Belarus appears to be dismantling tent camps on Belarusian territory used to train Russian soldiers, raising questions about whether Moscow is in need of more troops at the front to halt Ukraine’s large-scale counteroffensive.
New satellite imagery obtained by RFE/RL’s Belarus Service show the sudden disappearance of dozens of tents at three location that have recently been used as training grounds for mobilized Russian fighters.
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The images were published amid speculation that Belarus might be constructing a new base for Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group.
After Russia’s Defense Ministry announced in September the mobilization of up to 300,000 troops, Moscow began sending some recruits to Belarus to train due to a lack of available training grounds at home.
Since October, thousands of Russian troops have undergone military exercises with heavy equipment at the three locations before being deployed to fight in Ukraine.
At Abuz-Lyasnouski in western Belarus where ground forces train, only about 15 tents remained as of July 4, down from 150 a month earlier, images from Planet Labs shows. The camp at that time could house about 3,000 troops.
The liquidation of the camp at Abuz-Lyasnouski, located about 160 kilometers north of the Ukrainian border, began no earlier than June 30, satellite images indicate.
Meanwhile, at the training grounds in Lepel in northern Belarus, only a few tents remained on July 4. Days earlier, there were 75 tents that could hold about 1,500 troops.
There was nothing left at the third camp in Repishcha in central Belarus, where artillery forces exercised. There had been 30 tents on that training ground on July 3.
The images indicate that the three largest training grounds in Belarus for Russia had been largely liquidated in a matter of days. At the same time, a new camp larger than those three combined has been going up in the village of Tsel, not far from Repishcha.
In Tsel, located 80 kilometers southeast of the capital, Minsk, Belarus has built 303 tents capable of holding up to 15,000 soldiers.
The satellite images indicate that work on the camp in Tsel began in earnest days after Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka allegedly agreed to allow Wagner mercenaries to settle inside the country following a failed mutiny.
However, Lukashenka said on July 5 that neither Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Wagner, nor his fighters are currently in Belarus.
Mikhailo Samus, director of the New Geopolitics Research Network, said it was too early to tell whether the closure of the camps indicated an end to the training of Russian mobilized men in Belarus.
He said that Moscow may have been able to expand its training capacity inside Russia and no longer needs the grounds in Belarus. However, Samus did not exclude that Russia may simply need all its available troops at the front now to halt the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
“Everything now depends on the situation at the front. If the Ukrainian Army continues its successful counteroffensive actions, then Russia may simply not have enough resources to transfer new military personnel to Belarus. They will throw all reserves to prevent a breakthrough of the front,” he told RFE/RL.
However, should the Ukrainian Army get bogged down, then Russia could potentially move men back into Belarus and launch an invasion of Ukraine from the north, Samus said.
Russia used Belarus as a launchpad for its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Many of the 30,000 Russian troops stationed in Belarus poured over the border into Ukraine, only to be beaten back.
When Russian troops reappeared en masse in Belarus in October 2022 following mobilization, it raised concerns that Moscow might again be preparing to invade from the north.
However, experts said at the time that Russia would need no less than 30,000 troops to attack again from Belarus. At its peak, the number of mobilized Russian soldiers in Belarus reached about 11,000.
Some experts speculated that Russia may have moved troops to Belarus to train in order to distract Ukraine from its successful autumn counteroffensive in which it regained some territory in the northeast and south.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on July 5 held a meeting to discuss strengthening the nation’s defense in the north, including along the border with Belarus.
Ukrainian officials said that the number of Russian troops inside Belarus has increased over the past month to between 3,000 and 5,000 from as low as 1,000. This could be tied to joint exercises expected to be held later this year.
Russia and Belarus said they plan to hold five military exercises in Belarus in the autumn within the framework of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, which also includes Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.