This continued deployment with no end date shatters weeks of assertions by Russian and Belarusian leaders that troops and tanks from Moscow would soon return home, and adds a new element of tension as new deployments of helicopters and Russian fighter jets continue to flow into the country.
As recently as Thursday, the Belarusian foreign minister scoffed at the idea that Russian troops would linger in his country. “Not a single Russian soldier, not a single piece of equipment will remain in Belarus after the completion of exercises with Russia,” insisted Vladimir Makei to journalists.
But on Saturday, Belarus’ message to its citizens – and to the world – was to “scratch that”.
Alexander Volfovich, head of the Security Council of Belarus, said a series of unspecified inspections and checks of equipment will continue after the end of the exercises, and that only the leaders of the nations – Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko – will be able to decide when the troops will be sent back.
“The exercise ends tomorrow, but instantaneous force control continues,” Volfovich said on Saturday. “For how long – that will be determined by the commanders-in-chief.”
A Ukrainian defense attaché attended some of the exercises this week, after an agreement was reached between the two countries.
The comments came as Russia’s largest international military deployment since the Cold War – numbering around 30,000 troops with the entire Belarusian military – winding down after 10 days of intensive drills billed as practice for a military incursion. NATO in the country. The drills included a high-profile test of ground- and air-launched nuclear-capable missiles that Putin and Lukashenko watched together from a Moscow command center.
The Union Resolve 2022 drills are intended “to contain the military activities of the West”, Volfovich said this week.
For days, leaders in Minsk and Moscow proclaimed that Russian troops would immediately return to their garrisons at the end of the exercise. The troops “will return to their permanent locations”, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last week. “Nobody ever said that Russian troops would stay on the territory of Belarus, it was never discussed.”
It seems that Belarus, at least, has given up on this claim. Michael Kofman, a Russian military expert at the CNA think tank in Arlington, Va., told POLITICO that Belarusian authorities are “shaping their story for their own audience first.” At this point, he added, these inspection excuses are unlikely to be believed by neighboring states, but still provide internal justification for Russia’s continued military presence.
Kofman also tweeted that he expects some Russian forces to remain in Belarus and provide logistical support for a Ukrainian operation. “[O]In time, we will probably see Russia and Belarus agree to a new permanent basic agreement,” he continued.
Russian forces in Belarus will be about 100 miles from Kiev.
Russia’s massive presence in Belarus has become a new source of friction for the country’s neighbors, who view Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime as a vassal state of Moscow. “From a military planning perspective, Belarus as a country has ceased to exist and the Russians can operate freely from Belarusian territory,” Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks told POLITICO in a recent interview.
“The military build-up in Belarus seems to be something more permanent, unfortunately, and that’s a big concern for us,” Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau told Foreign Policy last week.
western intelligence believes that Putin will direct his troops in Belarus to Kiev when the invasion begins. President Joe Biden said Friday that Russia will “target the Ukrainian capital.”
Satellite images taken over the past 48 hours show that Russian troops and equipment continue to move into Belarus, including dozens of Su-25 ground attack aircraft, drones and air defense systems, at a few kilometers from the Ukrainian and Polish borders.
About fifty newly arrived Russian helicopters have appeared in recent days at several airfields near Ukraine. Russia has also stationed an S-400 air defense system in Brest, directly on the Polish border, attracting Warsaw’s attention.
Russia and Belarus had for weeks rejected requests from neighboring countries to the north – Estonia, Latvia and NATO’s Lithuania – to send observers to monitor the exercises, as provided for in a 1990 agreement aimed at to encourage transparency in military exercises in Europe. .
Finally, on Friday, Belarus and Russia agreed to allow the countries’ and Ukraine’s military attachés to observe some of the ground exercises.