Russia and Belarus Stage Pretend Battle as Threat of Real One Looms in Ukraine

Russia and Belarus Stage Pretend Battle as Threat of Real One Looms in Ukraine

BARANOVICHI, Belarus — Russian and Belarusian military forces staged a mock battle on Saturday, with warplanes, tanks and rocket launchers pounding a muddy, wind-swept military training ground around 70 miles north of the Ukrainian border.

The two countries displayed their firepower just hours after President Biden said in Washington that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had made a final decision to reject diplomatic overtures and invade Ukraine.

The military maneuvers, planned long in advance, came on the penultimate day of a 10-day joint exercise involving the biggest deployment of Russian troops on the territory of Belarus, a neighbor and close ally, since the end of the Cold War.

NATO officials have warned that the maneuvers could provide cover for an attack on Ukraine. But there was no sign there on Saturday of any preparations for real rather than pretend war, with soldiers milling around as military attachés from Ukraine and several NATO countries, including the United States, Poland and Turkey, watched a deafening barrage of rockets and bombs beat back an attack by mock enemy forces.

The military exercises, known as Allied Resolve 2022, revolve around a fictitious conflict between an aggressive coalition of hostile states serving as a stand-in for NATO, and two made-up nations representing Belarus and the Russian Federation.

Following the Kremlin’s script that Russia is a victim rather than an aggressor, Saturday’s drills southwest of the Belarusian capital, Minsk, re-enacted a counterattack to liberate territory seized by the enemy. Signaling the power that Moscow has on hand in the event of a real war, a Russian Tupolev strategic bomber flew over the pretend battlefield escorted by fighter jets.

“If you want peace, you prepare for war,” said Aleksandr Volfovich, the state secretary of the Belarus security council. He declared the exercises a success that demonstrated the “determination and readiness” of Belarusian and Russian forces to successfully repel any attack.

Asked whether Belarus would assist Russia in any invasion of Ukraine, he said: “Belarus is not helping Russia seize Ukraine. Russia does not need to seize Ukraine. Belarus is a country of goodness and peace. We very much hope to live with everyone in peace.”

Western officials have expressed concern that Russian troops may stay behind in Belarus rather than return to their often distant home bases in Russia. Mr. Volfovich declined to comment on that possibility, but said that forces taking part in the exercises would carry out “checks” for several days after the official end of the maneuvers on Sunday.

“After that, a decision will be made,” he said.

Dmitri Mezentsev, a Russian politician and official who serves as state secretary of the Union State, a merger of Russia and Belarus that began in the 1990s and is only now taking on a serious concrete form, dismissed Western warnings of imminent aggression. Claims that the current military exercises pose a threat, he said, are “wrong and baseless.”

Asked about the possibility of Russia and Belarus invading Ukraine, a young soldier who gave only his first name, Kiril, laughed and said: “I have other plans. I’m going to see my grandmother tomorrow in Vitebsk,” a Belarusian town on the opposite side of the country near Russia and far from Ukraine.

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