Weeks ago NATO formally rejected embattled President Alexander Lukashenko's claim that the military alliance was busy building up forces along border areas with Belarus. “NATO troops are at our gates. Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and … Ukraine are ordering us to hold new elections,” he previously told supporters at a rally in mid-August.
Lukashenko reportedly deployed Belarusian national troops to the Western border in response, as tens of thousands of demonstrators demanding he step down after what they say was a "rigged" Aug.9 election ensuring the 26-year ruling strongman stays in power.
While it's unclear the degree to which NATO forces were actually mobilizing or on alert in prior weeks, what is clear as of this weekend is that US troops are indeed next door after having freshly arrived in preparation for two months of joint drills.
Several hundred troops arrived in neighboring NATO member Lithuania for the "pre-planned" military drills, AFP reported Saturday. Crucially the drills are near the border with Belarus, and include dozens of Abrams tanks which earlier crossed the border from Poland to participate in the war games.
While Lukashenko is likely to see it as a self-validating prophecy of sorts, Lithuania's defense ministry has stressed the war games are “pre-planned and not associated with any events in the region.”
Still, Minsk has viewed Lithuania as an external trouble-maker given it immediately gave refuge to opposition head and Lukashenko rival for president Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. After she fled Belarus she's given frequent messages of support to the mass anti-Lukashenko movement in the streets.
Meanwhile, the embattled leader which has recently witnessed tens of thousand march to the entrance of his presidential compound, has had to call in military armed vehicles in order to secure the capital amid the swelling protests.
Over the course of August and into September protests, clashes with police have gotten increasingly fierce:
Riot police have been filmed by the BBC attacking and forcibly arresting university students in the capital of Belarus— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) September 2, 2020
The students from Minsk were marching in protest against long-time leader Alexander Lukashenkohttps://t.co/Tez19DC5OI pic.twitter.com/O4dy99fyWj
He's also touted that Putin has pledged security assistance should the situation destabilize, though it at this point remains unclear the degree Moscow would back his rule, unless Lukashenko comes under direct threat of NATO intervention.
The worst fear is that another Ukraine situation could develop, but at moment it's unlikely that either Europe or Russia has the stomach to escalate things to that level.