The Belarusian Cyber-Partisans are known mainly for their fight against the Lukashenko's regime. Recently, however, they also got involved in a fight against the Putin's regime, paying close attention to the Russian activities in Belarus. In late January this year, they carried out a cyber-attack against the Belarusian railway infrastructure. The hacktivists have used ransomware to encrypt certain servers, databases, and work stations. This resulted in disruption of railway operations, and hence delayed the Russian military transport operation headed to Belarus.
Meanwhile, in late February this year, the "Suprativ" coalition (that the Belarusian Cyber-Partisans are a part of) announced establishment of a special "Tactical Belarus Group" unit. The decision on establishment of that element is a ramification of the "War in Ukraine created by the Russian Dictator".
"The Ukrainians and the Belarusians share their enemy: Putin, Kremlin, and the imperial regime", the Cyber-Partisans claimed in their release. They are also encouraging all of the volunteers, who do not want to remain passive in the face of the Russian aggression to contribute to their army. They are asking for support.
Who is Yuliana Shemetovets, the spokesperson responsible for the communications? What are the key objectives for the hacktivists? What are they fighting for? These matters have been covered in our interview. You can read it below:
Nikola Bochyńska, CyberDefence24: What do an ordinary Belarusians think about the war between Russia and Ukraine?
Yuliana Shemetovets: Last recent polls show that only 3% of Belarusians have supported this invasion of the Russian soldiers. So even the followers of Lukashenko do not support this war, no one wants to be involved in this, and no one ever felt any aggression coming from the Ukrainians. We are brotherly states with Ukrainians. There were never problems with them, historically, culturally, we even have a similar language. It's a very tragic situation, because Belarus right now is a co-aggressor with Russians, by providing a territory, from which rockets are flying to Ukraine. So in that sense, it is a tragedy. But it's also our responsibility to do everything: to help Ukrainians to deter the Russian aggression of course and then also help Belarusians overthrow, Lukashenko's regime, who is a Putin's puppet right now.
The war has been going on for over a month. In your opinion, what real impact do your actions have on the course of the war, as a result of your hacktivism?
So, of course we have people, who went directly to Ukraine to fight, on the territory of Ukraine, against Russian soldiers and they are heroes – all the Belarusians, who are doing this right now. As for hacktivist groups, the Cyber Partisans managed to attack the Belarusian railway system and completely stop the movement of the Russian military trains. In addition to cyber attacks, there are also partisan activities on the ground: people try to sabotage the movement of the Russian trains, and they are also heroes. Russians, however, now found a workaround, they use gondola-cars to transport some of the ammunition. They cannot transport everything, because those gondolas, special-cars are not created for transporting heavy machinery, and heavy equipment, but the movement of regular Russian military trains stopped. That bought some time for the Ukrainians to prepare for the attack, to regroup. Cyber Partisans are also working with other organizations on pressuring Belarusian soldiers not to participate in this war. They are doing mass messaging, mass calls to Belarusian soldiers or anyone who can potentially be involved in this war, in order to stop them.
So the combination of all these things was a part of a general effort to deter Belarus from invading Ukraine and make Russian troops to leave Kiev area. As a reminder, Kyiv is very close to the Belarusian-Ukrainian border and for a long time it was a target number one for Russians. So everything that was done, was to slow down the movement of the Russian troops, to protect Kyiv and the surrounding cities, just because they are very close to the Belarusian-Ukrainian border.
Who do you think is winner now? Before the war, everyone thought Russia was so powerful that its cyber capabilities were unbeatable. Has the situation not changed or is Ukraine better now?
I would not say that the Ukrainians, just by themselves, are better than Russians in cyber, that they have better hackers. I would say the joint activities, also from the western countries, people who joined this movement, Belarusian Cyber-Partisants from Belarus – it looks like yes, they are stronger now than the Russian hacker army for now. We did not see any major attacks coming from the Russian side. I think that's one of the reasons, because either some decided not to join, because unlike soldiers, Russian hackers have access to the Internet, they see what's going on.
So, some, maybe decided not to join this movement. But maybe they do not have enough tools or capabilities. It is hard to hack. Even from a Cyber-Partisants' experience, it is hard to prepare for any attacks. That only sounds easy when it's happening, but it's difficult, it takes time. So either we did not see anything strong yet, or they are just not capable of doing this. Because many countries joined to help Ukraine, not only in attacking, or helping to develop some cyber-tools, but also helping defending from the attacks. Because cyberdefence is very important as well. And in that sense, their joint efforts, helped Ukraine side and I think, Ukrainians also developed very strong cyber-capabilities.
I think they understood, after 2014, there is always a risk of Russian aggression not only on their soil, but also in the cyberspace. So they have definitely developed it, they have many good IT specialists there, they are very well organized, and they've organized, in a very short period of time which is very impressive. These hacktivist groups also have the government as an umbrella, which I think is very helpful. They share some tools, capabilities at the government level, that many hacktivist groups usually do not have. And there are less trust issues too, because Russian regime does not trust anyone, even their own hackers. So, in that sense, it cannot be as efficient as the Ukrainians. Right now there are a lot of reasons, why the Ukrainians may look stronger in the cyberspace.
