Belarusians and Russians will be marching on our borders again: is it worth the flinch?

Belarussian troops
Belarussian troops Sputnik / Scanpix

Russia and Belarus will launch another joint exercise across Belarus in a few days. They will also take place close to Lithuania’s borders. Military exercises in the neighbouring country are very frequent, and recently we have seen tanks marching close to our borders and soldiers practising crossing the Nemunas River near Druskininkai. This movement of troops and military equipment is worrying. Still, security experts say we should not be distracted – intelligence, both from Lithuania and other NATO countries, is certainly watching every move the Belarusians and Russians make. It is almost impossible to hide, according to military intelligence experts, Jūratė Važgauskaitė is writing on tv3.lt news portal.

On Sunday, Belarusian television reported that the Belarusians and the Russians will conduct another exercise. On the 16th and 1st of February, Belarus will host localised flight and tactical exercises between Belarusian and Russian armed forces aviation units belonging to a “regional group of soldiers”, it said. “The tactical flight exercises will include all airfields and training grounds of the Belarusian Air Force and Air Defence Forces,” the Belarusian military said. Earlier it was reported that the exercise was due to start on 13 January, but for unknown reasons, it was delayed by several days.

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Exercises again, nerves stretched again

Belarusian official media also confirmed that “an aviation component from the Aerospace Forces of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation” arrived in Belarus a few days ago. The Belarus Gayun monitoring group had already reported this earlier.

There are concerns in the West that Moscow is pressuring its closest ally to join the war in Ukraine. Reuters reported that both countries have added weapons, troops and specialised equipment to the upcoming exercises and are preparing practices based on Russia’s experience in Ukraine.

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On 6 January, Aliaksandr Lukashenko visited a military base where Russian troops are stationed, where he went, according to official propaganda, to meet the troops and discuss joint military exercises. Unofficial Telegram channels monitoring military activity in Belarus reported that between 1 400 and 1 600, Russian troops arrived in the town of Vitebsk in north-eastern Belarus on 8 January. On 6 January.

Lukashenko was also informed of the completion of the formation of a joint regional troop group with the Russian Federation. On 10 October 2022, he announced an agreement with the President of the Russian Federation on its deployment on Belarusian territory. On 15 October, Russia began the redeployment of troops to Belarus.

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Lukashenko has repeatedly stated that he will not join the war in Ukraine, but the territory of the country under his control has been and continues to be, used as a theatre of war. It was from Belarusian territory that the push towards Kyiv was attempted last year. Now, according to the Ukrainians, Belarus is still being used as a base for drone and missile attacks.

At the end of December, Vladimir Putin visited Minsk, the capital of Belarus. The Russian leader meets regularly with Lukashenko, but usually closer to home. This trip was the first time Putin has visited Belarus since 2019, and it sowed fears that he is aggressively seeking military aid for the war in Ukraine, where the Russian army has suffered a string of humiliating defeats and is embroiled in a debilitating war.

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Many inside and outside Ukraine believe that Putin is considering a second attack on Kyiv along the lines of last year’s invasion from the north, although the borders are now much more secure.

Ukrainian military intelligence has claimed that Russia will order the mobilisation of another 500 000 conscripts in January, on top of the 300 000 drafted in October, another clear sign that Putin has no intention of ending the war.

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In December, Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikoff and army chief Valery Zaluzhniy said that Russia would attack again from Belarus in February, targeting Kyiv.

However, Ukrainian military intelligence has said it believes the chances of an attack from Belarus are low.

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A senior Belarusian military official said last week that a joint Russian-Belarusian military force was being deployed as a “strategic deterrent”, the country’s Belta news agency reported. “Probably [he] should cool down the hot west with his aggressive policy towards allied Belarus and Russia,” Belta quoted Alexander Volfovich, state secretary of the Belarusian Security Council, as saying.

Lithuanian and NATO intelligence are keeping a close eye on everything

Gintaras Bagdonas, a retired colonel and former head of military intelligence, speaking about another military exercise soon to be launched in Belarus, stressed that with an aggressive neighbour, we have to calmly but carefully monitor all its actions.

