Paratroopers of the 38th Separate Guards Air Assault Brigade exercise on parachute jumps trainers in Brest – Copyright AFP Natalia KOLESNIKOVA
In reclusive Belarus, just a few kilometres from the EU frontier, special forces in the army of Kremlin ally Alexander Lukashenko are simulating forest combat while paratroopers nearby practise jumping from aircraft.
The strongman has ruled his ex-Soviet country with an iron fist for nearly three decades and for years flirted with the West before backing Russia’s intervention in Ukraine last year.
He allowed the Kremlin to use his country as a launching pad for its military operation against Kyiv last February and fears have been building since that his troops could also intervene.
“We are ready to fulfil any tasks, including the most difficult ones if we have to,” Vadim Lukashevich, deputy commander of the Special Operations Forces of Belarus, told AFP.
The troops outside the city of Brest were running the drills as part of a tightly controlled press tour of the 38th Separate Guards Air Assault Brigade.
And their training ground lay just four kilometres (two miles) from EU and NATO member Poland and 50 kilometres from Ukraine.
A portrait of Lukashenko — in power since 1994 and wearing a military uniform — hung on a banner as soldiers trained behind it.
“There is no more important task today than to defend our achievements, our people and our land,” was the strongman’s quote printed next to his image.
He is hosting an undeclared number of Russian troops but Lukashenko has promised not to send his forces — estimated at between 60,000 and 70,000 — over the southern border to Ukraine.
– ‘We will defend our Belarus’ –
He has also dismissed speculation that Russia and Belarus could more deeply integrate and held back on recognising Russia’s annexation of several territories in Ukraine.
But he has nonetheless repeatedly said that Minsk should be ready for any turn of events.
In Brest, Belarusian military officials toed a careful line, unwilling to comment on the Ukraine conflict.
“The situation is stable,” Lukashevich said.
“But we are getting ready because we have to be ready to fulfil our tasks in any sharply changing conditions.”
Some of the officials said their army has benefited from the Russian troop presence, getting better training.
During the carefully choreographed tour, AFP was shown the barracks where the soldiers live.
The green-and-red Belarusian flag adorned the walls, as well as patriotic slogans and portraits of Lukashenko and other generals.
Between a room of rows of metal beds was a classroom that officials said was used for various activities, including “ideological lessons”.
Belarus, which retains much of its Soviet legacy and institutions, has been closed to foreign media, particularly in the wake of historic anti-government demonstrations in 2020.
On the would-be battlefield, soldiers practised landing on knee-bent legs from a parachute. They also took part in simulated fighting in a forested environment.
The army officials showcased weapons made inside the authoritarian country, as well as Russian and modernised Soviet-era equipment.
They stressed that Minsk is “peace-loving” and were keen to emphasise the “stability” that they said authorities ensure.
“Belarusians are peaceful people. But if we have to we will defend our Belarus,” Lukashevich said.
“We will not give up our Beloved,” he added, using a phrase appropriated by the government after the protests.
“We did not attack anyone,” another official said. “But if anyone attacks us, then…”