Western Officials Warn Russia’s Troops in Belarus Could Be Permanent

Russian forces are in Belarus for military exercises. Will they ever leave?

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko salutes troops during joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises in 2017.
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko salutes troops during joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises in 2017.
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko salutes while standing in front of service members during the "Zapad 2017" joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises at a training ground near the town of Borisov, Belarus, on Sept. 20, 2017. Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images

Russia is amassing new military forces in neighboring Belarus, purportedly for joint military drills, as the specter of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine hangs over Europe. But top European officials warn that Moscow is unlikely to remove its troops from Belarus once they are stationed there, posing a new threat to NATO’s eastern flank even if Russia doesn’t carry out an invasion of Ukraine.

“The military buildup in Belarus seems to be something more permanent, unfortunately, and it’s a great concern of ours,” Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau told Foreign Policy in an interview during his recent visit to Washington.

Russia has sent 30,000 troops to Belarus for military exercises, according to NATO officials, as well as high-end military hardware, such as missile systems, that could threaten the security of Eastern European members of NATO.

Russia is amassing new military forces in neighboring Belarus, purportedly for joint military drills, as the specter of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine hangs over Europe. But top European officials warn that Moscow is unlikely to remove its troops from Belarus once they are stationed there, posing a new threat to NATO’s eastern flank even if Russia doesn’t carry out an invasion of Ukraine.

“The military buildup in Belarus seems to be something more permanent, unfortunately, and it’s a great concern of ours,” Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau told Foreign Policy in an interview during his recent visit to Washington.

Russia has sent 30,000 troops to Belarus for military exercises, according to NATO officials, as well as high-end military hardware, such as missile systems, that could threaten the security of Eastern European members of NATO.

The Kremlin’s new deployments in Belarus, an authoritarian country closely aligned with Moscow, puts Russian troops within 30 miles of the Ukrainian border and hundreds of miles closer to the capitals of NATO members Poland and Lithuania.

The move comes as Russia amasses additional forces on its western border with Ukraine, sparking a new diplomatic crisis between the West and the Kremlin as top U.S. and European officials warn Russia could be laying the groundwork to invade Ukraine. Amid the standoff, U.S. President Joe Biden announced the deployment of 3,000 additional U.S. troops to Poland, Romania, and Germany to shore up NATO’s eastern flank. On the diplomatic front, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Moscow on Monday to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in an effort to defuse tensions. Macron said he believed there was a path to de-escalate the crisis, though Russia gave no indications it would back down from its military posturing.

Some 100,000 Russian troops have now deployed near the Ukrainian border from both the east and, from Belarus, the north. The Kremlin denies it has any plans to invade Ukraine and accuses the West of being responsible for stoking tensions and claims its troops in Belarus will return to Russia after the military drills, though it gave no timeline on when that would be.

Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko has forged deeper ties with Putin after a wave of pro-democracy protests challenged his decades-long grip on power in 2020 and appears to be signaling for the first time that he would allow Moscow to permanently station Russian troops on Belarusian soil—a potential sea change for NATO military planners.

“The reason why we consider this a game-changer is because Russians already enjoy a conventional military advantage over the [NATO] alliance in this part of the world,” said Kristjan Mae, the head of the NATO and European Union Department in Estonia’s defense ministry. “We recognize that Belarus has always been in Russia’s sphere of influence, but Belarus had always resisted having Russian troops permanently stationed [there].”

“What we are seeing at this very moment are strategic capabilities, on top of conventional troops, that will change the calculation in favor of Russia even further,” Mae added.

Russia and Belarus announced they would conduct joint military exercises between Feb. 10 and Feb. 20, simulating how to respond to an invasion from unnamed adversaries to the south. (Ukraine lies to the south of Belarus.) The military assets that Russia sent to Belarus include Su-25 warplanes, Iskander missile systems, S-400 advanced air defense systems, and multiple rocket launchers.

“The scale and nature of this military buildup cannot credibly be explained away as purely military exercises,” James Cleverly, a British lawmaker and lead minister of state for the U.K. Foreign Office, told reporters during a visit to Washington on Monday. “We think it’s in Russia’s interest for these troops not to be amassed on the borders of Ukraine, whether it be in Belarus or in Russia.”

“How long will they stay there? I don’t know,” he added. “We can’t tell for certain, but the point is they don’t need to be there and we prefer they weren’t there.”

Rau, the Polish foreign minister, warned that Minsk could be subjected to punishing Western sanctions if it aids a Russian invasion of Ukraine in any way, reflecting the growing alarm among NATO allies about the Russian troop deployments in Belarus. “The main message that is being conveyed to Belarusian authorities right now, and that is a joint message of the NATO members, is if they decide to attack Ukraine or if they make it possible for the Russians to attack Ukraine from Belarusian side, they will have to face the consequences, which means that they will be covered by the sanctions against Russia,” Rau said.

But Belarus, under longtime ruler Lukashenko, is already subjected to expansive U.S. and EU sanctions, raising questions about the extent to which additional sanctions would deter Minsk.

Opposition lawmakers in Ukraine also voiced concern that Russian troops could be settling into Belarus for the long haul.

“We don’t have any doubt about that. What in the previous history makes anybody think that Russian forces would go away?” Kira Rudik, a member of the Ukrainian parliament and the leader of the political party Golos, told Foreign Policy. Rudik’s center-right party has criticized Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for not doing more to defend the country’s nearly 600 miles of shared border with Belarus as Minsk increasingly moved into Moscow’s orbit. In December, Rudik’s party refused to vote for the proposed state budget, in part due to its lack of funds to reenforce the country’s border.

For years, the Belarusian president oscillated between Russia and the West, playing them against each other to shore up his own position. While he circled in Putin’s orbit, Lukashenko was careful not to fully fall under it. Military neutrality is written into the Belarusian Constitution. While heavily dependent on Russian energy subsidies to prop up the ailing Belarusian economy, Lukashenko has for years rebuffed Russia’s requests to establish an air base in the country.

That all changed in 2020, when hundreds of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets to protest the results of the country’s presidential elections, which were widely regarded as sham elections to extend Lukashenko’s rule. The demonstrations posed the most significant challenge to Lukashenko’s rule in his more than two decades in power, and he responded with a violent and sweeping crackdown on pro-democracy protesters that erased yearslong efforts by Washington and other Western allies to thaw relations with Minsk.

During the crackdown against protesters, the Belarusian leader turned to Moscow to help shore up his grip on power, leaving him beholden to Russia’s military ambitions.

Following in Putin’s footsteps, Belarus is set to hold a constitutional referendum this month that will pave the way for Lukashenko to remain in office until 2035. Crucially for NATO and Ukraine, the proposed amendments will also remove language about the country’s military neutrality and its obligation to remain free of nuclear weapons—which Western officials fear could set the stage for Russia to station nuclear missiles on NATO’s doorstep.

“These draft constitutional changes may indicate Belarus’s plans to allow both Russian conventional and nuclear forces to be stationed on its territory,” said a senior U.S. State Department official recently, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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