Russian troops deployed to Belarus for military exercises last week have not yet left, potentially challenging the security of NATO countries in the Baltic region.
Joint exercises between Belarusian forces and about 1,000 Russian troops ended on September 25, but there is no evidence as of this weekend that all Russian forces have left the country.
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More joint exercises in Belarus are expected to come in October, which could lead to a more permanent military presence from Russia within the country.
Perhaps to counter these ambitions, Washington sent 500 American troops to Lithuania earlier this month. An official Army statement said that the move "is evidence of the strong and unremitting U.S. commitment to NATO and Europe."
Beyond Belarus’s borders, Russia has built up its forces in the neighboring Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave that borders NATO members Poland and Lithuania. If Russia retains forces in Belarus, some NATO planners worry Russian forces will be in a position to cut off the land route between Baltic states and Central Europe, which goes through a small border gap in Poland that borders the Kaliningrad Oblast to the west and Belarus to the east.
In the past, Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko has resisted increased integration with Moscow.
The disputed results of his election and condemnation from the West, however, have limited his options when dealing with Putin. About 100,000 demonstrators took to the streets over the weekend to protest the corrupt presidential election, which gave Lukashenko a lopsided victory.
American and European leaders alike refused to recognize the results of the August election and continue to bolster regional military power to deter a possible invasion of Belarus by the Kremlin.
"The cohesion of NATO and the EU, the unmistakable U.S. commitment to Europe—that’s why Russia hasn’t attacked," former commander of U.S. Army Europe Ben Hodges told the Wall Street Journal. Without that commitment, "the risk goes up," he added.
Putin has been one of the few world leaders to consistently affirm Lukashenko’s right to rule, drawing the two nations closer together.
"All these events have shown us that we need to have closer ties with our elder brother [Russia] and cooperate on all issues," Lukashenko said ahead of talks between the two countries earlier this month.