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9 February 2022

Russia’s military build-up in Belarus could be Nato’s next flashpoint

Up to 30,000 Russian troops are stationed in Belarus. The Baltic states fear they may never leave.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – In parallel with a military build-up on Russia’s border with Ukraine, Moscow has also been moving troops into its close ally Belarus. If the deployment becomes permanent, it could represent a change in the balance of power in the region, requiring a beefed-up response from the Nato alliance, according to ministers and officials from the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Joint exercises between the Russian and Belarusian militaries, named “Allied Resolve”, are scheduled to last from 10-20 February. Nato believes up to 30,000 Russian troops will soon be stationed in the country. Belarus might serve as a launching post for an attack on the north of Ukraine, including the capital Kyiv, if Russia does decide to invade its neighbour.

The two countries held military drills in Belarus last year as part of exercises named “Zapad” (meaning “west”). “Today, we see two or three times more troops than during that period,” Kalle Laanet, the Estonian minister of defence, told the New Statesman from its capital, Tallinn. The Belarusian build-up is viewed as the most significant since the end of the Cold War. 

“Until recently, Belarus was against hosting Russian troops and capabilities on its territory, but we can see now that these troops are on the territory of the country. We don’t know if, after these military exercises are done, the troops will leave or not,” Laanet added.

In recent days, Russian officials have said that the troops will indeed leave after the military exercises conclude. But even if personnel depart, their equipment could remain in place, meaning Russia would retain the ability to rapidly build up its forces at any future point, Laanet said. Recent satellite imagery indicates that Russia has moved equipment into Belarus, including S-400 air defence systems and Iskander missiles. 

The Baltic states and Poland had previously viewed Belarus as a buffer between them and the Russian mainland. Lithuania and Poland share only relatively short borders with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. If stationed in Belarus, however, Russian troops will be able to reach Nato countries much more rapidly, creating a situation in which the alliance may, theoretically, have to respond to an attack with almost no notice.

“If we are talking about Russian capabilities in Belarus, the distances are so small – that means that they can easily attack, for example, Poland, Latvia or Lithuania,” Laanet said.

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A permanently increased Russian military presence in Belarus would represent a long-term change in the strategic balance of power in northern Europe, Baltic officials say. “Nato defending territory in this changed strategic environment will be a challenge,” Margiris Abukevičius, Lithuania’s vice-minister of defence, said in an interview, adding that the alliance might have to think about adapting to the new situation in Belarus.

“We think that this is a long-term change,” Abukevičius said. “This is a new reality the Baltics will have to deal with… If we see Russian troops in Belarus, that means that, de facto, we [in Lithuania] will have a 600-kilometre border with Russia.”

The Baltic states, generally, do not see the Russian moves in Belarus as representing a direct threat to them at present. Rather, officials speak of long-term strategic moves by the Russian leadership to maximise its options in confronting Nato’s eastern flank. In the longer term, they fear that Russia – which already, they say, enjoys a comparative military advantage in the region relative to Nato forces – will be further strengthened. 

The relative weakness of the Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko after a rigged election in 2020, which sparked massive protests against his rule, may have made him more amenable to Russian interests. Lukashenko had long resisted many of Moscow’s demands but has recently signalled an openness to hosting a permanent Russian military presence in Belarus. A constitutional referendum due to be held this month will remove clauses guaranteeing Belarus’s neutrality and its nuclear weapons-free status. 

“Russian and Belarusian military integration accelerated after the 2020 elections. In exchange for Lukashenko staying in power, he had to give something to Russia. One of these areas was reducing his independence in the military field,” Abukevičius said.

The Baltic states and Poland view Russian demands for “security guarantees” with suspicion. “Of course we are concerned [about a potential Russian attack on Estonia],” Laanet said. 

The only way to avoid a war in Europe is not through granting concessions to the Kremlin but to deter an invasion by raising its military and non-military costs, they argued. If the West fails to deter an invasion of Ukraine, and Moscow succeeds in splitting the Nato alliance, the Baltic countries fear they may be the next targets of Russian aggression.

[See also: As tensions with Russia build, Emmanuel Macron highlights splits within Nato]

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