As Russian Troops Mass in Belarus, a Ukraine Border Is Largely Undefended
NOVI YARYLOVYCHI BORDER CROSSING, Ukraine — On the other side of this border in northern Ukraine, not visible through the thick pine and birch forests that crowd the E-95 highway but noticeable to passing truckers, a force is gathering in Belarus more potent than anything seen in the country since the fall of the Soviet Union, officials and military analysts say.
Russia has deployed tanks and artillery, fighter jets and helicopters, advanced rocket systems and troops by the thousands all across Belarus, augmenting a fighting force that will soon envelope Ukraine like a horseshoe on three sides. Russia says the troops have deployed for military exercises scheduled to commence next month, but the buildup in Belarus could presage an attack from a new vector, one in proximity to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.
With much of Ukraine’s military might concentrated in the country’s east — where a war with Russian-backed separatists has raged for eight years — military analysts and Ukraine’s own generals say it will be difficult for the country to muster the forces necessary to defend its northern border.
“As a result of Russia taking control over Belarus, 1,070 kilometers of our border with Belarus became a threat,” said Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, referring to a distance of about 665 miles. “This is not a threat from Belarus — Ukraine has a very warm attitude toward the Belarusian people — but a threat from Russia moving through Belarus.”
The Novi Yarylovychi border crossing is a fast, 140-mile drive straight from the Belarus border south to Kyiv on a highway that is mostly freshly paved thanks to efforts by President Volodymyr Zelensky to address the poor state of Ukrainian roads. It would be an easy ride for any Russian tank driver so long as Russian forces take out Ukrainian air power and artillery first, and the Javelin anti-tank missiles provided to the Ukrainian military by the United States stay deployed in eastern Ukraine.
On the Ukrainian side of the border, preparations to repel a potential military incursion are largely nonexistent. Last fall, Ukraine deployed 8,500 troops to its northern border, a mix of border police, national guard forces and military that was mostly directed at preventing Belarus from sending Middle Eastern migrants over the border the way it had in Poland and Lithuania.
Though that force remains in the border region, its members have left the vicinity of Novi Yarylovychi. There is now just a handful of border guards, armed with automatic rifles, stationed at the post, little deterrence should a Russian tank unit make a sudden thrust toward the capital. A truck driver ferrying candle wax who had just crossed into Ukraine and would give only his first name, Yevgeni, said he had seen columns of military vehicles including armored personnel carriers with license plates indicating they had come from the Ryazan region southeast of Moscow.
“There are kilometer-long columns there, escorted by police,” he said.
Indeed, new troops, armor and equipment have been pouring into Belarus daily. News reports from within Belarus have shown local officials flanked by Belarusian women in traditional dress, greeting Russian military commanders with loaves of bread and salt, a traditional welcome.
Russia is deploying some of its most advanced and well-equipped forces to nine different bases and airfields around Belarus, the Russian Defense Ministry says. Already, highly trained special forces units and airborne troops, together with powerful S-400 antiaircraft systems and hundreds of aircraft have begun to arrive at bases around the country, Ukrainian and western officials say.
Understand Russia’s Relationship With the West
The tension between the regions is growing and Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly willing to take geopolitical risks and assert his demands.
- Competing for Influence: For months, the threat of confrontation has been growing in a stretch of Europe from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
- Threat of Invasion: As the Russian military builds its presence near Ukraine, Western nations are seeking to avert a worsening of the situation.
- Energy Politics: Europe is a huge customer of Russia’s fossil fuels. The rising tensions in Ukraine are driving fears of a midwinter cutoff.
- Migrant Crisis: As people gathered on the eastern border of the European Union, Russia’s uneasy alliance with Belarus triggered additional friction.
- Militarizing Society: With a “youth army” and initiatives promoting patriotism, the Russian government is pushing the idea that a fight might be coming.
The goal of the exercises, named “Allied Resolve,” is to “develop different options for jointly neutralizing threats and stabilizing the situation on the borders,” Russia’s deputy defense minister, Aleksandr V. Fomin, said in a meeting with foreign military attachés in Moscow this month.
Dressed in green camouflage, Aleksei Shevchuk, the all-business first deputy commander of the border post, said that he and his comrades would be ready to put up a fight should Russian forces appear on the border. But he acknowledged that there would be little they could do against Russian tanks.
“Visually we don’t see anything, not equipment, not people and not Belarusian armed forces near the post,” he said. “In the case of invasion or other nonstandard situation on the state border, we shall act, but for the moment everything is going according to plan.”
