Belarus announced on Sunday that the ongoing Russian-Belarusian joint military exercises will be extended indefinitely, contradicting Moscow’s earlier statements and sparking fears of further military escalation in the ongoing Ukraine crisis.
Belarusian defence minister Viktor Khrenin said the drills had entered a new, previously undisclosed stage, with the participating forces focusing on areas that had not been adequately covered earlier. "In general, its focus will remain unchanged—it is designed to ensure an adequate response and de-escalation of military preparations of ill-wishers near our common borders," Khrenin said.
The Union Resolve 2022 joint drills were held at five training ranges and four airfields across Belarus, drawing in as many as 30,000 Russian personnel and a raft of advanced military equipment, including two S-400 missile defense system regiments and twelve Su-35 air superiority fighters. The Russian and Belarusian Defense Ministries stated last month that the drills would run from February 10 to 20. The drills reportedly entailed large-scale deployments and maneuvers aimed at repelling a notional enemy’s assault.
Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko said last week that Moscow and Minsk will employ any and all measures to defend themselves from perceived threats. "If necessary, if such stupid and mindless steps are taken by our rivals and opponents, we will deploy not only nuclear weapons, but super-nuclear and up-and-coming ones to protect our territory," Lukashenko claimed. "But if there are no threats to Belarus from unfriendly countries, then nuclear weapons are not needed here for a hundred years," he added.
Belarusian General Staff Maj. Gen. Viktor Gulevich linked the surprise extension to what he described as the “growing military buildup” of Western forces near Russian and Belarusian borders. "Russian troops will return to their permanent bases only when there is an objective need for that and we determine that ourselves … this is solely our internal matter," Gulevich added, arguing that the timeframe for the return of Russian troops "will to a large extent depend on our Western colleagues."
The extension contradicts earlier assurances from top Kremlin officials that the Russian troops deployed in Belarus would begin returning to their permanent garrisons immediately following the drills’ conclusion. The decision to extend Union Resolve 2022 indefinitely was followed the next day by Moscow’s announcement that it is recognizing the breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics and deploying a “peacekeeping” force in the region.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.