Fears are mounting among Ukrainian officials that Russian President Vladimir Putin might choose to escalate his attacks on Ukraine during the country’s Independence Day holiday next week.
“We must definitely be prepared for possible missile strikes,” said Yuriy Ihnat, spokesperson for the Air Force Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, on Wednesday. He warned that Russia has a preference for using certain special dates for so-called “congratulations.”
There are concerns that Russia might use Belarus as a launchpad for attacks given a flurry of movements observed there in recent days, according to Ihnat.
“We constantly observe the movement of [Russian] troops in the territory of Belarus, as well as the transportation of ammunition, Iskander, and other types of missiles. This happens all the time. If an Il-76 flies from the Russian Federation to the territory of Belarus, then it is clear that it delivers weapons,” Ihnat said.
Russia might up the ante along the entire front, according to a representative of the Chief Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, Andrii Yusov.
“In the near future, there will be very tense situation at the entire front,” Yusov said. “In particular, now there are talks about Independence Day.”
The timing of any potential flare-up remains to be seen, of course. But whether or not Independence Day looms, Russia’s efforts to store missiles in Ziabrovka airfield, which is located about 15 miles from the Ukraine-Belarus border, has begun to worry Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, he said Tuesday.
“The location of missile systems along the state border shared with the Republic of Belarus, in particular at the Ziabrivka airfield, triggers concern,” Zaluzhnyi said in a Telegram post of the Ziabrovka airfield, which the Russians control and which hosts Russian forces.
In particular, Russia has been storing S-400 systems, advanced antiaircraft weaponry, near the Ukraine-Belarus border, which is raising alarm about Russia’s next moves, according to Anton Geraschenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry.
Independent military analysis shows Belarus may be preparing for an attack as well. Forces have been building up at Ziabrovka airfield, according to Belarusian Hajun, a military analysis organization.
“An analysis of the situation at the airfield proves that the likelihood of rocket attacks on Ukrainian territory not only remains, but it seems that the Russians are preparing for a massive missile attack on Ukraine in the coming weeks,” Belarusian Hajun said in a Telegram post.
Fighters were spotted over the Kobryn and Diaroza districts on Wednesday, the organization said.
It’s not the first time Russia has used Belarus to stage attacks on Ukraine in the war, which is nearing the end of its sixth month. In the early days of the war, Russian forces used Belarus to try to launch an invasion effort focused on capturing the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv. The operation ultimately failed.
Since then, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko has announced combat readiness drills that could take Belarus from peacetime to wartime in June, and has been working to build up a military unit focused on the country’s border with Ukraine.
The news of a potential flashpoint with Belarus coincides with Putin facing several embarrassing military setbacks in recent days—including a damaging attack at an airfield in Crimea that Ukraine reportedly launched—which former diplomats have said may prompt Russia to lean harder on Belarus. Lukashenko’s relationship with Putin has been a give-and-take for some years now: Putin supported Lukashenko after dissent built around the legitimacy of his 2020 election, and the two countries have long been developing a “union state” relationship centered around enmeshing the two nations.
The Biden administration Wednesday lambasted Lukashenko’s decision to repeatedly allow Russian forces into its country to attack Ukraine.
“The regime has set aside what should be Belarus’ own sovereignty and independence and in a way, its territorial integrity by permitting Russia's forces on to—again what should be sovereign Belarusian soil—to launch a brutal, premeditated, unjustified attack against its neighbor to the south,” the State Department’s top spokesperson, Ned Price, told reporters Wednesday.
In recent weeks, Russia appears to be leaning on Belarus once more. Ukraine has been suffering from Russian attacks emanating from Belarus as air raid sirens seek to warn residents of incoming hits, according to Ukrainian authorities. On Tuesday, Russian missiles targeted Ukraine’s Zhytomyr district, a region Russian forces have targeted on numerous occasions in recent months, Zhytomyr Mayor Serhiy Sukhomlyn said.
Vitaly Bunechko, the head of the regional military administration, confirmed the missiles originated from Belarusian territory and urged residents to pay attention to air raid sirens.
“Following explosions in the Zhytomyr district, which occurred as a result of enemy missiles launched from the territory of Belarus, fortunately, there are no victims,” Bunechko said. “Once again, we call on the residents of the region not to ignore air warning signals and to stay in shelters if they hear the sound of sirens.”