Joint Russian-Belarusian exercises put pressure on the security situation in the whole of the Baltic Sea region, not just Ukraine, International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS) researcher Martin Hurt said amid rising tensions with Russia.
Hurt said moving troops and military equipment to Belarus, which borders northern Ukraine, makes it easier for Moscow to attack Kyiv than it does only from Russian-controlled territory.
"At the same time, the presence of Russian forces in Belarus has a negative impact on the security of the whole Baltic Sea [region] and creates better conditions for Moscow to attack Poland and the Baltic states and make it significantly more difficult to bring NATO troops there," he added.
"For us, the most important aspect is Russia's expanding military footprint in the region, to which NATO should respond by strengthening its military presence," Hurt said.
The analyst said various reports estimate between 20,000 and 30,000 Russian troops have been brought to Belarus. Additionally, there are units equipped with tanks, fighter jets, missile launchers and the Iskander missile system.
"Of course, Belarusian units are also participating which are inferior to Russian units in their capabilities because Mr [Alexander] Lukashenko has not sufficiently modernized the Belarusian armed forces," the defense analyst noted.
Taavi Laasik, press officer at the General Staff of the Defense Forces, reiterated Hurt's analysis.
"The mobilization of Russian forces in and around Ukraine has an impact on the security of the entire region and Europe," he told ERR.
"Russia's provocative behavior has changed Western attitudes and perceptions about the Russian Federation and made NATO and its member states think more about the threat from the East."
Currently, there is no threat to Estonia.
"But Russia and Belarus are trying to put pressure on NATO, the European Union and its member states to achieve their goals," he said.
This includes escalating and provoking tensions by various means including militarily, Laasik said. "Estonia and its allies are closely monitoring the situation, supporting Ukraine and being ready to defend themselves if necessary," he added.
Russia's increasing presence in Belarus
Hurt said this is not the start of Russia's interest in the Belarusian military. In 2020, after fraudulent presidential elections returned Alexander Lukashenko as the winner for a sixth term, Moscow started pressuring Minsk to build military bases in Belarus.
"But then the dictator was able to withstand the pressure," Hurt said, but the following fallout caused Lukashenko to make a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"As a result, Russia's military presence in Belarus started to grow as early as 2021 in the form of so-called training centers, where Russian units attended regular exercises," he said.
Looking to the future, Hurt thinks it is likely, in the short term, some Russian forces will be withdrawn from Belarus. However, the presence may increase in the long run.
"It is unlikely that a force of 20,000 to 30,000 will permanently remain in Belarus, as there may not be the infrastructure to serve it. If there is no attack on Ukraine, it is likely that some Russian troops will remain in Belarus and that this number is likely to increase further in the long run," he told ERR.
Baltic states need long-range missile systems
Discussing how the Baltic states can defend themselves, Hurt said long-range missile systems could be deployed in the NATO area.
"Bringing British troops to Estonia is a very positive, however, it is still only a temporary solution. A longer-term approach is needed, which, on the one hand, increases NATO's deterrent effect on Russia, but on the other hand, is also economically sustainable," Hurt said.
"This could be, for example, the introduction of long-range missile systems into the Baltic Sea region, which is exactly what Russian propaganda claims the Baltic states are doing in Ukraine, although there is no truth to this."
On Thursday, Russian and Belarusian soldiers started a 10-day joint military exercise.
Editor: Helen Wright