Historically, Belarus has given Ukraine little trouble. Though its authoritarian leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, is perhaps closer to Moscow than any other post-Soviet head of state, he had in the past largely avoided picking sides in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. That changed after presidential elections in August 2020, when the Russian intelligence services were forced to come to his rescue amid an outbreak of sprawling protests against his rule.
Since then, he has recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea and vowed to support Moscow in any military action involving Ukraine. Like his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, he has, without providing evidence, accused Ukraine of escalating tensions and threatening war.
“Ten years ago we could not have imagined that a moment like today would arrive when we would have to establish military units and a whole union in defense of our southern border,” Mr. Lukashenko said on a visit to Belarusian military bases last week. And in an address to the nation on Friday, Mr. Lukashenko accused the West of seeking to “drown the Russian-Ukrainian brotherhood in blood.”
Mr. Reznikov, the Ukrainian defense minister, assessed that Russia could use the territory of Belarus to threaten not only Ukraine but “all of Europe,” though he expressed hope that diplomacy and de-escalation would prevail.
Some European leaders are less optimistic. While military analysts say there is little chance at the moment that Mr. Lukashenko, let alone Mr. Putin, would risk open warfare with a NATO country, leaders in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland and the Baltic countries, are growing increasingly nervous.
“We are reaching the point where continuous Russian and Belarusian military buildup in Europe needs to be addressed by appropriate NATO countermeasures,” Edgars Rinkēvičs, Latvia’s foreign minister, tweeted this week. On Tuesday the Pentagon put 8,500 troops on “heightened alert,” as President Biden weighed sending more assets to reinforce NATO units in Eastern Europe.
Understand the Escalating Tensions Over Ukraine
A brewing conflict. Antagonism between Ukraine and Russia has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, annexing Crimea and whipping up a rebellion in the east. A tenuous cease-fire was reached in 2015, but peace has been elusive.
A spike in hostilities. Russia has recently been building up forces near its border with Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s messaging toward its neighbor has hardened. Concern grew in late October, when Ukraine used an armed drone to attack a howitzer operated by Russian-backed separatists.
Ominous warnings. Russia called the strike a destabilizing act that violated the cease-fire agreement, raising fears of a new intervention in Ukraine that could draw the United States and Europe into a new phase of the conflict.
The Kremlin’s position. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has increasingly portrayed NATO’s eastward expansion as an existential threat to his country, said that Moscow’s military buildup was a response to Ukraine’s deepening partnership with the alliance.
Rising tension. Western countries have tried to maintain a dialogue with Moscow. But administration officials recently warned that the U.S. could throw its weight behind a Ukrainian insurgency should Russia invade.
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, accused Russia this week of pursuing a military buildup in Belarus “under the disguise of an exercise.”
“These are highly capable, combat-ready troops, and there is no transparency on these deployments,” he said. “It adds to the tensions and it shows that there is no de-escalation. On the contrary, it’s actually more troops, more capabilities in more countries.”
Some in Ukraine have criticized the government for not doing enough to shore up the country’s defenses, on the Belarus border or elsewhere.
“The biggest danger is that Ukrainian forces are mainly concentrated in the east of Ukraine, but the closest route to Kyiv is from Belarus,” said Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who was prime minister of Ukraine when war broke out in 2014. “It’s just as urgent to send additional military units to protect Kyiv as the capital, to make military roadblocks. That’s what we did in 2014.”
The Ukrainians who work in a strip of shops and offices in the shadow of the Novi Yarylovychi border post said they were not completely convinced that war was inevitable, at least one so far from the conflict zone in the east. But they had detected a change in the air.
“People have started to drive through less frequently because the television is inflaming the situation,” said Viktor Beznoshenko, who runs a small travel insurance office.
Though he said he doubted Russia would launch a wider war against Ukraine, he compared Moscow to a 6-foot-5 neighbor who wakes up one morning and decides to push his fence deeper onto your property.
“Belarus decided, ‘Well, OK, let him move the fence,’” he said. “But Ukraine doesn’t want to agree to this. We’re not going to let him move his fence.”
As Yuri Lukasevich, a truck driver, prepared to take his semi-truck through the border crossing into Belarus, he said he hoped that should Russia attack, the United States and NATO would step in to help Ukraine.
And if that doesn’t happen?
“We’ll fight,” he said. “We’re Ukrainians. We’re prepared for anything.”
Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Brussels.