KYIV, Ukraine – As Russian forces fail to gain ground in eastern Ukraine and fortify defensive positions in the south, Ukrainian officials warn of a buildup of long-range missile systems to the north, in Belarus, which served as a key starting ground for Moscow in the war.
Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, said in a statement on Tuesday that the positioning of Russian missile systems along the Ukrainian border in Belarus “raises concerns”. He specifically cited missiles placed at Zyabrovka airfield, about 15 miles from the border.
Although this is not the first time that Ukrainian officials have warned of a threat from the north, the statement took on added urgency after Tuesday’s explosions in a Russian ammunition depot in Crimeathe second Russian military target on the peninsula to be hit by explosions in a week.
Ukraine has not publicly claimed responsibility for the explosions – or last week’s explosions at Saki airbase in Crimea – but a senior Ukrainian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that both had been orchestrated by the military and covert operators.
As Ukraine increasingly strikes Russian targets far behind the front lines, with the help of Western weapons, and orchestrates clandestine attacks against Moscow’s supply lines in eastern and southern Ukraine, the reinforcement in Belarus served as a reminder that Russian forces are still encircling Ukraine from three sides. Russia also retains an overwhelming advantage in heavy weapons.
Anton Gerashenko, adviser to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, tweeted Wednesday that Russia had concentrated “a large number of surface-to-air missile systems” in Zyabrovka, including the S-400, one of the Russia’s most advanced anti-aircraft weapons.
Yuriy Ihnat, spokesman for the Air Force Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, also highlighted the threat of a possible Russian attack from Belarus in comments to reporters on Tuesday, while noting that the Ukrainian military regularly observes the movement of Russian troops and equipment around Belarus. , Moscow’s most docile ally.
At the start of the Russian invasion, which began in February, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus allowed Russian troops to use his territory to launch a ground operation in an attempt to capture Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, although the effort ultimately failed.
Since then, Russia has continued to use Belarus as a staging ground for bombing. In late July, Ukraine said 25 missiles had been fired by Russian forces in Belarus towards northern regions of Ukraine. This week, the Ukrainian Air Force said Russian warplanes 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,” Mr. Ihnat, adding: “We absolutely have to be prepared for possible missile strikes.
The buildup comes as a vital link in the supply lines of Russian occupation forces in southern Ukraine, the Black Sea peninsula in Crimea, comes under attack.
The explosions in Crimea have undermined Moscow’s control over the peninsulawhich it illegally annexed to Ukraine in 2014. President Vladimir V. Putin has called Crimea Russia’s “holy land”.
While the extent of the damage from the blasts remains unclear, Ukrainian officials are bracing for a response from Moscow, which has called the munitions depot blast an “act of sabotage” – an apparent acknowledgment that the war is extends to what the Kremlin considers Russian territory. Last week, after the explosions at the airbase, Russian media reported that the commander of the Crimean-based Kremlin Black Sea Naval Fleet had been replaced.
The British Defense Intelligence Agency said wednesday that “Russian commanders will most likely become increasingly concerned about the apparent deterioration of security throughout Crimea, which serves as a rear base for the occupation”.