Ukraine soldiers conducts tactical exercises at one of the all-military training grounds of the southern Ukraine's Kherson region, just north of annexed Crimea on Jan 19, 2022. There are simmering concerns from the U.S and Britain that Russia may be planning to launch a new, large-scale military intervention into Ukraine, fears that have sparked anew as Russian troops flood into neighboring Belarus ostensibly for snap exercises next month. Ukraine Military TV/EYEPRESS

January 24, 2022

NATO must reinforce its Eastern flank right now

Originally published in The Hill

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

Russian mechanized forces now rolling into Belarus directly threaten NATO, not just Ukraine. The U.S. and its allies are rightly focused on obvious Russian preparations to invade Ukraine and on trying to deter Moscow. Russian troops moving into positions in southeastern Belarus could be preparing to invade, and the West must respond in that context. But Russian forces are also taking up positions on and near the Polish border within about 100 miles of Warsaw and near the Lithuanian border as well.  Deployments to these locations serve little purpose as part of a plan to invade Ukraine. They dramatically increase the Russian threat to Poland, however, and to NATO’s ability to defend its Baltic members even more. The U.S. and its Western European allies must respond to this threat to the alliance — whether or not the Russians attack Ukraine.

Seven to 10 mechanized battalions (equivalent to two-to-three brigades with 4,200-9,000 troops) have travelled from Russia’s Far East to Belarus. Two battalions of advanced Russian S-400 air defense systems as well as 12 Su-35 advanced fighters have also deployed to Belarus. Russia’s Defense Ministry *claims these forces will remain in Belarus until mid-February for exercises. The exercises will supposedly occur primarily at training areas near Brest (on the Polish border), Baranovichi (northeast of Brest), Grodno (near the Lithuanian-Polish border), and Minsk. These are not the optimal locations from which to invade Ukraine, although Baranovichi is a good rear base from which Russian forces could stage for an attack. Some Russian troops, however, have already *appeared in southeastern Belarus, far from any announced training area, and in one of the ideal locations from which to launch an invasion against Ukraine. The new Russian forces therefore threaten both Ukraine and NATO simultaneously.

The Russian move into Belarus is no spur-of-the-moment or opportunistic action. It is part of a long-term plan Vladimir Putin has been pursuing for years, which is why we have been forecasting it for many months. Putin has expressed his intent to open a military air base in Belarus since at least 2015. Russia has been preparing to project forces into Belarus since at least September 2020 through intensified combined exercises with Belarus. Russian troops have also been rehearsing logistics and command-and-control tasks necessary to deploy Russian forces into Belarus, including supplying fuel, ammunition, and other essentials closer to Belarus.

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