Thousands of Russian soldiers have taken up positions with tanks and other heavy military equipment in Belarus amid Moscow's difficult situation in the war against Ukraine. They form a new unit with the Belarusian armed forces to perform any task, as Russian Deputy Commander Viktor Smeyan said on state television.
"The fighting spirit is there." But the deployment of hundreds of armored vehicles has fueled fears that Belarusian Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin could open a new front in his war against Ukraine.
As early as February, at the beginning of the war, Russian units marched from the Gomel region in southern Belarus into northern Ukraine - from there it is not far to Kyiv. And even now, eyewitnesses are reporting increased military activity in the region.
According to British findings, the joint military unit set up by Moscow is primarily a diversionary tactic. "The announcement is likely an attempt to demonstrate Russian-Belarusian solidarity and push Ukraine to withdraw troops to protect its northern border," the UK Defense Ministry said, citing intelligence information.
It is unlikely that Russia will be able to field another combat-ready force as its forces are tied up in Ukraine, London said. In addition, the Belarusian military most likely has minimal capabilities for conducting complex operations.
Kyiv has long seen Minsk as a war party
The ruler in Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, insists that he will not interfere in the war in Ukraine, but is only concentrating on defense. But Ukraine has seen Belarus as a war party since the start of Putin's war around eight months ago. At the time, Lukashenko made military bases in Belarus available to the Russians for attacks on the neighboring country.
The fact that a massive Russian military presence is now permanently cemented is ringing alarm bells for many. "Lukashenko and Putin are dragging our country to war, they lie that there is a threat allegedly coming from the Ukrainian side," complains opposition leader Svetlana Tichanovskaya, who lives in exile in neighboring Lithuania. Many people in Belarus consider her the winner of the 2020 presidential election, after which Lukashenko, who is considered "Europe's last dictator", kept in power with violence and the help of Putin.
"Lukashenko is a disgrace to my country," says Tichanovskaya, who sees the concession to station Russian soldiers in the country as further proof of Putin's loyalty. Lukashenko no longer makes any decisions himself, the Kremlin controls politics in Belarus, emphasizes Tichanovskaya. The country, which was sanctioned by the West in the course of the suppression of protests after the election, is also economically dependent on Russia.
The military leadership in Belarus has repeatedly asserted that the joint unit formed with the Russian soldiers is used exclusively for defense. However, because Lukashenko himself recently declared that he had introduced the "regime of an anti-terrorist operation" in the country, observers suspect that there is much more at stake here than joint training and defense exercises.
Representatives of the power apparatus in Minsk claim almost every day that Belarus could be attacked - for example by NATO member Poland. The head of the KGB secret service, Ivan Tertel, also said, in the style of Putin, that neighboring countries could carry out terrorist attacks in Belarus, prepare a military attack or even be ready for a nuclear attack. There is no evidence of this.
"Hundreds of Belarusian volunteers are fighting for Ukraine"
"It cannot be ruled out that Lukashenko actually fears military attacks or attacks by saboteurs against Belarus," says political scientist Artyom Schraibman, who lives in exile, in his blog on the Telegram news channel. "Hundreds of Belarusian volunteers are fighting for Ukraine, at the same time the Belarusian opposition in Lithuania and Poland is militarizing."
At the same time, Schraibman emphasizes that there is a broad consensus in Belarus that Belarusian soldiers should not take part in the war in Ukraine. There is no social basis in society that Lukashenko could rely on. Schraibman sees the "risk of destabilizing the Belarusian regime" if Lukashenko accepts any kind of pressure from Putin to fight with his own soldiers in Ukraine.
The expert Valery Karbelevich also expects that Lukashenko will resist being drawn into the war with his own soldiers. He also sees "that the war in Ukraine is going very unsuccessfully for Russia" - and doesn't want to be on the losing side in the end. For Moscow, the opening of a new front for a new advance on Kyiv - as at the beginning of the war - is unfavorable. There are hardly any roads, the terrain there is swampy and hardly suitable for tanks and other heavy military equipment.
Karbelevich also points out that the Belarusian army is weak, with only around 15,000 well-trained special forces. In a real war, that number doesn't matter. Rather, the expert assumes that the Russian presence is primarily used to train soldiers so that they can then be sent to the front in Ukraine. "Russia itself does not have enough infrastructure, military training areas for the training of the newly drafted," says Karbelevich.
Putin is currently drafting 300,000 reservists for the fight in Ukraine. The Kremlin boss has assured that they should be adequately prepared for deployment at the front. Belarus named the number of 9,000 Russian soldiers who are now stationed in the country. However, there is no specific information about their duties. In Minsk, Defense Minister Viktor Chrenin asserted that it was all about protecting Belarus. The basis of his country's military policy is "to sit down at the negotiating table and reach an agreement".