Belarusian Military Training Will Begin as Russia Ramps up Tensions with Ukraine
By: Ahmed Fathi
Belarusian military training will begin as Russia ramps up tensions with Ukraine
Satellite footage reveals that a significant amount of Russian hardware has been relocated to places near the Ukraine border.
On Thursday, Russia and Belarus will begin ten days of joint military exercises, kicking off one of the most obviously menacing aspects of the Kremlin's buildup of soldiers along Ukraine's borders.
The Russian general staff chief, Valery Gerasimov, arrived in Belarus on Wednesday to oversee the drills.
Russia has sent up to 30,000 troops, two battalions of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, and many fighter jets to Belarus in preparation for joint training exercises with the Belarusian army. Satellite photography indicates that much of the gear has been relocated to places near the Ukrainian border.
Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, reportedly informed France's Emmanuel Macron this week that the troops would depart Belarus once the drills concluded on 20 February. Even if that occurs, the drills demonstrate that Belarus' ruler, Alexander Lukashenko, is a staunch supporter of Putin's Ukraine agenda.
"Lukashenko will be unable to resist delivering Belarusian territory to Russia for whatever purposes it requires, whether marching through, using Belarusian military infrastructure, airbases, and even even the air defense system," said Belarusian political analyst Artyom Shraibman.
It is just around 130 miles (210 kilometers) along a highway from the Belarus border to Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, and the combined exercises offer another front to a potential Russian invasion on Ukraine. Additionally, there is a threat from the south, where Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014, and from the east, where Moscow has orchestrated an insurgency against Kyiv's authority and massed soldiers near the Russia-Ukraine border.
Lukashenko remained studiously neutral when Russia invaded Ukraine for the first time in 2014, despite the fact that Belarus and Russia are theoretically part of the same "Union State." He refused to acknowledge annexed Crimea as Russian territory and maintained cordial ties with Ukraine's then-President Petro Poroshenko.
In private, he assured Poroshenko that he would not allow Russia to utilize Belarusian territory in any war on Ukraine. When Volodymyr Zelenskiy was elected President of Ukraine in 2019, Lukashenko extended his hand of friendship once more.
"You have never encountered any difficulties while on Belarus's land, and you will never encounter them while on Belarus's territory. In October 2019, Lukashenko informed Zelenskiy, "We will always be the most generous and trustworthy of your supporters and collaborators."
Then, in August 2020, massive protests occurred in Belarus following Lukashenko's declaration of a rigged presidential election victory. The protest movement came dangerously close to overthrowing his regime, but Lukashenko recovered control through repression.
After several days of silence, the Kremlin decided to assist its difficult partner, offering Lukashenko support and financial support as the majority of western countries applied sanctions and refused to recognize the election results.
"Russia is gradually attempting to extract a price for that assistance, and we are seeing Lukashenko do things he has previously refused," said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus and senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The announcement of the exercises, which came after Russia began massing troops along the Ukrainian border, demonstrated Lukashenko's willingness to cooperate with Moscow. He has made several emphatic declarations in recent weeks to demonstrate his unwavering allegiance.
"It is critical for the west to drown the Russian-Ukrainian brotherhood in blood," Lukashenko stated two weeks ago during his yearly address to thousands of people. "However much some may object, we shall reintroduce Ukraine into the Slavic fold."
Lukashenko went further in an interview this week with pro-Kremlin television host Vladimir Solovyov, saying that if Ukraine launched an attack on Donbas, he would send Belarusian troops to fight with Russian troops to repel the invasion.
"The Belarusian army will respond identically to the Russian army; it will be a coordinated response." Are you under the impression that we're playing around on the southern border today?" he inquired, alluding to joint training activities. Lukashenko has also lately offered Belarus the opportunity to host Russian nuclear weapons.
Shraibman stated that neither of these scenarios was realistic, noting Lukashenko's customary strategy of making grandiose promises and then attempting to extract concessions. "I believe that his deeds, his actions, will always trump his promises. "Regardless of what he promises Putin, it is not a given that he would follow through," he said.
This was demonstrated by a recent Moscow announcement that Belarus would send troops to assist Russian forces in Syria, which Lukashenko promptly discounted. Nonetheless, the Belarusian leader's maneuverability has been severely limited, and he appears to be left with little alternative than to enable Russia's military to exploit Belarusian soil however it pleases in its posturing against Ukraine.
With Moscow's backing and control over the security forces and army, Lukashenko's internal position appears secure for the time being, even as Moscow increasingly dictates his foreign policy. The majority of opposition figures have been imprisoned or forced to depart the country.
Later this month, he will organize a constitutional referendum, which western countries have universally condemned as unconstitutional, observers think is intended to clear the path for him to stand down from the presidency but keep ultimate authority.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who challenged Lukashenko in the rigged 2020 elections and later fled to neighboring Lithuania, has criticized the joint exercises and Lukashenko's backing for Moscow's attitude on Ukraine. "Belarusians are not a threat to Ukraine; it is the government," she stated last week following a video chat with several Ukrainian members of parliament.