Military equipment and personnel from Russia’s Eastern Military District have arrived in Belarus, following reports from early January that large amounts of military materiel was being transported by rail away from their usual bases in eastern Russia. The arrival of the units comes amidst growing fears of an imminent Russian incursion into Ukraine, although Minsk and Moscow claim their presence is for upcoming military exercises.
Railcar tracking information obtained by the Conflict Intelligence Team found that a train carrying Russian military vehicles spotted near Minsk had originally departed from the Ruzhino train station in the town of Lesozavodsk, in Russia’s Far East. The open source investigators identified one of the vehicles on a railcar as a chemical reconnaissance vehicle, possibly belonging to the Eastern Military District’s 16th Radiation, Biological and Chemical Defence Brigade, based in the town in Krasnodar Krai.
Other footage verified by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Laboratory from early January shows significant movement of infantry fighting vehicles, multiple rocket launcher systems, self propelled howitzers, tanks, electronic warfare vehicles and Iskander short range ballistic missile systems westward from the District. Analysis by the Laboratory has found that the movements filmed predate or took place during talks between the United States and Russia last week that aimed to reduce tensions regarding Ukraine.
President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko claimed on Monday that the arrival of Russian troops was part of snap inspections of Belarusian rapid reaction forces. Following their arrival and the completion of the inspections, Minsk says that the troops will participate in the “Allied Resolve 2022” joint exercise. The exercise is planned to take place between 10 – 20 February in western and southern Belarus, near its borders with Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine. In addition to the units from the Eastern Military District, 12 Russian Su-35 fighters, two battalions of S-400 and a battalion of Pantsir air defense systems are being deployed to “test” Belarus’ integrated air defense system.
State media quoted Lukashenko as saying that the exercise would help refine plans to “confront” the Baltic nations and Poland as well as Ukraine. His statements were accompanied by comments from Major General Pavel Muraveyko, deputy chief of Belarus’ General Staff, that the exercise was a response to Polish troop presence on their side of the Polish-Belarus border. Murayevko accused the presence of the Polish forces as a “provocation” by Warsaw, claiming that the exercise would be an “absolutely adequate and transparent” response.
While Minsk claims that the drills are “normal”, the significant mobilization of Eastern Military District forces and their subsequent arrival in Belarus for the first time ever and their accompaniment by Russian tactical aviation, hints at the scale of Russian preparations for a possible invasion of Ukraine. A senior US State Department official said on Tuesday that the arrival of the Russian troops was “neither an exercise nor a normal troop movement” telling reporters on a conference call that “we are now at a stage where Russia could at any point launch an attack on Ukraine”.