As Russia falters in eastern and southern Ukraine, Kyiv eyes threat from the north
By Marc Santora and Shashank Bengali
As Russian forces fail to gain ground in eastern Ukraine and fortify defensive positions in the south, Ukrainian officials are warning of a buildup of Russian long-range missile systems to the north, in Belarus, which has served as a key staging ground for Moscow in the war.
Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the top commander of Ukraine’s armed forces, said in a statement earlier this week that the positioning of Russian missile systems along the Ukrainian border in Belarus “raises concerns.” He specifically cited missiles placed at the Zyabrovka airfield, about 15 miles from the border.
While it is not the first time that Ukrainian officials have warned about a threat from the north, the statement took on added urgency after explosions Tuesday at a Russian ammunition depot in Crimea, the second Russian military target on the peninsula to be hit by blasts in a week.
Ukraine has not publicly claimed responsibility for the blasts — or the explosions last week at the Saki air base on Crimea — but a senior Ukrainian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that both had been orchestrated by the military and covert operators.
As Ukraine increasingly strikes Russian targets deep behind the front lines, with the aid of Western weapons, and orchestrates clandestine assaults against Moscow’s supply lines in eastern and southern Ukraine, the buildup in Belarus has served as a reminder that Russian forces still surround Ukraine from three sides. Russia also retains an overwhelming advantage in heavy weapons.
Anton Geraschenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, tweeted Wednesday that Russia had concentrated “a large number of surface-to-air missile systems” at Zyabrovka, including the S-400, one of Russia’s most advanced anti-aircraft weapons.
Yuriy Ihnat, a spokesperson for the air force command of Ukraine’s armed forces, also emphasized the threat of a potential Russian attack from Belarus in comments to reporters Tuesday, while noting that Ukrainian military regularly observes the movement of Russian troops and equipment around Belarus, Moscow’s most pliant ally.
In the early stages of Russia’s invasion, which began in February, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus allowed Russian troops to use its territory to launch a ground operation to try to capture Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, although the effort ultimately failed.
Since then, Russia has continued to use Belarus as a staging ground for bombardments. In late July, Ukraine said that 25 missiles had been fired by Russian forces in Belarus toward northern regions of Ukraine. This week, Ukraine’s air force said that Russian fighter jets had used Belarusian airspace to launch missiles against the northern city of Zhytomyr.
“There has always been a certain threat from the territory of Belarus, and let me remind you that it was its territory that Russia used from the first days of the full-scale invasion,” Ihnat said. “We must definitely be prepared for possible missile strikes.”
The buildup comes as a vital link in the supply lines for Russia’s occupation forces in southern Ukraine, the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, comes under attack.
The explosions in Crimea have undermined Moscow’s control of the peninsula, which it illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014. President Vladimir Putin of Russia has called Crimea Russia’s “holy land.”
While the extent of the damage from the blasts remains unclear, Ukrainian officials are preparing for a response from Moscow, which labeled the explosion at the ammunition depot an “act of sabotage” — an apparent acknowledgment that the war is spreading to what the Kremlin considers Russian territory. Last week, after the blasts at the air base, Russian media reported that the commander of the Kremlin’s Black Sea naval fleet, which is based in Crimea, was replaced.
The British defense intelligence agency said Wednesday that “Russian commanders will highly likely be increasingly concerned with the apparent deterioration in security across Crimea, which functions as rear base area for the occupation.”