What is Putin preparing, satellite images show the strengthening of the Russian army in Belarus
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What is Putin preparing, satellite images show the strengthening of the Russian army in Belarus

When Russia held large-scale military exercises in Belarus in February, both countries described them as defensive in nature, aimed at repelling external aggression, namely from Ukraine and NATO.

When the exercises ended, many of the 30,000 Russian troops stationed in Belarus were positioned on the Ukrainian border as part of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. The Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24.

New satellite images obtained by the REL Service in Belarus show that thousands of Russian troops may have returned to Belarus, raising questions about whether another incursion into Ukraine from the north is imminent – or whether Moscow, with Minsk’s help , are just trying to distract Kiev.

The Russians “don’t have enough combat power to launch an offensive [from Belarus], and there are no Ukrainian vital points nearby,” said Mark Cancian, a military analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Russian forces have suffered significant losses in manpower and equipment since September, when Ukraine launched a counteroffensive that continues in Donbas in the east and Kherson in the south.

“The Russians probably want to distract the Ukrainians and withdraw some of their forces from Kherson and Donbas,” Cancian told REL.

Tent camps

Satellite images captured by the commercial company Planet Lab on October 31 and obtained by REL show that Russia has erected more than 300 tents in three locations over the past month to temporarily house soldiers at three training grounds in Belarus.

They include at least 190 tents in Obuz-Liasnouski in western Belarus, where ground forces train; 35 in Repishcha in central Belarus, where artillery forces are trained; and 80 in Lasvida outside Minsk, where the air force trains.

Obuz-Lesnovski is the southernmost location, located about 160 kilometers north of the border with Ukraine. Hundreds of pieces of military equipment, including trucks and several howitzers, have also arrived at the base, according to footage. Most tents appear to measure 12 by 7 meters, easily holding 24 to 25 soldiers each, said Dara Massicot, a military analyst at the RAND Corp. based in Washington.

This means that a maximum of 7,500 troops can be accommodated in all tents. It is not yet known whether more tents will be erected and how many Russian soldiers are stationed in pre-existing buildings and structures near the training grounds. There has been no public explanation from Russia about the purpose of the camps, nor the number of troops it plans to deploy to Belarus. Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on October 10 that Russian troops would be stationed in Belarus, but said it was for defensive purposes, claiming – without evidence – that Ukraine was planning an attack. Afterwards, Belarus’ Defense Minister said that 9,000 troops would be deployed alongside Belarusian forces near the border with Ukraine. Ukrainian intelligence has claimed that Russia plans to send up to 20,000 troops to Belarus, a force large enough to attempt an invasion.

Ukraine said they will be deployed not only on bases, but also in civilian locations, including warehouses, hangars and abandoned agricultural farms. This would make it difficult to determine the number of Russian troops in Belarus based on satellite imagery alone.

According to the Institute for the Study of War, the deployment of Russian troops in Belarus may be an attempt by Minsk and Moscow to draw Ukrainian forces away from their counteroffensive in the east and south. The institute said it was “highly unlikely” that Belarusian forces would take part in the war, noting that it would strain the country’s limited military resources and undermine Lukashenka’s power in Belarus, which he has led for almost 30 years.

Training, not placement?

Analysts say there is another explanation for the placement of the camps in Belarus: Russia may seek to use them for training purposes because it does not have enough capacity inside Russia.

“It can be believed that Russia needs training areas.”

“The mobilization of 300,000 reservists doubles the size of the army [and] it is not equipped to handle that number,” Cancian said.

Belarus’ announcement of the joint troop deployment came a month after the Kremlin ordered the military mobilization. The institute said it was “highly unlikely” that Belarusian forces would take part in the war, noting that it would strain the country’s limited military resources and undermine Lukashenka’s power in Belarus, which he has led for almost 30 years.