2023: Belarus prepares for war; 2024: probability of using nuclear weapons
Throughout the year, the Belarusian armed forces have been running exercises and combat readiness tests. Teaming up with Moscow, Minsk has showcased its willingness to deploy troops and air defense systems, sparking concerns about a potential “northern front.” However, by summer, Russia pulled back its units from Belarus. As a result, the regime sought new security guarantees to ward off potential aggression from Ukraine and the West. Lukashenka sees the “Khrenin Line,” the deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons, and a special agreement with Russia on mutual guarantees as crucial defense elements.
The beginning of the year saw discussions in Ukraine and the West about a possible large-scale offensive by Russia, this time originating from Belarus and involving the Belarusian army. These talks were fueled by the continued presence of Russian military forces in the country and visits by high-ranking military personnel to Minsk to inspect Russian troops.
In January, the Russian contingent in Belarus was reduced to 5-7 thousand individuals, as units that had undergone combat training were sent to the front. However, by month-end, troop numbers increased again, reaching 14 thousand. At the same time, Russia continued to use Belarusian military infrastructure to prepare mobilization reserves, later sent to the Donbass.
Towards the end of January, joint staff training of the Joint Command of the Regional Group of Forces of the Russian Federation and Belarus began, with the participation of Russian high command representatives. A few weeks later, the Minister of Defense of Belarus initiated a sudden check of combat readiness at the Military Academy.
It wasn’t just a coincidence that these events happened at the same time. They actually reflected a scenario where a regional group of troops would engage in direct conflict with Ukraine as part of the United Northern Military District Group. As a result, Belarus would implement martial law, activating a defense plan for the state or specific elements of it. Interestingly, beforehand, Minsk and Moscow had set the legal and institutional groundwork for such maneuvers by amending the Agreement on Ensuring Regional Security in the Military Sphere. The protocol to the document laid the foundation for deploying troops outside the designated “region,” which was initially the zone of responsibility of the Regional Group of Forces, covering Belarus and three neighboring Russian regions: Pskov, Smolensk, and Bryansk. After the text was revised, the region gained extraterritorial status, extending into the territory of Ukraine. In essence, the boundaries of responsibility, as per the updated version of the Agreement, were determined by the locations of the Russian formations and units from the Regional Group of Forces.
The joint flight-tactical exercise of the Armed Forces of Belarus and the Russian Federation from January 15 to February 2 had an aggressive character, practicing offensive air operations, including overcoming air defenses, striking airfields and helipads, and conducting long-range radar aerial reconnaissance.
On February 15, Lukashenka announced during a press conference his willingness to provide Belarusian territory once again for a new Russian attack on Ukraine.
The pivotal move came in March when President Putin announced the deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) in Belarus by early July. After almost a week of silence, Lukashenka weighed in, suggesting that the decision was triggered by Belarus due to perceived plans by the United States and NATO to attack the country. The politician framed the return of the nuclear arsenal, removed from Belarus in the 1990s, as a “response” to the West’s failure to uphold the guarantees outlined in the Budapest Memorandum. Additionally, Moscow and Minsk underscored that they were essentially emulating NATO’s joint nuclear missions. It’s worth noting that U.S.-owned nuclear weapons are currently stationed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey.
Simultaneously, the Kremlin, speaking through Lukashenka, issued an ultimatum to Ukraine and the West, stating that if Kyiv does not abandon the counteroffensive and agree to negotiations on Russian terms, Russia would use tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Belarus. Additionally, Lukashenka declared readiness, in collaboration with Putin, to deploy both tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. By the end of April, the Ministry of Defense of Belarus began enhancing launch sites for the Topol strategic mobile ground-based missile systems (PGRK) in the Brest region.
