• Russia held a similar large-scale military exercises in Belarus in February, just before it invaded Ukraine
  • Moscow may use the buildup in Belarus to distract Kyiv from its counteroffensive in East and South
  • ISW assessed that Belarus' entry into the war remained highly unlikely due to an array of domestic ramifications

With new satellite imagery showing that thousands of Russian troops may have returned to Belarus, concerns are being raised whether another incursion into Ukraine from the north is imminent or Moscow, with the support of Minsk, is only attempting to distract Kyiv from its counteroffensive in the East and South.

Citing satellite images captured by Planet Lab on Oct. 31, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's (RFE/RL) Belarus Service said in a report Tuesday that Russia has set up more than 300 tents in three locations over the past month to station soldiers at three training grounds in Belarus.

The report noted that 190 tents have come up at Abuz-Lyasnouski in western Belarus for the training of ground forces. Meanwhile, in Repishcha in central Belarus, 35 tents have been set up where the artillery forces are training. The third encampment is located outside Minsk in Lasvida where 80 tents have been mounted for the training of airborne forces.

Of the three locations, Abuz-Lyasnouski is in the southernmost part, located about 160 kilometers north of the Ukrainian border, the report added.

Going by the images, the report said hundreds of military equipment including trucks and some howitzers had also arrived at the bases. Most of the tents appeared to be 12 meters by 7 meters in size which, according to a military analyst cited by the outlet, could comfortably hold up to 25 soldiers. This implies that around 7,500 troops could be stationed at the three locations.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko announced on Oct. 10 that he, along with Russian President Vladimir Putin, had decided to deploy a regional group of forces comprising troops from both their countries in Belarus in response to NATO provocations.

Although Moscow did not specify how many of its troops would be deployed in Belarus or what its real purpose was, the Belarusian defense ministry said under 9,000 Russian troops would be stationed in the country as part of a "regional grouping" of forces to protect its borders.

While the report said it was unclear if more than its estimate of 7,500 Russian soldiers have been housed in pre-existing buildings, Ukraine's military intelligence claimed in September that Belarus was preparing to receive 20,000 Russian troops who would be housed in civilian buildings.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) noted in its assessment Wednesday that Belarus' entry into the war remained highly unlikely due to an array of domestic ramifications, but the RFE/RL report said the deployment of Russian troops to the country could be to draw Ukrainian forces away from their counteroffensive in the east and south.

According to Mark Cancian, a military analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies who was quoted in the RFE/RL report, Russia doesn't "have enough combat power to launch an offensive [from Belarus], and there are no vital Ukrainian points nearby."

With Russian troops having suffered significant losses since the September counteroffensive, Moscow "probably wants to distract" Ukrainian forces away, Cancian reportedly added.

Another plausible explanation offered by the military analyst for the buildup in Belarus is that Russia may be seeking to use the facilities for training purposes, considering Moscow's massive mobilization drive that has doubled the size of its army.

As reported earlier, Belarus started distributing weapons to its civilian defense personnel and began training the population in carrying out evacuation drills and preparing shelters in mid-October.

Although Lukashenko claimed that the deployment of Russian troops in the country was only to bolster defensive security at its border with Ukraine, the deployment reignited fears that Belarus could seek to engineer a false flag operation and join Moscow's war against Kyiv.

In February, just before its invasion of Ukraine, Russia held similar large-scale military exercises with over 30,000 Russian troops in Belarus who poured into Ukraine from the north following the Moscow invasion.

'Our main objective is to prevent a (new) invasion," says a Ukrainian border guard near the Russia-Belarus frontier