On 18 January, Russian military equipment began arriving in Belarus, marking the preparatory stage of the joint military exercise “Union Determination 2022,” which will last from 10 to 20 February. This is the second such event over the past six months as the West 2021 manoeuvres took place in the territory of the Republic of Belarus in September last year. According to official information, the Russian and Belarusian military will practice how to repel external aggression and prevent terrorist threats. Combat skills will be honed in western and southern directions simultaneously, i.e., near the Ukrainian border. Russian equipment has been unloaded at railway junctions in the Gomel region, located at a distance of a few dozens of kilometres from the borders of Ukraine’s Chernihiv and Zhytomyr regions.
In recent years, Russia has been trying to integrate its air defence system with the Belarusian one. Moscow is sending two S-400 air defence divisions, one division of Pantsir-S system, and 12 Su-35 fighter jets to participate in the “Union Determination” exercise in the “friendly country.” The practical consequence of the manoeuvres could be the creation of Russian aviation or an air defence base in Belarus: Moscow has been nurturing such plans for a long time, and Minsk expresses its readiness.
Russia’s ambassador to Belarus Boris Gryzlov assures that all troops will be returned to their permanent positions after the exercises, although he adds that the countries will immediately begin preparations for other manoeuvres, the “Union Shield,” which they plan to hold in Russian territory. For Ukraine, this means that Moscow is not going to reduce the concentration of troops and equipment near our borders, but on the contrary, will deploy them further under the pretext of conducting exercises.
The U.S. Department of State notes that Belarus may become a territory from which Russia may attack Ukraine. There are several pros and cons to this scenario. During the “Union Determination” exercise, a 100,000-strong Russian group will be deployed on a huge front from the Sea of Azov to the Polissia area [covering southern Belarus and northern Ukraine], making logistics and troop management difficult. At the same time, the strike from Belarus opens a short way to the Ukrainian capital. On the other hand, the wooded and swampy terrain of the northern Ukrainian regions significantly limits the manoeuverability of military units, while the Ukrainian steppes are more convenient for the offensive in this sense. The Russian forces involved in the “Union Determination” are obviously not enough to attack Ukraine. However, they could theoretically be backed up by a 50,000-strong Belarusian army. Moscow has several reasons for using it: to tie Belarus to itself with blood, to actually integrate the army of the union state into its ranks, and to complete the military takeover of this territory. However, it should be understood that the Belarusian armed forces have not had any combat experience since independence and it will be difficult for them to fight against the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Like all major manoeuvres, the “Union Determination” has its informational and psychological components. Gryzlov says that the manoeuvres are a response to the “build-up of NATO forces and assets at our gates.” Alexander Lukashenka speaks directly about the Ukrainian threat: in his Christmas speech, he called for Ukraine to be returned to the “our true faith,” and on 17 January, he accused Kyiv of building up the “National Guard units consisting of radical nationalists” near Belarus’ borders. Such statements may be preparation for possible anti-Ukrainian border provocations during the “Union Determination” exercise.