Russia’s close ally Belarus began military exercises on Monday near the border with NATO members Poland and Lithuania, further increasing already high tensions. The drills come after Russian-linked Wagner Group mercenaries had been deployed to Belarus following their short-lived and botched mutiny in June.
As a result, both Warsaw and Vilnius have responded by increasing border security, while the leaders of the two nations have said they are braced for provocations from Minsk and Moscow.
Poland and Lithuania also border the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad – territory that was taken from Nazi Germany at the end of the Second World War. All German citizens were expelled and mostly ethnic Russians were sent to repopulate the region in the late 1940s.
Air Space Violations
The current drills also come just days after Warsaw claimed that two Belarusian helicopters flew briefly into Polish air space at a low altitude. Minsk has denied that the Belarusian helicopters entered Poland.
Authorities in Warsaw said that it would increase its military presence along the border in response.
“After the commanders and service chiefs presented conclusions from the analysis of the situation, it was established that… there was a violation of Polish airspace by two Belarusian helicopters that were training near the border,” the Polish Ministry of Defense announced via a statement, last Tuesday.
Based on the “Special Military Operation”
The Belarusian Ministry of Defense had announced that the drills that began this week were based on experiences from the “special military operation” – the term Moscow has used for its ongoing war in Ukraine. That has reportedly included the use of drones as well as “close interaction” involving tank and motorized rifle units, the Associated Press first reported.
The war games are taking place in the Grodno region of Belarus, in close proximity to the “Suwalki Gap,” a narrow 70km long stretch that essentially runs along the Lithuanian-Polish border, one that was established in 1920. However, it also separates the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea from Belarus.
For years, the Suwałki Gap has been dubbed “NATO’s Achilles Heel,” and even the “Most Dangerous Place on Earth,” as it is seen as a key corridor for Russia in an invasion into NATO territory – and which could cut off the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. However, with Finland now a full member of NATO and Sweden likely to be admitted to the international alliance in the coming months, the Baltic Sea has become a NATO lake.
Some military analysts in the West have raised concerns that could push Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin to act sooner than later as Kaliningrad will be further isolated.
Where Does the Wagner Group Fit In?
Since last month, the Belarusian military has been actively being trained by the Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group.
“The armed forces of Belarus continue joint training with the fighters of the Wagner PMC (Private Military Company),” the Belarusian defense ministry said in a statement. “Special operations forces units together with representatives of the Company will work out combat training tasks at the Brest military range.”
A post on the Grey Zone, a Wagner-linked blog on the messaging app Telegram, claimed on Monday that some 7,000 Wagner fighters are at a camp close to Asipovichy, a town 230 kilometers (140 miles) north of the Ukrainian border. That has not been independently verified.
The fact that the drills are so close to the border could be seen as a dangerous portent – as Belarus and Russia conducted a series of exercises in late 2021 as part of the latter’s built-up of forces for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Author Experience and Expertise
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.