Russian forces are approaching the end of planned joint drills in neighboring Belarus as the crisis with nearby Ukraine simmers.
According to earlier estimates offered by NATO, around 30,000 Russian troops have poured into Belarus for the joint Russian-Belarusian Union Resolve 2022 — also translated as “Allied Resolve 2022” — drills.
The exercises are spread across five training ranges and four airfields in Belarus and involve a raft of advanced military hardware. According to earlier Russian state media reports, the Kremlin has sent twelve Su-35 air superiority fighters, a Pantsir S1 medium-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, 9K720 Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems, and two units of the S-400 missile defense system to Belarus in anticipation of the drills.
Precise details from the drills, which are scheduled from Fe. 10-20, remain unclear. Deputy Russian defence minister Alexander Fomin said last month that the “goal of the exercise is to fine-tune the tasks of suppressing and repelling external aggression during a defensive operation, countering terrorism and protecting the interests of the Union State (Russia and Belarus).”
As Union Resolve 2022 enters its final stretch, Russian and Belarusian officials have expressed satisfaction with the drills’ progress.
“Participants in the drills have successfully demonstrated that Belarus and Russia are prepared to provide an appropriate response to those who are fomenting tensions,” said Alexander Volfovich, State Secretary of the Belarusian Security Council. “However, direct military aggression against the Union State is unlikely precisely because we are prepared to respond to any hostile actions in a tough and effective manner.”
Western governments have voiced concerns that a portion of the Russian troops currently deployed for Union Resolve 2022 could remain on Belarusian territory, contributing to a buildup of Russian forces along Ukraine’s borders. Moscow and Minsk have consistently rebuffed these claims, insisting on the full withdrawal of all Russian military personnel associated with the drills
"Not a single serviceman, not a single unit of military equipment [from Russia] will remain after this [the completion of drills],” said Belarusian foreign minister Vladimir Makei at a press conference on Wednesday. “This has also been stated by the Defense Ministry, [Belarusian] President [Alexander] Lukashenko has also said this, and the Belarusian side stated this during various events within the OSCE framework.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed on Thursday that a permanent Russian troop presence in Belarus is “not being considered," adding that the process of transferring the Russian personnel back to their garrisons could take several weeks.
"This is a process that will take a certain number of weeks. Of course, it is simply impossible within 24 hours to pull out all that has accumulated there for weeks," Peskov said.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.