In a move that has prompted alarm from the Ukrainian government, the armed forces of Belarus—the Russian Federation’s closest ally—on Tuesday, December 13th, conducted military exercises and a surprise inspection of its combat forces, while President Aleksander Lukashenko named a new foreign minister and air force chief.
In a statement published the same day, the Belarusian Defense Ministry announced that military exercises “of a complex nature” were being carried out at the behest of President Aleksander Lukashenko, raising concern among Ukrainian officials that its neighbor may be preparing a ground invasion from the north, the Turkish state-run news outlet Anadolu Agency reports.
“A snap check of combat readiness has begun,” the ministry said.
“Troops will have to move to designated areas as soon as possible, carry out engineering tasks, organize security and defense, as well as complete bridge crossings over the Neman and Berezina rivers,” the statement said.
The ministry noted that it planned to transport military equipment and personnel, which would result in the movement of citizens being “temporarily restricted … along certain public roads and terrain.”
Speaking on the nature of the exercise, Valery Revenko, the Head of the Department of International Military Cooperation at the Belarusian Defense Ministry, claimed: “These efforts are of a defensive nature. There’s a selective inspection of military management agencies and military units. The participants are informed phase by phase.”
According to the official website of the Belarusian state, Lukashenko also appointed Sergei Aleinik to head the foreign ministry, taking the place of Vladimir Makei, who died last month at the age of 64. Additionally, Andre Lukyanovich, who previously served as the deputy commander of the air force, was named Commander of the Air Force and Air Defense of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Belarus.
Although Lukashenko has repeatedly insisted that Belarus would not be entering the Russo-Ukraine War, he did, however, allow Russia to attack Ukraine from Belarusian territory at the beginning of the war on February 24th. Then, in late October, he ordered Belarusian armed forces to deploy with Russian forces near the Ukrainian border.
At the time, Kyrylo Budanov, the head of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, said that there was no threat of another military incursion from Belarus, but noted that the threat level could increase rapidly after Ukrainian forces regained control of Kherson.
Tuesday’s “combat readiness” drills come a week after the Minsk-backed news agency BelTA reported that over 9,000 Russian troops have been deployed in military bases across Belarus. The state-run news agency noted that country’s armed forces carried out a “counter-terrorism” exercise, where military equipment and personnel were transported, again prompting anxiety that Russia could attack Ukraine from the north.
Oleh Izhak, head of research at the Kyiv-based National Institute for Strategic Studies, said that the combat-capable portion of the Belarusian army could add some 20,000 soldiers to any potential offensive, the Kyiv Post reports.
Despite the troop buildup, however, Izhak isn’t convinced a full-scale military incursion will take place.
“I doubt that Russia will be able to launch a major operation from the territory of Belarus using Belarusian troops … The Russian priority for the near future, I think, is to create a threat, not to launch operations from Belarus,” Izhak said.