U.S. Allies Watch Borders Closely as Belarus Sends Military, Russia Presses West

Members of the U.S.-led NATO Western military alliance are closely watching their borders with Belarus as it mobilizes its frontier troops amid Russia-backed claims of a foreign conspiracy to overthrow the Eastern European nation's longstanding leader.

Amid ongoing protests challenging the results of his recent reelection, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko lashed out at the United States for "planning and running" the unrest, and at European nations for "playing along" with the plot, according to the state-run Belarusian Telegraph Agency. He argued that NATO neighbors were ramping up military moves to oust him after other former Eastern bloc nations slipped into the Western fold.

"You know, when there is unrest nearby and tanks and planes begin to move, this is no coincidence," Lukashenko said. "Meanwhile military drills are underway abroad. What is that supposed to mean? They are getting ready for invasion, if needed."

Lukashenko has already shored up his borders with a series of western border military drills, and his armed forces have announced a new set of mass maneuvers to run through the end of the month.

"We are all Belarusians," Defense Minister Major General Viktor Khrenin told a meeting with senior officials on Friday. "This is our land and we will not give it to anyone."

Across the border, NATO states remain wary, especially Poland and Lithuania, both of which Lukashenko has singled out as having designs against him.

"Poland carefully follows the military activity conducted next to our border," the Polish Foreign Ministry said in a statement sent to Newsweek. "Dislocation of Belarusian troops in the vicinity of the country's Western border is a subject of the analysis by the appropriate Polish state services and structures."

The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry said the country and other fellow NATO states "are closely monitoring the security situation."

"At this moment we do not consider recent military exercises of Belarussian armed forces close to Lithuania's borders to pose a direct military threat," the Ministry said. "Of course, they lack transparency and do not increase the predictability nor contribute to the regional stability."

belarus, military, drills, border, unrest
The Belarusian military fires a Tunguska anti-aircraft missile and gun system during border exercises on August 18. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has ordered a series of Western Operational Command drills in response to what he said was an attempt by neighboring NATO states to foment unrest in his country. Belarusian Ministry of Defense

The turmoil in Belarus has also caught the attention of the country's Union State ally, Russia, where President Vladimir Putin shared Lukashenko's views on Western interference. The Russian leader censured the European Union in a call Thursday with EU Council President Charles Michel over an extraordinary EU summit criticizing the Belarusian elections. On Friday, Putin echoed these concerns at the United Nations Security Council.

"The unacceptability of any outside interference in the affairs of the republic and the lack of alternatives for the settlement of all internal Belarusian problems by the leadership of this country in dialogue with its citizens was emphasized," a Kremlin readout stated.

In a call over the past weekend, Putin offered Lukashenko Russia's services in helping stabilize Belarus, if necessary. The Belarusian leader said he may accept Putin's offer in the event of an "external threat." When contacted earlier this week, the Russian embassy in Washington referred Newsweek to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's remarks on Russia TV, where the top diplomat said that so far he was "convinced that the Belarusian people with their own wisdom can figure out the current situation on their own."

On Thursday, Lavrov spoke with his Belarusian counterpart Vladimir Makei. The two "discussed various initiatives put forward by Western countries regarding further actions of the Belarusian leadership—noting that "the solution of the existing problems of the republic is its internal affair and does not require external intervention, and even more so 'instructions' about who and how to conduct a dialogue with," according to a readout released by the Russian side.

The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry told Newsweek on Friday that the "request for the military assistance from Moscow could only be viewed as yet another attempt to protect the regime after the so-called 'elections' that were challenged by the international community, and also to obstruct the awakening civil society of Belarus."

The ministry challenged Lukashenko's reports of a massing of troops along their border with Belarus, saying "an alleged concentration of NATO forces alongside Belarus borders simply does not correspond to the facts on the ground."

The statement included a flat denial of Lukashenko's allegations. "NATO has no military buildup in the region," it read. "NATO posture and activities in the region are fully routine, have always been and remain strictly defensive, aimed to deter any aggression against NATO Allies.

"Neither Lithuania, nor NATO as the Alliance pose any kind of threat to Belarus, and never have before," the statement continued. "Lithuania has been a member of NATO for sixteen years already, and therefore has hosted multinational exercises for many years in a transparent way."

belarus, protests, minsk, opposition, elections
Opposition supporters rally to protest against disputed presidential elections results on Independence Square in Minsk on August 20. Belarus and Russia see foreign interference from pro-NATO forces attempting to incite against the government. SERGEI GAPON/AFP/Getty Images

Reached for comment, a NATO spokesperson referred to a conversation Tuesday between Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Polish President Andrzej Duda. The two men "agreed that Minsk must demonstrate full respect for fundamental rights" and that "the Alliance should remain vigilant and strictly defensive, prepared to deter any aggression against NATO Allies."

"The Secretary General stressed that NATO does not pose a threat to Belarus, and has no military buildup in the region," the readout added. "All Allies support a sovereign and independent Belarus."

The following day, Newsweek cited current and former U.S. officials expressing concern Wednesday that Russia may use the civil discord in Belarus to establish a more lasting security presence there. The officials agreed NATO had no jurisdiction to intervene as Belarus is a treaty ally of Moscow, not the 29-member defense pact to the West, which has gradually expanded east since the end of the Cold War, shrinking Russia's sphere of influence and shallowing its strategic depth.

Russia used military action to support friendly territories after changes in government regarding Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014—an ongoing conflict that the West accuses Moscow of still stoking with aid to eastern separatists. The result is a continuing clash of interests in the Baltic and Black Sea regions, where Lukashenko argued Friday that NATO was attempting to establish a friendly corridor through which Belarus was "the only missing part."