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“Belarus is an integral part of Russia with certain aspects. That is why I think that our army and our intelligence agencies know everything that is going on there. There will be air exercises there, as far as I know, and I have heard that they have been postponed for several days. The situation is quite simple and, at the same time, not. Putin is facing challenges in order to achieve his goals. I do not know whether he himself expects to win, but they certainly know how to delay and procrastinate. The Kremlin also wants to drag Lukashenko into its affairs, who, however much of a scoundrel he may be, does not want to get involved in an active war. He is doing everything the Russians want him to do: he is handing over weapons and equipment, and Belarusian soldiers are servicing the Russian army, but he does not want to go himself. All this is happening in the context of the war with Ukraine”, said the former head of military intelligence.

According to him, there is no need to relax, and there is no need to do so, because the actions are being monitored not only by the Lithuanian intelligence services but also by the intelligence services of other NATO countries, and the situation is being carefully assessed every day and even every hour.

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“If one NATO country knows, believe me, the others do too,” Bagdonas said about how this kind of information is shared and evaluated.

In the past, he said, neighbours used to inform each other about exercises and were obliged to do so under international treaties if they were organising major exercises. Now that practice is apparently no longer applied. All exercises, he said, are a simulation of some kind of action: attack, defence, counter-terrorism.

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Russia is pursuing its own objectives, while Belarus is imitating an action

“This exercise, I have no doubt, is not about Belarus’ objectives. It is about the realisation of Russia’s objectives. It is probably about aggression against Ukraine. And the exercise itself is a means of political pressure, a flexing of muscles, a demonstration both to NATO that here we are and to our own internal audience, which sees the planes and the force, supposedly ready for it.

Each side will use the exercise for its own purposes. Lukashenko, I think, will use it to make excuses against the Kremlin, maybe to talk about the threat of NATO, which he apparently does not believe in himself. But the end result is a rehearsal of certain possible hostilities even if he does not plan it. However, the Ukrainians are talking about a new wave of mobilisation, which, indeed, has not stopped since the announcement began. Now we may see a greater scale of mobilisation again. If it takes place, Russia may be planning an invasion of Ukraine from the north.

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But this is not likely now because the forces are too small and not ready. There are now about 20 000 troops, which is too small. On 24 February last year, Russia had about 40 000 troops on its northern border. At that time, the army was more professional and had more weapons. Now, after almost a year of the war, the Russians are using old equipment and weapons, and the planes are not new either. So I think that Ukraine should not be threatened with an invasion from the north before March. And then, once the cold weather is over, the other problems will start – there are many swamps in the north, and the road can only carry out the attack.

So a successful attack on Kyiv is not very realistic. All Putin is doing now is trying to buy time and also to intimidate the West, camouflage himself, and annoy the public. But believe me, the intelligence services know this, and when the exercises in Belarus start in a few days, there will be NATO reconnaissance planes in the sky”, said the retired colonel.

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He said it is impossible to hide exercises, troop movements or other actions because the technology is there to monitor them from afar. It is indeed more challenging to know the targets, which requires human intelligence, but NATO is likely to have that too.

Political commentator Maxim Milta says that the exercises in Belarus are nothing more than a simulation. In the absence of serious intelligence that something bigger is afoot there, there is no need to worry.

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“Exercises are constantly taking place there, and we are constantly going through them. In my opinion, we need to listen to what the intelligence services of the big countries say, who have the resources and the capacity to carry out intelligence activities in Belarus, who really know what is going on there, whether it is dangerous or not. As long as they say there are no objective indications that Belarus will get directly involved in a war soon, then… We, of course, may see things differently from our side. But the Ukrainian intelligence, who are very interested in these things, also says that it will not happen soon, although they do not rule out such a possibility in the future”, Milta said.

He is convinced that this exercise, like the previous ones, is a simulation of the Belarusian dictator’s activities to show that he is doing something, acting, almost going to war, but not really. It is simply posturing. The political commentator is convinced.

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“The fact that we are getting worked up over such relatively small things is also a good sign because we have to remain vigilant. We have to be ready for deterrence,” said Milta.

In mid-December, Belarusian tanks were moved to a training ground near the Lithuanian border while soldiers were training to build pontoon bridges on the Nemunas River near Druskininkai. Arvydas Anušauskas, the Minister of National Defence, said at the time that there was no need to flinch, while security experts argued that provocations should not be expected during the exercise, but when nothing is supposedly happening.

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According to the Belarusian opposition watchdog group Belaruskij Hajun, the Belarusians were testing their combat readiness at the time, and at least 20 tanks were moved to a training ground near the city of Grodno in north-west Belarus.

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