The Union State Treaty between Russia and Belarus (signed in April 1997) declares, in Chapter II, Section II, Articles 17–18, that border security falls into a group of key bilateral issues that must be solved jointly. In practice, this gives Russia control over Belarus’s external borders, also with Ukraine (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, December 8, 1999). Despite the fact that the specific political and economic integration laid out in the 22-year Union Treaty has proceeded at a glacial pace, bilateral defense and security cooperation has in fact tangibly progressed. Russia possesses several small military facilities in Belarus (long-range radar and naval communications center), and, since April 2016, the two countries operate the East-European Joint Regional Anti-Aircraft Defense System. Moreover, the Russian Armed Forces have the right to use local Belarusian resources, logistics and infrastructure in a time of the war or in case of a possible attack. And the Russian General Staff possesses specific force deployment plans to respond to potential military threats to Belarus. Indeed, countering external (Western) aggression against Belarus, followed by counterstrike, was the scenario jointly practiced by Russian and Belarusian armed forces during the massive Zapad 2017 military exercises. Last October, then–Russian ambassador to Minsk, Mikhail Babich, told journalists that a regional military joint (Russian-Belarusian) forces group had received all necessary components for both defense and counterstrike. Babich explicitly noted, “Any attack on Belarus will be viewed as an attack on Russia, with all ensuing consequences” (Tvr.by, October 21, 2018; see EDM, October 23, 2018).
Ukrainian military commanders have been looking at these developments collectively and view them as potential preparation for the next phase of Russian aggression against Ukraine. The former deputy head of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, General Ihor Romanenko, has argued that Belarus could be used as a transit corridor for Russian military forces, thus effectively turning this country into another directional origin of a Russian strike. He also mentioned that the northern (Belarusian) direction offers Russia the shortest route to Kyiv—a difficult, but important strategic target for Russian forces (Apostrof, April 18, 2019).
Since 2014, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been positioning himself as a peacemaker in the region (such as by hosting, in Minsk, ceasefire talks between Ukraine, Russia and the Moscow-backed separatist Donbas regions). Furthermore, he vehemently opposes any usage of his country as a proxy in Russia’s war against Ukraine (see EDM, August 12, 2015). But Ukrainian commanders worry that such a Russian attack could nevertheless happen against Lukashenka’s will. And indeed, some defense analysts even fear that Russia might be willing to launch an offensive—by kinetic or non-kinetic means—against Belarus or Lukashenka personally. In their annual report, “International Security and Estonia 2019,” experts from Estonia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (EFIS) forecast a high risk of swift military action by Russia to prevent Belarus from becoming a pro-Western democracy (Valisluureamet.ee, March 13).
Recent Russian activity demonstrates that Moscow has not given up on its aggressive plans vis-à-vis Belarus. On May 17, members of the online volunteer open-source analytical community Inform Napalm spotted the arrival in Baranovichy (80 miles southwest of Minsk) of Russian military personnel, potentially linked to an incoming rotation of military unit 03522 of the 474th Independent Radio-Technical Unit, based out of the Belarusian city of Hantsavichy (the site of a Russian Volga-type early-warning radar) (Informnapalm.org, May 17). But even more interesting was Inform Napalm’s documented sighting, on June 20, of the arrival in Belarus of large (unspecified) numbers of Russian military vehicles and equipment, including the newest BTR-82А armored personnel carriers (APC), to take part in a military parade (Informnapalm.org, June 26). In addition to the modern APCs, the Russian defense ministry announced it was delivering 9K720 Iskander (SS-26 Stone) tactical ballistic missiles, Kamov Ka-52 “Alligator” (Hocum B) reconnaissance and strike helicopters, Su-30 (Flanker-C) multi-role fighters, and Su-34 (Fullback) fighter-bombers. According to official statements by the Russian government, these forces were shipped in to take part in a joint military parade in Minsk, on July 3—in commemoration of Belarusian Independence Day (Mil.ru, June 18). However, the characteristics of the above list of advanced, offensive weapons systems suggest that the real reason for their appearance in Belarus may have been as part of a covert Russian drill to practice quick deployments of attacking forces onto Belarusian territory.
Likely not coincidentally, several days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a surprise combat readiness check in Russia’s Central Military District. The official reason given for the snap inspection was to test Russian forces’ readiness to defend the central portion of the country and deal with terrorist threats as well as to evaluate these units’ mobilization processes (Interfax, June 24). Meanwhile, some Russian experts, like Major General Sergei Lipovoi, linked that snap inspection to increased activity by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), protests in Georgia and the spiraling tensions between the United States and Iran (TASS, June 24). However, certain Russian propagandists, including the “Sladkov+” Telegram channel, proceeded to spread conspiracy theories that these exercises were connected with recent increased activity in Ukrainian Donbas and even that the surprise Russian maneuvers were meant to intimidate Ukraine (T.me/s/Sladkov_plus, June 24). At the same time, another Telegram channel, called “SSU mole” (purporting to be an insider in the Security Service of Ukraine, but widely suspected to be a Kremlin-led disinformation project) disseminated another allegation: that the SSU is preparing a sabotage operation in Belarus. Allegedly, “SSU mole” continued, the Security Service had recently recruited dozens of Ukrainian far-right radicals and trained them for deployment to Belarus. The active phase of their offensive actions would supposedly begin this coming August (Tgstat.com/ru/channel/@SBUmole/, June 24).
Both of the aforementioned disinformation narratives have since been amplified by multiple anti-Ukrainian bloggers and enigmatic Telegram channels. The true goal of these efforts remains hazy, but a number of possibilities are worth considering by regional defense experts and Russia watchers. This apparent information warfare campaign could be part of Russia’s preparations for a coming, unannounced “Zapad”-style (that is, West-facing) large-scale military exercise. But in a worst-case scenario, the disinformation campaign could also be combined with a “false flag” sabotage operation by Russian special operations forces in Belarus. Moscow might then attempt to blame Kyiv for these crimes in order to justify a new Russian invasion of Ukraine to “defend” its Belarusian ally. Finally, Russia might use the threat of possible invasion as saber rattling leverage in its negotiations with the Ukrainian government, for example regarding federalization or returning occupied Donbas—based on Russian conditions.