Russia starts major military drills in Belarus as US and Nato watch closely

Tanks on a snow-covered field during joint exercises of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus at a firing range in Belarus, on Feb 4, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

MOSCOW (BLOOMBERG) - Russia and Belarus begin their largest joint military drills in years on Thursday (Feb 10), watched closely by the United States and Europe amid tensions over neighbouring Ukraine.

Thousands of troops backed by tanks, fighter aircraft and advanced S-400 missile-defence systems are involved in the "Allied Resolve 2022" exercises in Belarus that run to Feb 20.

They include drills near the border with Ukraine as well as close to Poland and Lithuania, both members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) alliance.

"Russia and Belarus are facing unprecedented threats, the nature and concentration of which is now, unfortunately, much greater and far more dangerous than it was before," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on a conference call on Wednesday.

While Russia conducts regular drills with Belarus, these exercises "may be on a larger scale than before" in response to pressure from Nato, he said.

Around 30,000 Russian troops may be in Belarus, making it "the largest military buildup there since the Cold War", Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Monday.

The alliance has moved to reinforce its eastern flank and remains vigilant because "we have seen Russia use military exercises before as a cover for aggressive actions", he said.

Russia has repeatedly denied it plans an attack on Ukraine after the US and its Nato allies warned a buildup of close to 130,000 Russian troops near the Ukrainian border may be preparation for an invasion as soon as this month, including via Belarus from the north.

The Kremlin accuses the West of trying to undermine Russia's security by drawing Ukraine closer to Nato.

Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov arrived in Belarus to check preparations for the exercises, the Belta news service reported on Wednesday.

The Defence Ministry in Moscow has not said how many Russian troops are taking part, though it has said the drills do not exceed limits under a 2011 agreement on confidence-building measures in Europe. Those specify that exercises involving at least 9,000 troops require notification and that foreign observers must be invited if it is more than 13,000.

Russia is also sending six large landing ships into the Black Sea from the Mediterranean to take part in naval exercises, the Defence Ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.

Ukraine's military will hold its own drills beginning on Thursday until Feb 20 including with Turkish-made Bayraktar drones and anti-tank weapons provided by Britain, Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said on Tuesday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants the US and Europe to exclude Ukraine from future membership of Nato as part of new security guarantees sought by Moscow, a demand they have rejected.

French President Emmanuel Macron said during visits to Moscow and Kyiv this week that Mr Putin had agreed not to escalate the standoff over Ukraine, though the Kremlin declined to endorse this claim.

A satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows air defense deployment at an airfield in Belarus on Feb 4, 2022. PHOTO: MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES/NYTIMES

"There are no signs of de-escalation" from Russia, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told reporters on Wednesday at an airbase outside the capital, Tallinn, alongside her Belgian counterpart Alexander De Croo. Belgian fighter jets are on rotation in Estonia under Nato's Baltic air policing mission.

Russia has not massed enough forces near Ukraine for a large-scale operation, though the drills may allow Moscow to establish a permanent military presence in Belarus, said Mr Mikhail Barabanov, a defence expert at the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank.

That would be "a response from the Russian side to the buildup of Nato forces in Poland and Lithuania", he said.

Russia and Belarus say their drills are defensive and aimed at protecting the borders of their Union State from external aggression. Russian forces will return to their bases once the exercises have finished, Mr Peskov said on Tuesday.

Still, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko told Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in Minsk last week that his country wants to create new joint training centres including for advanced air-defence systems as part of strengthening security along its border with Ukraine.

Russia may leave military equipment in Belarus near Ukraine's border though the drills are likely intended to raise pressure on the West to make concessions rather than a prelude to an invasion, said Mr Yahor Lebiadok, a Minsk-based independent military analyst.

"Why attack when everyone's ready?" he said. "One should attack when nobody's prepared."

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