditions and steering errors for the spring derailments. However, several cases of track sabotage have been reported in the press. On April 27 2022, the FSB announced the arrest of two Russian citizens suspected of preparing an attack on the transport infrastructure in the Belgorod region bordering Ukraine. On July 9 2022, a video shared by the Russian media outlet Baza showed a Belarusian freight train hit by an explosive device in the Bryansk region, 8 kilometres from the border with Belarus and Ukraine.
Not all of the Telegram groups posting images of the saboteurs' actions are Russian activists. For example, the Ostanovivagoni ("Stop the wagons" in Russian) site was actually registered by a person based in Ukraine. The channel includes instructions on how to sabotage railways, with the aim of encouraging such sabotage in Russia.
BOAK activists claim to be inspired by Belarusian railway saboteurs. At the beginning of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, these underground networks attacked the railway lines used to supply the Russian army. At least 11 people were arrested and convicted of terrorism. According to a new law passed in Belarus in May 2022, any attempt to commit a terrorist attack is punishable by death.