5 April, 2023
By Oliver Hegglin – Junior Fellow
In early February 2022, some 30,000 Russian soldiers arrived in Belarus under the guise of participating in a military exercise. These were described as being “defensive in nature,” with the objective of deterring aggression from outside their borders. They then poured over into Ukraine in the early morning of 24 February. At that time Ukraine’s military presence along the nearly 1,000km long border with Belarus consisted of small checkpoints, which posed no challenge to Russian forces.
Reinforcing the Border
Following the Russian failure to capture Kyiv and subsequent retreat, Ukraine set off to prepare this long border in case of another attack from the north. In the summer of 2022, construction on trenches began, and mines are being laid. Layers of barbed wire and earth mounds were added, and all border crossings were closed. On 11 November, the Office of the President of Ukraine revealed that a barbed-wire-topped wall was being built along the border. Continuing to early 2023, efforts advanced with the installation of cameras along the border, which are monitored from newly-built underground bunkers using wood transported in so as not to cut down the trees providing natural cover. While the bulk of the Ukrainian armed forces is in active combat in the east and south of the country, the border is guarded by Territorial Defense units, made up of individuals ranging from 19 to 60 years of age, originating from the regions they serve in. These local volunteer units have the advantage of familiarity with their environment, a crucial ally in a defensive war.
With the arrival of the 2023 spring and thawing of environmental conditions after an unusually mild winter, natural occurrences would serve to the advantage of Ukraine. Thick mud, waterlogged fields and burst riverbanks along the western Ukraine-Belarus border would heavily burden any mechanized offensive. Add to this the naturally swampy environment, thick woodlands, numerous rivers, and trees submerged in cold water. An unexpected ally in this natural defensive framework is the local beaver population, which has built dams causing especially muddy and swampy conditions. While these dams are normally destroyed by the local population, they are now left intact, and serve as an additional defensive barrier.
While many roads were destroyed to prevent their use by armored vehicles which would have difficulties off-road in the aforementioned conditions, those remaining, particularly in the northwest, are left untouched with the intent to funnel the movement of attacking forces into kill-zones. Knowing the most likely routes of an invading force means artillery would be able to shell these locations. The northwest of Ukraine has also become of strategic importance in the war, as the main routes of vehicle and equipment shipments from partners pass through this region, making its security of vital importance to the ability of Ukraine to sustain the war effort.
In addition to cameras providing live feeds of the border, daily patrols and the use of drones means the Ukrainian Territorial Defense forces are permanently monitoring as much as they can of the vast border area. Unmanned aircraft continue to gain importance in modern conflict settings, and in the case of the Ukraine-Belarus border, quadcopters, otherwise referred to as drones, are being deployed on both sides in an effort to gain intelligence on the other. This has led to instances of drones tailing each other, getting shot down, and being captured. Gaining intelligence of what is happening on the other side of the border is crucial for Ukraine, for it has been assessed that any Belarusian offensive would need two to three months of preparation.
The Belarusian government has been responding to this build-up of Ukrainian defenses to distribute rhetoric of an alleged Ukrainian plan to attack Belarus, saying its southern neighbor had “barricaded itself,” and accusing it of reconnaissance into Belarusian territory. This was supported by claims that Ukraine had some 15,000 to 17,000 servicemen along the border, which the State Border Committee is quoted as saying, created “certain challenges for security” through the alleged establishment of roadblocks and firing positions. Such was the justification for the entry of Russian forces into Ukraine in October 2022, adding that this support was a response to “NATO provocations” on their border. In reality, it may be that the Russian troops visited for training purposes, as the British Defense Ministry assessed a shortage of training facilities, staff, and munitions in Russia.