I would like to ask you about your job. How did you become a spokesperson for the cyber partisans, what your beginnings were?
So I have been a Belarusian activities since I was a teenager. I've been always in opposition. I became a member of the Suprativ movement, which means Resistance in Belarusian, that the Cyber Partisans are a part of. I was helping internally with some documents, strategy preparation, and some project management work. I was not in public, but I was helping as much as I could with this type of work. I'm based in New York, so it's easier sometimes to do things from there. And as the Partisans started to conduct their major hacks, they needed a person, who would explain to the rest of the countries, to anyone outside of Belarus, what they are doing and why their work is so important.
They needed this spokesperson. So the political representative of the Suprativ movement offered me this position. It did not mean, that the Cyber-Partisans would approve me but, we of course talked so they could learn more about me and my experience.
I refused first. I was afraid, I said I'm not sure, that I'm ready to be a public figure. But then, nothing changed, the terror and repressions became even bigger in Belarus. Some of friends were, and are still in prison. And I decided that I want – I know this sounds idealistic, but I would not forgive myself, if I would not do everything I can in order to try to overthrow this regime. So I agreed, I said, it's important to build trust with other organizations, to advocate for what's going on in Belarus, explain to people what the Cyber-Partisans are doing, what other people in Belarus are doing. And that's my job now: to explain, to advocate, even to unite some of the opposition groups to achieve the common goal. I share the values of Cyber-Partisans, their integrity, and carefulness and I highly respect the work they are doing and the risks they are taking.
Who can be a member of Belarusian Cyber-Partisans? What qualities and skills are needed to be part of a group?
Many people are writing to us, even, outside of Belarus, asking how they can join the movement. I think, that the most important skills that people can offer are anything related to cyber-security, defence or attacks. And some people also help to develop tools needed in attacks, that's also helpful – or even in defense. Cyber-Partisans helped many opposition groups to build safe tools for communication, as well. So anyone with IT knowledge, IT understanding can reach out to the Cyber-Partisants.
There are different areas, Cyber-Partisans are working on, developing safe applications, which is based on the open source. They work on safe bots, that are used in Telegram for example, they work on data analysis. There is a lot of data, that needs to be analyzed. There's not enough time for this kind of work. And they are also working on tools, such as face recognition tools, voice recognition tools. Many things, that are not only related to attacks.
In all of these areas people are needed, and people are writing to us. So whoever can help and has knowledge of different aspects of IT, definitely are encouraged to write and see what they can do. I can also warn, that it takes time to verify people, it takes time to make sure people are capable of doing the job, have time, the knowledge. So this part takes time and we always ask people to be patient in that sense.
How do you build trust in the team? I mean – if somebody wants to join your group, not everyone is trustworthy, so how do you check people?
There're some set protocols that the Cyber-Partisans are using. I cannot share them, because we do not want agents from Belarus or Russia to use them, in order to try and trick Cyber-Partisans. There're some protocols, and of course there're some levels of access that the Cyber-Partisans are giving, no one in the beginning will get a full access. And some of the agents were trying to infiltrate the Cyber-Partisans, but the attempts were not successful. So there are definitely some serious protocols of safety.
There are other groups, Ukrainian let's say, that people can join, people can help. So whoever more or less understands, what the Cyber-Partisans are doing and wants to help, they are more than encouraged to write to us. But then if people, don't trust the Cyber-Partisans, and I understand, they probably should not be reaching out. But, you know, Cyber-Partisans have proved many times how careful they are, and that no regular civilians got harmed from their actions.
Why do you never make promises or statements about your cyberattacks like for example Anonymous, suggesting you're thinking about cyber-attacks in near future? That's like the main difference between the groups. Anonymous always declares that in the next couple of days they would do something, via their social media channels.
Cyber-Partisans never write about future plans, because there're many things, that they are planning, but they may not be successful. It is still hard to attack systems, even ones that are poorly made, like in Belarus. So it's just the politics of the Cyber-Partisans, the decisions that they have made at the very beginning, that they do not share any plans, because they may not be successful, and the results are shared once the goal is achieved, and once it is successful.
That's just a policy and they never did anything to change that. So, it stays the same. I can't make comments about Anonymous, it's their own vision, it's the way how they operate. It works for them, it maybe creates some good PR, that gains some interest from people, maybe they get help, or resources when they do this. We don't know, so it's not in our power to make comments about that. But it just doesn't work for Cyber-Partisans.
Is your organization just Belarusian or is it a multinational team? Are there any Poles among the Cyber-Partisans?
There're people from many other countries. I can't name them, but it's not only just Belarusians, there're people from Central Eastern Europe as well, who in different aspects, help the Cyber-Partisans.
