Western officials and intelligence agencies have been looking for any indication that Russia’s enormous troop buildup along Ukraine’s border is receding.
But Saturday brought news that it’s not likely to happen anytime soon.
Tens of thousands of Russian troops will remain in Belarus even after massive military exercises between the two countries wrap up on February 20, a top Belarusian official announced Saturday.
Russian buildup along the border positions tens of thousands of Moscow’s soldiers and armament within quick striking distance of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.
That continued deployment without an end date shatters weeks of claims from both Russian and Belarusian leaders that Moscow’s troops and tanks would go home quickly, and adds a new element of tension as new deployments of Russian helicopters and fighter planes continue to flow into the country.
As late as Thursday, Belarus’ foreign minister scoffed at the idea that Russian troops would linger in his country. “Not a single Russian serviceman, not a single piece of equipment will remain in Belarus after the completion of exercises with Russia,” Vladimir Makei insisted to reporters.
But on Saturday, Belarus’ message to its citizens — and the world — amounted to “scratch that.”
Alexander Volfovich, head of Belarus’ Security Council, said a series of unspecified inspections and checks of equipment will continue after the drills end, and then only the nations’ leaders — Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko — can decide when troops are dismissed.
“The exercise ends tomorrow, but the snap check of forces continues,” Volfovich said Saturday. “For how long — that will be determined by the commanders in chief.”
A Ukrainian defense attache 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 along with the entire Belarusian army — wraps after 10 days of intensive exercises billed as practice for a NATO incursion into the country. The exercises included a much-hyped test of ground and air-launched nuclear-capable missiles which Putin and Lukashenko watched together from a Moscow command center.
The Union Resolve 2022 exercises are aimed “at containing the West’s military activities,” Volfovich said this week.
For days, leaders in Minsk and Moscow proclaimed that Russians troops would immediately head back to their garrisons upon the exercise’s conclusion. Troops “will return to their permanent locations,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said last week. “No one has ever said that Russian troops will remain on the territory of Belarus, this has never been discussed.”
It appears Belarus, at least, has dropped that pretense. Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at the CNA think tank in Arlington, Va., told POLITICO that Belarusian authorities are “shaping their story for their own public first.” At this stage, he added, these inspection excuses are unlikely to be believed by neighboring states, but still provide some internal rationale for Russia’s continued military presence.
Kofman also tweeted that some Russian forces likely will remain stationed about 100 miles from Kyiv, along the Belarusian-Ukraine border, while others will move to points further east along Russia’s border with Ukraine.
The massive Russian presence in Belarus has become a new source of friction for the country’s neighbors, who see the authoritarian Lukashenko regime as a vassal state to Moscow. “From a military planning perspective, Belarus as a country ceased to exist and Russians can operate freely from Belarusian territory,” Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks told POLITICO in a recent interview.
“The military buildup in Belarus seems to be something more permanent, unfortunately, and it’s a great concern of ours,” Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau told Foreign Policy last week.
Western intelligence assesses Putin will direct his troops in Belarus toward Kyiv when the invasion begins. President Joe Biden on Friday said that Russia “will target Ukraine’s capital.”
Satellite images taken over the past 48 hours show Russian troops and equipment continuing to move into Belarus, including dozens of Su-25 ground attack planes, drones and air defense systems, just miles from the Ukrainian and Polish borders.
About 50 newly arrived Russian helicopters have appeared within the last few days at several airfields close to Ukraine. Russia has also parked an S-400 air defense system in Brest, directly on the Polish border, drawing the attention of Warsaw.
Russia and Belarus had for weeks denied requests by neighboring countries to the north —NATO’s Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — to send observers to watch the exercises, as mandated for exercises of this size under a 1990 agreement designed to encourage transparency in military drills in Europe.
Finally, on Friday, Belarus and Russia agreed to allow military attachés from the countries, and Ukraine, to observe some of the ground exercises.