Why is Belarus hosting Russian troops?
Lukashenka’s crackdown on dissent at home has pushed his country into a deeper military alliance with Putin
This week, Belarus and Russia are due to hold fresh military exercises in western and southern Belarus, provoking concern in light of the escalation over Ukraine. Indeed, the transfer of Russian troops to Belarus is unprecedented, and has emerged as an important component in the current crisis.
In just a year and a half, Belarus has turned from a country which sought dialogue over eastern Ukraine, including a peacekeeping role, to a potential front in a large-scale conflict between Russia and its southern neighbour. The mass crackdown on protest and dissent that followed the Belarusian 2020 presidential elections has led to a crisis of legitimacy for Lukashenka – and one that now, it appears, will be solved via the current Russia-Ukraine escalation.
Lukashenka announced his intention to hold unscheduled Belarusian-Russian exercises (Title: “Allied Resolve – 2022”) at the western and southern borders of Belarus at a meeting with army leaders on 17 January. On the same day, trains with Russian soldiers and military equipment from the Russian Far East began to arrive in the country. The timing of the exercises, which are set to run from 10 to 20 February, was made official only a day later.
The Belarusian leadership has not tried to hide the fact that these manoeuvres are part of the current military-political crisis around Ukraine. At the end of December, as the escalation gathered steam, Lukashenka said that the US and NATO’s perceived plans for Ukraine were “unacceptable not only for Russia, but also for us” – a reference to the Kremlin’s demands for no further NATO expansion. When approving the concept of the military exercises, he stressed that it would focus on working out “a certain plan of confrontation” with Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states.
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Since then, the rhetoric from Minsk has focused increasingly on Ukraine, including a promise to deploy “a whole contingent of the Belarusian army” at the country’s southern border.
Even more frankly, when Russian TV presenter Vladimir Solovyev asked
Lukashenka in early February if the joint exercises were directed at Ukraine, he said: “If necessary, then they’re against Ukraine. And against NATO, if necessary.”
Indeed, in the past few weeks, Lukashenka has been talking about a possible war in almost every public speech. During a 28 January address, he uttered the word “war” 36 times. He later explained that Belarus would face war only in two cases – if Belarus or Russia was attacked – only to contradict himself in the interview with Solovyev, stating that should the conflict in eastern Ukraine escalate, the Belarusian army would act “exactly like the Russian one”.
Echoes of propaganda
At the same time, the Russian-Belarusian manoeuvres are presented as being focused exclusively on defence.
The official scenario for the exercises projects a large regional war between one side – Russia and Belarus and another, in effect the NATO states and Ukraine. The projected conflict turns on the desire of the West to change the leadership of the ‘Republic of Polesye’ (Belarus) in order to destroy its alliance with the ‘Northern Federation’ (Russia) and then weaken the ‘federation’ itself.
This scenario directly echoes the propaganda of the Lukashenka regime, which claims that the “collective West” has allegedly unleashed a hybrid war against Belarus in order to change the country’s government and then strike at Russia. The story even included the West’s demand for the release of political prisoners in the ‘Republic of Polesye’.
However, what is happening in Belarus is not limited to these upcoming manoeuvres. The exercises are also part of a large-scale inspection of the military forces of the Union State, the alliance between Russia and Belarus. In a reflection of the importance of these exercises, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu personally inspected the joint forces in Belarus in early February.
Military cooperation between Belarus and Russia has always been frequent. Every year, the two countries hold dozens of joint operational and combat training events, and Russian servicemen regularly travel to Belarus. But the “Allied Resolve” exercises are fundamentally different from previous manoeuvres.
First, we are talking about unscheduled exercises, not planned ones. And they have been clearly arranged as part of the escalation over Ukraine.
Second, for the first time, Russian soldiers and equipment from the Far East are being transferred to Belarus. Usually, units from the European part of Russia are mobilised for joint exercises with Belarus. As part of the Union State agreement, the Armed Forces of Belarus and a section of the forces of the Western Military District of the Russian Federation are combined into a joint regional military group. Yet as Russia’s deputy defence minister said recently: “for a joint defence, we need to involve the entire potential of the state’s military organisation.” It appears that the current distribution of forces in Belarus is not enough for Moscow.
Third, the current manoeuvres in Belarus are less than transparent. It is still unknown how many Russian servicemen and how much equipment has been transferred to Belarus. Minsk and Moscow are deliberately refraining from announcing specific figures. They only say that the number of participants in the exercises will not exceed the limits set by the 2011 Vienna Document, an agreement on exchanging information about military forces in OSCE member states. Many question these assurances, and there are suggestions that the limits can, in fact, be manipulated.
Under the cover of secrecy
In any case, the number of units already identified in Belarus indicates that we are talking about an unprecedented transfer of Russian military.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg claims that nothing like this has been observed since the Cold War – he estimates the number of Russian troops in Belarus at 30,000.
