The Baltic States and several Eastern European countries are concerned that the deployments may become permanent, redrawing Europe’s geopolitical landscape.
TALLINN, EAST FINLAND — The Baltic states are warning their NATO partners that Russian military drills in Belarus might lead to a permanent Russian army presence in that Eastern European country, posing grave threats to the Western alliance’s long-term security.
For the time being, the Russian military buildup in Belarus appears to be aimed at Ukraine, but the new deployments are sending shivers down the spines of Belarus’ Baltic neighbors — Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia — as well as some Eastern European countries, who fear a game-changing Russian presence on or near their borders.
According to Russia’s Defense Ministry, between 20,000 and 30,000 Russian troops, as well as bombers, missile batteries, and air defense systems, have arrived in Belarus in recent weeks to take part in a military exercise. The drill, dubbed United Resolve 2022, began on Thursday, and Russian officials have stated that the troops will return home on February 20.
However, because of the size and nature of the exercise, which comes at a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin is calling for a reduction in NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe, Western officials are concerned that Russia will seize the opportunity to leave the troops in Belarus indefinitely, extending Russia’s reach further into Europe.
In recent days, Baltic leaders have raised the alarm in talks with NATO partners, saying that a continued Russian army presence in Belarus would tip the military balance of power dramatically in Russia’s favor. To correct the imbalance, they have advocated for increased NATO deployments along the alliance’s eastern border.
“The unprecedented mobilization of Russian soldiers in Belarus is of special worry,” Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said after meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this week, according to remarks reported by the Lithuanian government’s press agency.
NATO has already sent reinforcements to Eastern Europe, including hundreds of troops, ships, and planes, to convince worried members that the alliance will stand by them if a significant military escalation occurs.
According to the official Polish news agency, more is needed in light of Russian forces’ “possible” plan to remain in Belarus, which Poland’s Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau informed US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at their recent meeting in Washington. In addition, Poland and Belarus share a lengthy border.
Russian deployments, according to Western authorities, represent no urgent military danger to any portion of Europe other than Ukraine. According to Thomas Bullock, a senior analyst with Janes, a defense intelligence provider, the immediate fear is that the military exercise taking place in Belarus is in preparation for an attack on Ukraine, given that almost all Russian forces in Belarus are stationed along the country’s southern border with Ukraine.
The vulnerability of the Suwalki Gap, a region of terrain along the Polish-Lithuanian border, is a longer-term risk for the Baltics. The buffer zone divides Belarus from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, a speck of land that remained in Russia when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991.
The Baltics would be shut off from the rest of NATO and unable to receive reinforcements by land if Russia were to capture control of the 40-mile gap and link the Kaliningrad enclave with Belarus, according to Kusti Salm, the permanent secretary of Estonia’s Ministry of Defense.
He believes that if Russian soldiers were not stationed in Belarus, NATO partners would be able to discover assault preparations weeks in advance. The warning time would be cut to “days or even hours” if Russian forces were already in the nation.
“This affects the calculus for the whole NATO alliance because it diminishes the early warning period,” Salm explained. “Belarus provides a significant operational advantage to Russia.”
For reasons of geography and history, the Baltic nations, which were once part of the Soviet Union, have long felt unusually vulnerable among NATO allies, and they are among the most ardent proponents for a muscular Western response to Russia’s threat to Ukraine. Residents’ dread of another European conflict is heightened by their proximity to Russia and recent memories of Russia’s rule before 1991, according to Estonia’s foreign minister, Eva-Maria Limits.
Officials from NATO have stated that they share the Baltics’ worries. The Dutch admiral in charge of NATO’s Military Committee, Rob Bauer, would not rule out future changes to the alliance’s force posture in the region.
“Of course, it relies a lot on whether Russian forces in Belarus stay in Belarus,” he told media during a visit to Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, last week.