US and European officials have expressed alarm at Russia’s military build-up in Belarus, describing it as a significant and concerning development as the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine looms and calls for Moscow to de-escalate appear to be going unheeded.
US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said earlier this week that Russia had moved nearly 5,000 troops into Belarus, along with short-range ballistic missiles, special forces, and anti-aircraft batteries, with the intention of massing more than 30,000 troops near that country’s border with Ukraine.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday that Moscow’s deployment into Belarus is the biggest since the Cold War, with “an expected 30,000 combat troops, Spetsnaz special operation forces, fighter jets including SU-35, Iskander dual-capable missiles and S-400 air defense systems.”
One European diplomat called the massing of forces a “big, big worry,” noting this would be the missing piece that Moscow would need to launch a quick attack on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, which is less than two hours from the border of Belarus.
On Thursday, a top State Department official spoke with the Belarusian foreign minister “about the concerning buildup of Russian troops in Belarus,” and warned that Minsk would face harsh consequences if it allowed its territory to be used to launch an invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
According to the US State Department, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried “reiterated concern about Russia’s announced plan to bring 30,000 troops into Belarus for military exercises, particularly with more than 100,000 troops already stationed on Russia’s border with Ukraine.”
“Assistant Secretary Donfried also emphasized that Belarus would face commensurate consequences as Russia if it were part of a plan to further invade Ukraine,” the Department said.
Belarusian and Russian officials have said they would conduct joint military exercises this month. Russian Ambassador to the European Union Vladimir Chizhov told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour Thursday that he didn’t “see any reason for those exercises that had been previously announced and will be conducted according to plan, to be a source of concern to anybody.”
Estonian Ambassador to the US Kristjan Prikk told CNN Thursday that he thinks it is “highly likely” that Russia could use the exercises as a pretext to leave “a sizable military contingent” in Belarus.
“They may rotate this contingent, may not declare it to be permanent, but it is possible that they are going to stay there. And this is something that changes the sort of defense calculus in our region considerably,” he said.
Prikk also noted that Russia’s deployment of troops and equipment to Belarus “serves a dual purpose.” He noted that the southern part of Belarus gives Russia “a suitable staging ground” for threatening and potentially attacking Ukraine, noting that Russia “can even threaten and attack Ukraine without crossing the border from Belarus.”
“With the air defense assets that they have deployed, the S-400 air defense missiles, and with the artillery and missiles…and long range artillery, they can, in fact, threaten Kyiv and some of the key vital infrastructure from Belarus,” he said.
He also noted that the other purpose “is to signal the West, NATO and to put some military coercion to NATO by having Russian troops in great numbers right across the NATO Eastern border, the areas bordering Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.”
Another European diplomat told CNN they find the buildup very concerning, both in terms of what it could mean for Ukraine but as an overall reflection that both the US and Europe “have underestimated, not to say largely ignored, the strategic and military consequences of the Russian de facto political and military takeover of Belarus, which has been ongoing since 2020 and is now being finalized, with their joint exercise as a highly symbolic crowning event.”