Belarus Warning Update: The Kremlin May Have Used Kavkaz 2020 Exercises in Part to Prepare for a Conventional Russian Military Deployment to Belarus
September 26, 2020 6:25 pm EDT
By George Barros
The Kremlin may have used its annual joint strategic command exercise in the Southern Military District in part to prepare for a deployment of elements of Russia’s Voronezh-based 20th Combined Arms Army (CAA) to Belarus. Regiment-sized motor rifle elements of Belarus’ Zaslonovo-based 19th Guards Mechanized Brigade and unspecified elements of the 20th CAA conducted joint combat exercises as part of the Kavkaz 2020 exercises in Kapustin Yar, Astrakhan, on September 25. Zaslonovo is located about 75 miles from Belarus’ eastern border with Russia. There is no indication of which 20th CAA units interoperated with the Belarusian elements, though they were likely tank or motorized rifle units, given the 20th CAA’s composition, the nature of the exercises in Kapustin Yar, and the Belarusian elements’ motorized rifle designation.
The participation of elements not organic to the Russian military district hosting the annual joint strategic command exercises is not unprecedented. Units organic to the Eastern Military District participated in the Center 2019 exercise in the Central Military District in 2019, for example.
Elements of a Guards Combined Arms Army (CAA) – likely the 20th CAA, which is the only combined arms army with the “guards” designation in the Western Military District – began final stages of a readiness check emphasizing combat readiness, unit cohesion, and command and control effectiveness on September 26. Approximately 10 unspecified regiment-and-below-sized units are participating. It is unclear when this check’s first stage began. These checks may be part of a larger Western Military District logistical undertaking to sustain a continuous or near-continuous conventional Russian military presence in Belarus. The 20th CAA consists of two motorized rifle divisions with a total of two motorized rifle and two tank regiments. Two of the motorized rifle regiments are based at Klintsy, about 30 miles from the southern Belarusian border with Russia. Two more and one tank regiment are to the east on the northern border of Ukraine. The last tank regiment is near Smolensk. There is no indication of which units are participating in this exercise.
Russia has not offered visual evidence that all its Slavic Brotherhood exercises participants have left Belarus. The Kremlin claimed all Russian elements would leave Belarus after Slavic Brotherhood exercises ended on September 25. Russia provided visual evidence that the battalion tactical group (BTG) from the Ivanovo-based 98th Airborne Assault Division began leaving Belarus on September 25 but has not provided similar evidence for two other BTGs of the Pskov-based 76th and Tula-based 106th Airborne Assault Divisions leaving as of this writing. ISW assesses these elements will likely leave within a few days and that different units will return to Belarus for the announced October exercises.
The Warsaw-based NEXTA Telegram channel continues to align behind Lithuania-based Belarusian opposition leader Svitlana Tikhanouskaya for Sunday marches. NEXTA in a September 24 post called on Belarusians to take to the streets in Minsk and regional cities for a “people’s inauguration” of Tikhanouskaya for Sunday September 27. This planned protest is a rejection of self-proclaimed president Alexander Lukashenko’s unscheduled inauguration on September 23.
Tikhanouskaya actively encouraged street protests in Belarus for the first time. Tikhanouskaya praised NEXTA’s initiative and proactively thanked Belarusians who take to the streets for her “people’s inauguration” on Sunday. Tikhanouskaya previously generally supported protesters but did not actively encourage street action. Tikhanouskaya may seek to expand her leadership in marshalling street protests in Belarus – a function NEXTA still dominates.
Conflict between Belarusian protesters and security personnel police may escalate. A Belarusian IT specialist from Los Angeles developed software that identifies masked Belarusian security personnel on September 24. The opposition's intensified effort to de-anonymize Belarusian security personnel will likely clash against recent security personnel efforts to further anonymize themselves.
Lukashenko continues to target opposition leaders in Belarus. Belarusian authorities detained Lyudmila Kazak – a lawyer of Belarusian opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova – on September 24, fined her, and released her on September 25. Belarusian authorities have detained Kolesnikova since September 7 and charged her with calls to incite a coup d’etat on September 9. Lukashenko will likely continue targeted detentions to steadily erode protester will.
Lukashenko’s intensified detention campaign – among other factors – is likely degrading participation in the weekly Saturday women’s march. Approximately 2000 protesters marched in the six weekly women’s march in Minsk on September 26. Belarusian authorities detained no fewer than 106 women’s march participants on September 26.
Significantly fewer protesters participated in the September 19 and 26 women’s marches than that of September 12, where participation was in the tens of thousands. Women’s march participation decreased likely due to Belarusian authorities’ intensified detention campaign, which began on September 19. Protest fatigue and colder weather will likely further degrade protest participation.
ISW will continue monitoring the situation and providing updates.
 https://charter97(.)org/en/news/2020/9/26/394667/; https://twitter.com/franakviacorka/status/1309842779120558080
 Police detained approximately 400 out of 2000 women’s march participants on September 19, whereas police detained only dozens out of tens of thousands of women’s march participants on September 13. http://www.iswresearch.org/2020/09/warning-nexta-actively-encourages.html; http://spring96(.)org/be/news/99601; https://www.rferl.org/a/police-make-arrests-in-minsk-as-women-keep-up-pr...