Belarusian President Lukashenko has also repeated that Belarus would only enter the war if attacked first, and suggested a threat exists from NATO members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Accusations extend to deliberate provocations from Ukraine; However these are possibly to justify military maneuvers domestically. Meanwhile Belarus has also taken steps to fortify its border to Ukraine, including with the use of mines in forests and on roads and bridges, and the placement of barbed wires and stacks of truck tires. Special forces and equipment are also reported to have been deployed to the border as a result of the “southern threat”.
A 2023 Spring Offensive
Ukrainian authorities feared a Spring Offensive from the north in a second attempt to take Kyiv. This theory received some credibility, when Russia and Belarus staged military exercises in the form of air force drills from 16 January to 1 February, just one month after a state-visit by Russian President Putin to the Belarusian capital of Minsk and an inspection of the Belarus’ combat readiness. The presence of Russian forces in Belarus and their deployment to the border were described by President Lukashenko as “strategic deterrence”, with the number of Russian forces reported to range from 9,000 to 11,000, despite a Ukrainian Defense Intelligence official saying the true number may be as low as 4,300. 10,000 would still be only about 10% of the total February 2022 invasion force. Consequently, the British Defense Ministry assessed that the number of aircraft and ground-based assets are “unlikely to constitute a credible offensive force.” It is therefore likely that these maneuvers and military personnel serve more to force Ukraine to divert military assets from its eastern and southern fronts to the north. As far as Belarusian forces are concerned, President Lukashenko has stated that there is “no way” his country’s forces would support a direct attack, and that he was never asked to do so by Russia.
Belarus is a small country compared to Russia, with limited military resources and capabilities. The potential loss of just a few thousand soldiers would significantly reduce Belarus’ military capability, and much of Belarus’ military equipment has already been transferred to Russia. Add in the risk of international sanctions and diplomatic backlash, and it’s unlikely Belarus would participate in hostilities. In September 2023, Russia and Belarus are scheduled to carry out their joint exercise Union Shield, which will further serve to stoke tensions between Ukraine and Belarus, and justify Ukraine’s suspicion of its northern neighbor. An increase in the number of Russian forces in Ukraine and preparations for a combined exercise could be perceived as preparations for an assault into Ukraine, meaning completed and on-going defensive preparations along the border serve either to deter a potential attack entirely, or ensure the attacking force suffers as many casualties as needed for a retreat, while buying time for Kyiv to be reinforced and regular armed forces to support the Territorial Defense units.
A Long War
Ukraine is clearly, and justifiably, taking no chances when it comes to a potential repeat of the initial February 2022 invasion from Belarus. Despite what the numbers might say, the perceived aggressive rhetoric coming from Belarus has made everything “more serious”. However spring has arrived in Europe, and there appears to be no indication that a spring offensive will occur. Despite this, efforts to secure the border with Belarus are unlikely to slow down, as the threat from Russia and its accomplice Belarus is omnipresent.
The war will end one day, but the defensive installations set up on the border are likely to remain, a legacy of the war’s start and relations between Ukraine and Belarus. While some parts of this 1,000km border are covered in forests and swamps, others are divided by walls and fences, with embankments, firing positions, trenches, and other installations throughout. Where many of these defenses can be retired, deconstructed, and removed, it is the remaining mines which will pose the most severe long-term threat to post-war society – and this, on all fronts of the war. They are a perpetual threat towards human security, and though maps of mined areas may exist and demining efforts undertaken, the risk of such devices moving after time due to the natural flow of earth, and their permanent operational state, are a hazard for anyone in the future wandering the Ukraine-Belarus border.
One item Ukrainian personnel have placed on at least two border posts is the white-red-white flag of Belarus, used by the opposition as opposed to the current flag in use by Minsk. This flag symbolizes the hope for a better future for Belarus, democratic and free from the clutches of the regimes in Minsk and Moscow. For Ukraine to fly this flag is indicative of its desire to one day have a northern neighbor with which it can share common values and prosper together. And perhaps, if and when one day a change in government in Belarus occurs, this flag will fly alongside that of Ukraine along their mutual border, replacing all the militarized fortifications dividing them today.