Is there anybody who's Polish, or you cannot make a comment on that?
I can't make comments, if there're any Polish people.
Where do you think is the line between ethical hackers and cybercriminals?
I think that the cyber-criminals are using the data and the attacks, that they are conducting for malicious purposes and reasons. So they for instance sell the data on the black market, they want to get payment to attack a specific company, they do it for a specific, malicious reason or finance reason.
Hacktivists are doing this for ethical reasons, for political reasons. Like in Belarus for example, there are no ways to openly resist the oppression coming from the dictator, Lukashenko. We all know how, under his command, peaceful protesters were being beaten up, were imprisoned, were raped, and put into inhumane conditions in prison cells. So there're just no ways of how people can protest, with the violence, coming from the regime.
We see, that there's no law in Belarus. The commands that Lukashenko gives and that his people give, regarding many political and social aspects do not ally with the law. So people have their brain, the technology, that they can use in order to fight the violence. They do not want to use violence back, and they can't do this. But they have other tools, that they use. There is a red line for Cyber-Partisans: for example they try not to affect the ordinary citizens as much as possible. And we see that ordinary citizens are usually not affected. Only people who work for the regime or are collaborating with the regime. So this is the red line for Cyber-Partisans. And generally they never use the data that they obtain for any personal reason at all.
Everything goes to help the opposition movements, the activist movements, the Partisan movements in Belarus. And of course maybe in the beginning - it's hard to tell, what these hacktivist groups will do, and after some time, as they continue to show the results, and they continue to show their messages, politics, understandings, strategies, you can judge and make an understanding of what is going on. And that's what the Cyber-Partisans are showing since 2020.
They continue to do, whatever they proclaimed they will do, until the regime is changed and a democratic government comes into power in Belarus, the transfer of power happens and the Belarusians start building independent institutions and independent courts, and this happens with the respect to human rights.
Cyber-Partisans will transfer the data that they have to the new democratic government and they will help rebuild the cybersecurity, which was disregarded by the regime. , even before the Cyber-Partisans started to act.
Sometimes data leaks are bad for civilians, for ordinary people, like for Russians for instance. Do you think it's OK, and it's not just a war between Russia and Ukraine, and other country? Are the civilians also taking part in this war?
So, Cyber-Partisans do not leak information on regular Belarusians. We can't make any comments on what is happening in Russia. But we see also that in Russia, Russian people support the war. Unlike Belarusians. If Russians support this war, they become co-agressors, they bear the responsibility and they might face the consequences from people trying to help and defend Ukrainians. I'm not sure, though that the data that was leaked was about the people, who collaborated with the regime, so I do not want to make this judgment.
We would say, that the impact on the regular citizens from cyber-attacks should be avoided, as much as it's possible, but it's also war, and it's understandable, that there will be some leaks like that. It's not like a simple situation right now, with Russia being just a bad dictator country, that just said something bad. It kills people. People are dying, children are dying in Ukraine. So in a war you try to fight back. It's only logical and ethical to defend yourself. And again, I don't know what was released about Russian people. But if information was released on the people, who support this war, then it is their choice to support this war, they need to understand, that people will try to fight back. Because they started first, they launched and destroyed the Ukrainian nation first. What other tools do people have in order to defend themselves? It is a hard question, but I think it's obvious, whose side is wrong, and who started this horrible war in Europe.
Finishing the interview, what is the main objective your group has? Fighting for democracy, fighting for human rights?
Yes, that's a good question, and we share it with many other opposition groups. Democracy includes human rights, includes independence, independent courts, and the involvement of people in political life, which is not possible right now in Belarus. So Cyber-Partisans never declared, what political party they are affiliated with, whether they are liberals, or if they support greens, right movement, center-wing, left wing. It is not the question right now.
The question is to fight for a democratic system. We know, that democracy is not perfect, but that's the best, what we have as a society. And that's definitely the ultimate goal. The most important thing for Cyber Partisans and for the larger coalition, the Suprativ movement, that they are a part of, is to keep sovereignty and independence. Because Belarus is de facto right now occupied by the Russian regime, and the sovereignty is the number one priority, and then - of course it is to overthrow the dictatorship regime, and it does not stop there, because the Cyber-Partisans understand, and the movement understands that another dictator may come to power. And it's not acceptable. So the ultimate goal is to start this transfer of power, come back to the European family, as Belarus is a part of Europe, historically, culturally it has been a part of the European family. And in that sense, the goal is to start building the democratic system, that is the part of Europe and all, pretty much, countries.
Yes, we see some setbacks in some democratic states , like Poland, and Hungary. But they are still democracies and people should never stop caring about that. It's still the best, what we have. Without a new democratic system, there is no way to create a safety space for the Belarusians, and for the countries that are next to Belarus. We want Belarus to become a safe partner for its neighbors as well.
Thank you for the conversation, and I hope, as surely everybody does, that the war ends tomorrow.