Russia Says US, Allies 'Building Up' Forces by Border Near Belarus, Raising Tensions

Moscow's military has accused the U.S.-led NATO Western military alliance of pursuing a destabilizing military buildup near the borders between its member states and Russia and Belarus, a charge the 30-member coalition denies.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu joined his Belarusian counterpart Viktor Khrenin via virtual link for a joint board meeting of the two countries' Union State alliance. Shoigu reaffirmed Russia's commitment to the security of Belarus, which has been beset by political unrest since President Alexander Lukashenko's disputed reelection in August, and focused on external pressure being exerted on Minsk from its Western neighbors.

"An uneasy situation remains on the western borders of the Union State, where NATO continues building up its forward presence," Shoigu said, according to a Russian Defense Ministry readout.

He said NATO members were enhancing their military capabilities at the doorstep of Russia and Belarus, where Moscow has expressed concerns about a global missile system being developed by the United States.

"The Alliance's military infrastructure is being improved right at our borders, and supplies of material and technical equipment, weapons and military equipment are being created," Shoigu said. "The segment of the American supposedly anti-missile defense, whose launchers can be used for attack weapons, is increasing."

Moscow has long decried the Pentagon's deployment of Aegis Ashore defenses using similar hardware to U.S. mid-range missile systems being actively developed in the wake of Washington's exit last year from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

And even with COVID-19 forcing armed forces around the world to take precautionary measures to halt the disease's spread, Shoigu said NATO was accelerating its maneuvers near the border.

"Despite the pandemic, the intensity of the bloc's military exercises is not decreasing," he said.

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An AH-64 Apache helicopter from the U.S. Army 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, conducts night live fire during training on September 15 near Bemowo Piskie, Poland, located near the border with Belarus and Russia's Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad. Captain Samuel Davies/British Legion Troop

In a statement sent to Newsweek, a NATO official rejected Shoigu's characterization. "NATO does not pose a threat to Belarus and has no military build-up in the region," the official said. "Our posture is strictly defensive."

The official said that ongoing exercises near Belarus were routine, pre-planned and had nothing to do with the civil strife within the Russian ally.

"We are continuing our regular schedule of exercises," the official told Newsweek. "This includes the long-planned annual Brilliant Jump exercise, which will involve moving elements of our very high readiness 'Spearhead Force' to Lithuania in late October and early November. This exercise is routine and unrelated to developments in Belarus; planning began in mid-2019."

The official also said that NATO had ahead of time informed the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, of which both Moscow and Minsk are members.

"NATO is strongly committed to transparency and risk reduction, and the exercise has been notified in advance to the OSCE," the official said. "NATO remains vigilant, strictly defensive, and ready to deter any aggression against NATO Allies."

NATO has repeatedly denied Russia and Belarusian allegations that its forces were gathering at the border with the allied Eastern European states. Officials from Latvia, Lithuania and Poland—NATO nations that border Russia and Belarus—have expressed to Newsweek that they were monitoring the border for military activities and expressed concern as to the situation in the country as Lukashenko cracked down on demonstrations.

U.S. European Command (EUCOM) also told Newsweek last month that it was watching joint Russian-Belarusian exercises being conducted as part of the annual Slavic Brotherhood drills.

Washington has consulted with both Moscow and European partners on the situation in Belarus. The issue came up during telephone discussions Friday between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with EU Foreign Affairs High Commissioner Josep Borrell.

The men "called on the Belarusian authorities to engage in a meaningful dialogue with genuine representatives of civil society, in particular with the Coordination Council established by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya," a State Department readout said, referring to Lukashenko's opponent, who has sought to push the 26-year leader out of office in a campaign backed by the West.

"The EU and the United States reiterated their strong support for the independence and sovereignty of Belarus," the U.S. statement read.

Shoigu warned Tuesday against foreign interference in Belarus' sovereign affairs.

"This is especially important in the context of ongoing global instability, when distrust in interstate relations is growing, attempts are being made to undermine the foundations of international law, and the interests of sovereign states are being ignored," Shoigu said. "Using the technologies of color revolutions, the United States and its satellites purposefully escalate tensions and undermine the internal political situation in a number of countries."

Moscow and Minsk have both expressed concern about "color revolutions" seeking to dismantle the former Soviet sphere of influence under the guise of democratic uprisings.

The Belarusian Defense Ministry said Tuesday that "the main goal of the meeting was to organize practical work to create and strengthen the necessary joint military potential in order to counter military challenges and threats directed against the Union State."

That same day, the two countries' top diplomats spoke.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov "reaffirmed its support for the initiative of the Belarusian leadership to carry out constitutional reform in the interests of an early normalization of the situation in the country," according to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei's side noted that "topical issues of the Belarusian-Russian cooperation and integration interaction were discussed," including international mechanisms and arms control measures.

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Russian and Belarusian paratroopers train together as part of the Slavic Brotherhood 2020 exercise near Belarus' western border Poland, September 19. A third country, Serbia, traditionally joins the annual exercise but dropped out, citing pressure from the European Union over the political situation in Belarus. IGOR RUDENKO/Russian Ministry of Defense

While proponents of non-proliferation efforts celebrated recent developments that would soon see the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons enter into effect on January 21, another crucial deal was set to expire shortly after—the U.S.-Russia New Strategic Nuclear Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

The agreement, the third in a series of bilateral arms control measures limiting the two countries' strategic arsenals since 1991, will expire on February 4, marking the collapse of the last nuclear weapons agreement between Washington and Moscow for the first time in half a century.

The U.S. is seeking a new, more comprehensive treaty involving more weapons systems and additional countries such as China, which has rejected involvement due to its far smaller nuclear stockpile. These demands, and other preconditions, have frustrated the Russian side.

In his latest offer, Russian President Vladimir Putin has proposed an immediate one-year extension involving the temporary suspension of nuclear warheads production. The State Department received the message positively but no progress has been announced.

As the two sides sparred earlier this month, Russian ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov warned of a "deep crisis in trust" in remarks sent to Newsweek by Moscow's embassy in Washington.

He expressed hope that the U.S. would "not seek military advantage over Russia" nor attempt "to get significant unilateral advantages in the military political sphere."

Like Shoigu, he too listed U.S. missile systems just beyond Russia's borders as a primary concern for Moscow.