Experts are more reserved in their assessments. For example, Andrey Porotnikov, head of the analytical centre Belarus Security Blog, believes that about 10,000 Russian troops have arrived in Belarus so far. But we are still talking about the largest exercises in Belarus since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Previously, even during the largest joint manoeuvres, the number of Russian troops in Belarus amounted to only about 2,500 people. As an unofficial Telegram channel run by Belarusian railway workers reported in January, according to the military train schedule, almost seven times more Russian trains should arrive in the country than during previous exercises.
The Belarusian authorities are trying to limit the spread of information about the Russian military presence – again, this has not been observed before. In the Homyel region, which borders Ukraine, the local administration has cautioned against publishing information about the movement of armed forces online. Telegram channels associated with the Belarusian security services promise that posting military information will be regarded as “treason against the state” and punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Last Sunday, Flagstok, an independent Belarusian media outlet, found that Russian equipment and troops were gathering at an abandoned airbase outside of the city of Homyel. The base, the outlet stated, was not reported as under use in the defence ministry’s plans. Flagstok’s website was almost immediately blocked by the Ministry of Information.
This discrepancy is another hallmark of what is happening in Belarus right now. Observers report that Russian units are gathering far away from bases that have been officially declared in use for the exercises – and, indeed, closer to the border with Ukraine. In particular, satellite images showed that Russian troops had appeared in areas only 40-50 km from the border with Ukraine’s Chernihiv region and roughly 200km from Kyiv.
At the same time, Lukashenka’s military rhetoric has increased in the past week. In the interview with Soloyev, he expressed support for the Kremlin’s “red lines” on Russian security and Ukraine’s relationship with NATO, and claimed that a war with Belarus’ southern neighbour would last only “three or four days at maximum”.
The day before the interview, Minsk claimed that a Ukrainian “spy drone” had violated the airspace of Belarus on 27 January in order to conduct reconnaissance of a military training ground in the western region of Brest. Why the authorities decided to make such an accusation a week after the drone was shot down is unclear. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, in turn, denied the use of a drone and called on Belarus “not to play along with Russia's destabilising actions”.
Later, The Insider, an independent Russian media outlet, found that the image of the drone released by Belarusian state media clearly shows the design of a Russian-made drone. In addition, independent journalists noted that even footage shown by Belarusian state TV indicates that the drone could have come from within the territory of Belarus. None of this prevented the Belarusian authorities from accusing Ukraine of “brazen aggression”, further increasing the militaristic hysteria. Some regime propagandists even started arguing that “war is needed to some extent”.
The Ukrainian leadership, meanwhile, is trying to reduce the tension. Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said last week that the number of troops concentrated in Belarus would not be enough to attack Ukraine. However, Kyiv recognises that the military threat has grown. Ukraine is now forced to look warily towards the border with Belarus, and is now holding its own emergency military exercises from 10 to 20 February.
The US State Department believes that the joint exercises of Belarus and Russia could be used to invade Ukraine from the north. Western media, citing intelligence data, claims an attack on Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, is possible.
Regardless of whether Russia is actually ready to launch a large-scale invasion, the Allied Resolve exercises are yet another way for the Kremlin to put pressure on Ukraine. At the same time, for Moscow, the exercises are an important stage in its relationship with Belarus: the military integration of the two countries is now reaching a level where Belarusian territory and the Belarusian army are becoming a fully-fledged component of the Russian military.
Playing with fire
These joint exercises have shown how Minsk’s foreign policy is changing.
Until recently, direct support for, let alone participation in the Kremlin’s military adventures was taboo for Lukashenka. Belarusian diplomacy tried to distance itself, as far as possible, from Russia’s confrontation with the West and Ukraine, promoting the image of the country as a guarantor of stability and security in the region. Lukashenka periodically came up with peacekeeping initiatives – from a proposal to resolve the situation in eastern Ukraine to the idea of a second round of peace talks with the OSCE. But the massive political repression that Lukashenka orchestrated in Belarus after the 2020 elections has made the concept of a multi-vector foreign policy meaningless for Belarus.
Lukashenka’s move to build totalitarianism at home turned out to be incompatible with normal relations with the West. This led to a sharp increase in the country’s dependence on Russia, whose support is key to the future of the Belarusian regime. In this situation, it is vital for Lukashenka not only to follow Kremlin policy, but also to demonstrate that he is indispensable – to show that no one will protect Russian interests the way he does.
Being an experienced politician, Lukashenka cannot but understand that the appearance of Russian troops in Belarus in the current circumstances risks drawing his country into an armed conflict. Moreover, in this crisis, Belarus is more of an object than a subject: the issues of war and peace will be decided in Moscow, and not in Minsk. Lukashenka, it seems, considers these acceptable risks.
Increasing dependence on Russia is the lesser of two evils for the Belarusian president, while the sense of military threat gives him a new source of legitimacy. The fear of war will overshadow all other problems in the country: from the upcoming referendum on changing the constitution – an attempt to guarantee Lukashenka’s power – to a catastrophically low approval rating and mass repression. Lukashenka now directly links his power to a possible war: if there is a “difficult situation” around Belarus, he now says, he will never leave his post.
In this sense, balancing on the brink of an armed conflict could be ideal for the continued existence of the Belarusian regime. Yet the spiral of escalation is hard to control. History shows that military and political conflicts tend to develop contrary to what their participants want.
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