Are Russia-Belarus military drills a ‘dress rehearsal’ for war in Ukraine?

Moscow’s war games intended to ‘send Kiev a message’, analysts warn

A still of joint military drills by Belarusian and Russian troops
The Belarus border is just 130 miles from Ukraine’s capital Kiev
(Image credit: Russian Defence Ministry\TASS via Getty Images)

Russia and Belarus have begun ten days of joint military drills, ratcheting up tensions amid the stand-off on Ukraine’s eastern border.

US officials described the move as an “escalatory” measure, while Ukraine said the decision to kick-off military exercises during its ongoing tensions with Moscow was an effort to put further “psychological pressure” on the government in Kiev.

The Kremlin deployed “30,000 troops, two battalions of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems and numerous fighter jets” as part of the joint drills, The Guardian said. Satellite imagery shows that “much of the hardware” is now close to the border with Ukraine.

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From Ukraine’s border with Belarus, “it is only about 130 miles (210km) down a highway to Kiev”, the paper reported, meaning that the decision to stage joint exercises has added “a new front to a potential Russian assault on Ukraine”.

‘Dress rehearsal’

Nato described the number of Russian troops sent to Belarus as “the biggest deployment since the Cold War”, Al Jazeera said. Named “Allied Resolve”, the “active phase” of the drills began yesterday and “mark the latest in a surge of military activity” as “Western leaders continue diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the situation”.

It is understood that the exercises “will include large-scale manoeuvres of airpower and ground troops to simulate an attack from a nearby Nato country”. But “the US and Nato have warned that the drills could be used as a smokescreen for a real attack or an attempt to take the capital Kiev”.

That suspicion is not without precedent, as “an unannounced Russian military exercise took place just before the annexation of Crimea in 2014”, the broadcaster added.

“The build-up of Russian and Belarusian military forces in Belarus is on a scale that we haven’t seen before. It is double or triple the regular exercises,” Kristjan Mae, head of the Estonian defence ministry’s Nato and European Union department, said.

The deployment of troops is being interpreted by some as a “dress rehearsal” for an invasion of Ukraine, The Times reported.

The move has left Baltic states “deeply unsettled by the vice of Russian forces that is being clamped around Nato’s eastern flank”, with concern increasingly mounting “about what the next few weeks and months could bring”.

While the movement of troops could be part of an “all too plausible dress rehearsal for the real thing”, it could also be part of an effort by the Kremlin to “occupy a thin slice of Estonian or Lithuanian border territory in a test of Nato’s willingness to defend its member states”.

Alternatively, Moscow has “other forms of bullying” at its disposal, the paper said. “Latvia and Estonia get more than three quarters of their gas from Russia and are partially plugged into the Russian electricity grid.”

Alexander Khara, a former Ukrainian diplomat and security policy expert at the Centre for Defence Strategies, told Al Jazeera: “The military presence is aimed at threatening Poland and Lithuania westwards, and Ukraine’s north. The message is that Russia is able to conduct an operation that could seize Kiev.

“They’re stretching our limited resources, preparing for a possible assault and conducting intelligence gathering to see what capabilities we employ and how we react. It sends the clear message that they have the goal, capability and political will to apply military force in Ukraine if the west don’t agree to Putin’s demands.”

‘Circling the wagons’

The arrival of Russian troops in Belarus has seen “nerves start to fray at Ukraine border”, NBC News said. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Belarus’s dictator Alexander Lukashenko “remained studiously neutral”, The Guardian reported.

Despite Russia and Belarus being part of the “Union State”, Lukashenko “refused to recognise annexed Crimea as Russian territory, and maintained warm relations with the then Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko”.

But a lot has changed since then, most notably the huge protests that erupted in Belarus in August 2020. “The protest movement came within a whisker of toppling his regime, but Lukashenko regained control with a crackdown,” the paper said.

All of this suggests that “Russia is slowly trying to extract the price for that support, and we’re seeing Lukashenko do things that he’s always resisted before”, Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus and a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, warned.

Putin’s aggression towards Ukraine has meant Nato has begun “circling the wagons”, The Times said. The alliance is “piling troops, aircraft and warships” into the Baltics and in the process has “rediscovered its raison d’etre: the defence of the West”.

The paper continued: “Poland is in the process of doubling the strength of its armed forces, from 110,000 to 250,000”, while “the US this week began deploying an additional 3,000 troops to Germany, Poland and Romania.”

“Even Germany, traditionally wary of doing anything that might look like flexing military muscle, said on Monday that it would send an extra 350 soldiers to bolster the 500 it has stationed in Lithuania,” the paper added.

Anybody feeling “anxious about war, but confused as to what’s really going on” is “not alone”, the BBC Europe editor Katya Adler said. “Frustratingly, we can’t even get clarity from the umpteen press conferences held by prominent international politicians, zooming around the region, hoping to de-escalate the crisis.

“This is a massive geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West. No-one wants to reveal their negotiating hand.”

Any public statement or military manoeuvre therefore “needs to be taken with a decent-sized pinch of salt”.

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