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Joint Russian-Belarusian exercises, February 19, 2022

Lukashenko has mentioned a new military ‘grouping,’ joint for Russia and Belarus. But what exactly is he saying? The four scenarios of Belarusian involvement in the war

Source: Meduza
Joint Russian-Belarusian exercises, February 19, 2022
Joint Russian-Belarusian exercises, February 19, 2022
AP / Scanpix / LETA

After Alexander Lukashenko announced the creation of a joint Russian-Belarusian military grouping on Belarusian territory, rumors spread that the Russian command was once again planning to attack Ukraine from the north. At least publicly, the Ukrainian leadership shares these concerns: President Volodymyr Zelensky has requested that the G7 countries send observers to the Ukrainian border with Belarus. Zelensky explained that he wanted to prevent any “provocations” — that is, any pretense of Ukrainian aggression on the part of Belarus — that could serve as a pretext for its entry into the war. But how probable is a Belarusian attack on Ukraine? And what is Lukashenko really talking about?

It isn’t exactly clear what kind of a military “grouping” Lukashenko was referring to.

His October 10 statement specified that

  • its “basis” will be the Belarusian armed forces;
  • more than 1,000 Russian troops are expected to join military units within Belarus;
  • the purpose of the new formation is to prevent Ukrainian aggression.

Presently, there’re no real signs of this grouping actually being formed. To believe Lukashenko’s words on October 10, that formation had begun “two days ago,” would mean that it was underway as of October 8. But the Belarusian military’s activities, as recorded by local activists, are in no way different from the usual pattern. And there isn’t any evidence of significant redeployment of Russian troops to Belarus.

How should we, then, understand Lukashenko’s announcement? Meduza’s analysts see four possible scenarios that Lukashenko’s words might imply.

Scenario 1. This is just a verbal tactic, meant to distract the Ukrainian command from other fronts

Lukashenko is known for such tricks, but not for using them successfully.

  • At the beginning of the invasion, Russian troops, aviation, and missile brigades operated freely on Belarusian territory, while the Belarusian army signaled preparations for combat in Ukraine. In March, for example, Belarusian troops were demonstratively moved to the border near Brest. The aim of these maneuvers was probably to stretch the Ukrainian defense in the north.
  • In early April, Russian units were withdrawn from Belarus and relocated to Donbas. Still, Lukashenko continued to say that some Russian-Belarusian grouping was operating in Belarus. One such statement was made in July. Kyiv doesn’t seem to have believed him.

This time, the creation of a joint “grouping” might look more plausible. Operationally (though informally), the armed forces of Belarus are subordinate to Russia’s Western Military District (ZVO). In recent weeks, that district’s troops left the combat zones in the north of the Donbas and the Kharkiv region, having suffered heavy losses and retreated by Balakliya, Izium, and Kupyansk. (Only the verified photos and videos show that the tanks, combat vehicles, artillery, and other equipment lost by Russia, would have been enough to arm a full division). Many of the district’s formations will now be sent off to recharge somewhere — possibly, in Belarus, where ZVO troops were deployed last winter and have their bases prepared for them.

Only a large-scale deployment of Russian forces in Belarus can force Kyiv to divert troops from other fronts, where it’s getting ready for new offensives.

Scenario 2. The creation of a “joint grouping” is a cover for the deployment of Russian aircraft, missile brigades, and drones in Belarus

After a long pause, the Russian Armed Forces began massive strikes in western and northern Ukraine (including Kyiv). Some of the strikes were carried out by Iranian “kamikaze” drones labeled by Russia as Geran-2, and launched from Belarus. The Russian army is likely to continue to fight a “war of attrition,” by attacking Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. This would certainly involve the use of Belarusian territory. In that case, Russian aviation and missile units will form the actual basis of the “joint grouping,” while the Belarusian Armed Forces will cover their deployment.

Scenario 3. The “grouping” is being created for the future, since the Russian command foresees a spread of the war beyond Ukraine, with an inevitable escalation and NATO involvement.

The Kremlin may want a greater military presence in Belarus, in case things deteriorate following Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons.

Scenario 4. Russia, in fact, plans to attack northern or western Ukraine.

So far, the Kremlin has no resources for doing this on its own — and the Belarusian army will not be much help here. This makes a large-scale offensive from Belarusian territory the least probable of all our scenarios. For one thing, such an offensive would be limited by the geography of the Ukrainian-Belarusian border: in February and March, the Russian army failed to organize supply lines to the north and west of Kyiv across the “Pripyat region,” a swampy area with few roads and many water obstacles. An offensive from the Brest area by Ukraine’s western border, with an aim to cut it off European supplies, might be somewhat promising. But the operation would require forces in such numbers that the Kremlin has not been able to muster, even after “partial mobilization.”

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It seems likelier that the Russian command isn’t, after all, planning to strengthen the Belarusian army for a future offensive. Instead, it’s probably thinking to weaken it: Belarusian weapons and ammunition are now being transferred to Russia and Crimea.

What we know about the Belarusian military is that it has traditionally been weak. It is roughly equal to the Armenian military — in number, modern armaments saturation, and defense expenditures. Belarusian military is inferior to the mobilized Ukrainian army by an order of magnitude.

  • The Belarusian army’s participation in combat operations is only possible with mobilization on a scale that would double its strength.
  • Even then, it would remain weak. Organizationally, it would be subordinate to the Russian Armed Forces, since it doesn’t even have its own essential structures of warfare (like a unified command of ground forces).
  • Despite annual joint exercises with Russia, the Belarusian army has no combat-ready formations. In recent years, it conducted no exercises involving forces greater than a battalion.
  • The Belarusian army has very few modern weapons (including those produced at home). For example, it has fewer self-made Polonez multiple rocket launchers than the army of Azerbaijan, which has long been planning to fight and has purchased modern weapons from around the world.
What about Belarusian law-enforcement units?

‘I decided I wasn’t going to cross the line’ Two years ago, anti-Lukashenko protests swept Belarus. These former law enforcement officers refused to help crush the opposition movement.

What about Belarusian law-enforcement units?

‘I decided I wasn’t going to cross the line’ Two years ago, anti-Lukashenko protests swept Belarus. These former law enforcement officers refused to help crush the opposition movement.

Translated by Anna Razumnaya

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