Why Is Belarus Hosting Russian Troops
Third, the current manoeuvres in Belarus are less than transparent. It is still unknown how many Russian servicemen and how much equipment has been transferred to Belarus. Minsk and Moscow are deliberately refraining from announcing specific figures. They only say that the number of participants in the exercises will not exceed the limits set by the 2011 Vienna Document, an agreement on exchanging information about military forces in OSCE member states. Many question these assurances, and there are suggestions that the limits can, in fact, be manipulated.
Under the cover of secrecy
In any case, the number of units already identified in Belarus indicates that we are talking about an unprecedented transfer of Russian military.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg claims that nothing like this has been observed since the Cold War – he estimates the number of Russian troops in Belarus at 30,000.
Experts are more reserved in their assessments. For example, Andrey Porotnikov, head of the analytical centre Belarus Security Blog, believes that about 10,000 Russian troops have arrived in Belarus so far. But we are still talking about the largest exercises in Belarus since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Previously, even during the largest joint manoeuvres, the number of Russian troops in Belarus amounted to only about 2,500 people. As an unofficial Telegram channel run by Belarusian railway workers reported in January, according to the military train schedule, almost seven times more Russian trains should arrive in the country than during previous exercises.
The Belarusian authorities are trying to limit the spread of information about the Russian military presence – again, this has not been observed before. In the Homyel region, which borders Ukraine, the local administration has cautioned against publishing information about the movement of armed forces online. Telegram channels associated with the Belarusian security services promise that posting military information will be regarded as “treason against the state” and punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Last Sunday, Flagstok, an independent Belarusian media outlet, found that Russian equipment and troops were gathering at an abandoned airbase outside of the city of Homyel. The base, the outlet stated, was not reported as under use in the defence ministry’s plans. Flagstok’s website was almost immediately blocked by the Ministry of Information.
This discrepancy is another hallmark of what is happening in Belarus right now. Observers report that Russian units are gathering far away from bases that have been officially declared in use for the exercises – and, indeed, closer to the border with Ukraine. In particular, satellite images showed that Russian troops had appeared in areas only km from the border with Ukraine’s Chernihiv region and roughly 200km from Kyiv.