In April and May, Belarusian missile specialists went through training on operating the Iskander-M operational tactical missile system (OTRK), which included a comprehensive course on handling tactical nuclear weapons and issues related to maintaining and using tactical nuclear charges. Also, Belarusian Su-25 attack aircraft pilots completed training for the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
On May 25 in Minsk, the defense ministers of Belarus and Russia signed documents outlining the procedure for storing Russian “non-strategic nuclear weapons” in a special facility. The leadership of Belarus planned to distribute these weapons throughout the country, placing them in five or six locations. Russia insisted on retaining control over tactical nuclear weapons, contrary to Lukashenka’s arguments. Moreover, the politician did not rule out the use of nuclear weapons in the event of crossing “red lines,” indicating a military invasion of Belarus. In such a scenario, Minsk reserved the decision to use nuclear weapons.
By mid-year, the Russian Federation withdrew all ground and aviation components of the Regional Group of Forces from Belarus to participate in military operations in the Donbass. However, at the end of June, a rebellion of the Wagner PMC erupted in Russia, resulting in agreements between Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin, and Lukashenka. This deal involved relocating rebel participants to Belarus. By July, the Belarusian authorities committed to establishing a military camp in the village of Tsel, Mogilev region, for 8,000-10,000 “Wagnerites.”
After the relocation, the “Wagnerites” served as instructors to train the Armed Forces and special forces of the Internal Troops of Belarus to transfer combat experience. However, by the end of the year, the number of mercenaries in the republic decreased to 500-1,000. Only 99 tents remained in the camp from the original 303, and the number of equipment was reduced from 1,040 to 700 units. The incomplete dismantling of the camp indicated Kremlin plans to use the fighters in the future.
At the end of September and the beginning of October, against the backdrop of canceled Belarusian-Russian maneuvers “West” and “Union Shield,” the Belarusian Armed Forces conducted large-scale comprehensive exercises and combat readiness tests. The events had a two-sided nature, with both defensive and offensive actions practiced. Additionally, command post exercises were conducted with territorial defense forces and the people’s militia, involving the practice of martial law measures. Thus, the Belarusian Armed Forces began preparations for real military operations and a potential entry into the war against Ukraine.
Simultaneously, Minsk started fortifying the border with Ukraine, following the model of the “Surovikin line.” Several similar protective structures, even larger, were organized along the border perimeter, taking into account modern warfare, including in Ukraine, and recommendations from the Wagner PMC. Conceptually, the “Khrenin Line” is a series of interconnected strongholds and fortified areas in the western and southern regions of the country, bordering NATO countries and Ukraine.
Lukashenka expressed his intention to conduct an active defense but emphasized readiness to go on the offensive at any moment. To achieve this, the army was set to receive a complete arsenal by mid-2024, including communications, reconnaissance, drones (including strike drones), and active defense. Additionally, preparations began for constructing military infrastructure in the Gomel region, such as a training ground and a military camp, for the formation of the Southern Operational Command.
By the end of the year, one of the most pressing issues for Minsk in relations with its main military-political ally was the preparation of an agreement on mutual security guarantees. Lukashenka defined the desired level of guarantees as follows: “Russia will defend the republic as its own territory in the event of aggression.” Moreover, the ratification of the program of military-technical cooperation with Russia for 2022-2025 was completed. Amid Western sanctions and a technological embargo, Moscow expressed interest in deepening military-technical cooperation with Belarus, which retained competencies in the military-industrial complex. Additionally, Minsk remained a major donor of artillery ammunition for the needs of Russian troops, supplying 5,000-10,000 tons (approximately 125,000-250,000 shells) from storage warehouses every month.
- Belarus and Russia are likely to strengthen their military and political integration by finalizing an agreement on mutual security guarantees. This agreement is expected to outline how Regional Group of Forces and nuclear weapons would be used to protect Belarus.
- The Russian Federation is expected to continue using Belarus as a logistics, material, and training hub for preparing mobilization reserves. In the event of a new large-scale offensive by the Russian Federation, Belarus is likely to provide its territory and airspace for military operations against Ukraine.
- In the scenario of a new “northern campaign” by the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine, there is an increased risk of Belarusian forces directly entering the war on the side of Russia. This could lead to the transfer of military operations to Belarus.
- If Russia resorts to using tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine and NATO countries on the eastern flank, it is anticipated to transform the Russian-Ukrainian conflict into a regional war involving Russia and NATO. Such a development would have negative consequences for Belarus and the wider region.
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