According to Belarusian MoD press releases from recent days, the armed forces are going through an unprecedented period of mobilisation, which seeks to increase the readiness of the armed forces to respond to “NATO threats” from Poland and Lithuania.
Although, objectively speaking, there are no such threats, the MoD leadership and President Lukashenko, continue to assert that the threat is real and that it needs to be met with appropriate force posturing. In particular, according to the Minister of Defence, General-Major Viktor Chrenin, a comprehensive tactical exercise is scheduled to run from 21st of August in the Western Operational Command (Belarusian Armed Forces have two commands: Western, North-Western, and units subordinated directly to the General Staff) in the Grodno (or Hrodna) Tactical Direction.
Why mobilise there?
For the purposes of the 2017 iteration of the Zapad strategic-operational Russo-Belarusian exercise, three new fictitious countries were created. Vesbaria and Lubenia were located in Lithuania and Poland and Veishnoria was placed in north-western Belarus, more or less along the lines of the contemporary Grodno region. The location of Veishnoria was peculiar. Compared with other parts of the country, Grodno is more nationalistic and predominantly Roman Catholic. More importantly, the fictitious Veishnoria region overlapped areas that predominantly supported Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s counterpart during the 1994 presidential elections. Historically and culturally the region has maintained close links to Poland and Lithuania. This is the most populated area, with citizens of Polish descent and Belarusian speakers making up most of the population.
Therefore the 2017 scenario had an element from within with Veishnoria’s, most likely NATO-supported forces, attacking mainland Belarus in the hope of seceding from the Union State. A part of this scenario is now being exercised in real-time. Apart from Minsk, Grodno is the leading city where demonstrations against Lukashenko are held. Although Russia has not deployed its armed forces into Belarus to assist its ally, Belarusian Armed Forces have mobilised to address the NATO threat.
The ongoing readiness exercise is not aimed at NATO. The scope of these activities, although perhaps the largest in modern Belarus, is still rather small (more on that below). At the same time, on 18th of August MoD personnel met with representatives of Great Britain, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine to discuss how it would “respond to security threats to the Belarusian state”. A similar meeting was held on the 24th of August.
There are definitely some communications channels open to ensure there is no misunderstanding as to what is being done and why. Concurrently, it seems that, first and foremost, these military activities are directed at Belarusian citizens rather than external actors. Since pre-elections (it started with Wagner mercenaries) Lukashenko has been building a narrative depicting Belarus as a besieged fortress with various actors trying to influence domestic politics. First was Russia, now it is NATO, which can undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state. The current mobilisation seeks to present Lukashenko as a defender of Belarus against NATO agents (in Grodno), against a coloured revolution, and, therefore, his resolve to preserve Belarus as an independent state. Although he does not intend to fight NATO, but rather his own citizens, the ongoing drills may seek to psychologically deter the West from intervening politically if further escalation occurs.
As it was mentioned in the last blog post, it is unclear to what extent the president has full control over his armed forces and how many of his decisions are passed onto Russia for approval. There are clearly some personnel in the armed forces, which object to what Lukashenko is doing, but the size of this discontent is hard to measure.
What and where?
When speaking to the MoD TV on 20 August, Chrenin stated the need to increase the readiness of forces in the Grodno Tactical Direction. A camera recorded a screen (see below) depicting the size of the (manoeuvre) forces that are deployed to protect this area. It is rather unimpressive.
They officially a motorised battalion and a tank battalion of the 6th Mechanised Brigade, an airborne battalion from the 103rd Air Assault Brigade as well as an artillery battery from the 111th Artillery Brigade. The exercise, which started on 21 August is to conclude by the 31st, but the pace of the exercise should decrease from the 29th. These units are thought to be deployed just north on Grodno, a few kilometres from the border with Lithuania.
Is this an invasion force? Surely it can pacify Grodno, but just as is not enough to attack a neighbouring state, it cannot effectively defend the area against NATO. This is exactly the reason why Russia had reinforced Belarus with additional tanks in days leading to Zapad.
Subunits near Grodno are conducting activities, which are almost identical to what was practised during Zapad: “combat illegal armed formations and sabotage and reconnaissance groups of the enemy”.
Apart from strictly combat-oriented units, the units deployed near Grodno include the 48th Electronic Warfare Battalion, 557th Engineering Brigade (cross-river operations), the 740th Air Defence Regiment, as well as SRBM Tochka-equipped 456th Missile Brigade.
A Polonez-equipped MLRS division reportedly made a 200km march, but it does not seem to be deployed near Grodno, rather to the 227th Combined-Arms Training Range west of Borisov where elements of the 19th and 120th Mechanised Brigades are practising.
Elements of the 11th Mechanised Brigade practice air defence and combined arms operations near Baranovichi.
Undoubtedly the ongoing drills provide plenty of information as to how Belarus plans to go to war and how fast it can deploy when it is relatively time-constrained.
Although the size of these exercises is nation-wide, they are limited to a battalion/squadron-level. This is perhaps maximum the Belarusian Armed Forces could field on a short notice drill. Further mobilisation and expansion of forward-deployed units also seem unlikely. If the above-shown screengrab is correct, exercises should now begin its last phase and should conclude in the next few days. Question is what will happen next. Will they be sent back to their respective garrisons or will they be deployed into cities? Soon we will know the answer.
What is impressive are the ability to move even-battalion sized subunits over large distances. Polonez MLRS 200km, Osa-AKM air defence system more than 400km. All reportedly within a day.
But let’s finish on a lighter note. Some troops who are not a part of this readiness and mobilisation exercise, are deployed into fields to support the ongoing harvesting campaign.