Article by: Paul Goble
Even as Moscow appears to be reducing its military actions in southeastern Ukraine, a “reduction” that is at least in part a disinformation campaign, Putin is making Belarus into a base for attacking Kyiv.
The appearance of more Russian “little green men” in Gomel last week prompted some Ukrainians to ask whether the Kremlin was planning to stage a Novorossiya-style move into Belarus, Natalya Radina, the editor of the independent Belarusian site Charter97.org, notes.
But such questions are based on a misperception of the situation: Putin has no need of invading Belarus as he did Ukraine, she says. Instead, he has full control of Ukraine’s northern neighbor and is taking steps to ready it to become a place des armes from which Moscow can attack Kyiv from the north.
For the last several years, Radina continues, Russian and Belarusian forces have been engaged in joint exercises based on the assumption of countering a NATO threat. But since at least last May, after Moscow moved into Ukraine, Russian military personnel have moved into Belarus, although in an effort to hide this activity, they have dressed in Belarusian uniforms.
At that time, there were roughly 3,000 Russian officers and soldiers in Belarusian garrisons. Now, their numbers are much greater. Moreover, as the Russian defense ministry has said, Moscow is advancing the date for the establishment of a completely Russian air base in Belarus so that it will be operational early next year.
One aspect of this situation is especially worrisome, Radina suggests. Moscow has said that its Belarusian base will have numerous MI-8 helicopters which are used not for air defense but rather for moving troops. Such planes could be used to move troops quickly in the direction of Kyiv which is not far south of the Belarusian border.
Even if Moscow does not use this base to attack Ukraine, Russia’s ability to do precisely that will force Kyiv to divide its forces and thus make it easier for Putin to put pressure on the Ukrainian government, however much some in the West will try to see any “freezing” of movement in Ukraine’s southeast as a hopeful sign that the crisis is near an end.