"I've seen with my own eyes the movement of tracked military vehicles on the streets of the city," said a resident of the Belarusian town of Khoyniki, in the southeastern corner of the country not far from the Ukrainian border, when asked about the Russian forces in his country for joint military exercises.
"The soldiers have settled in the surrounding forests," the local, who asked not to be identified, added. "They drink a lot and sell a lot of their diesel fuel. They are living in tents."
The first Russian troops began arriving in Belarus for the unexpected Union Determination-2022 exercises on January 18. The maneuvers, a 10-day exercise set to end on February 20 and involving an estimated 30,000 Russian troops and almost the entire Belarusian military, come at a time when Russia has massed military assets around Ukraine and in the occupied Ukrainian region of Crimea, sparking fears of a new invasion.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has called the Belarus exercises "the biggest Russian deployment there since the Cold War."
Khoyniki, some 50 kilometers north of the Ukrainian border, was not originally on the Belarusian Defense Ministry's map for the exercises, but the military issued a new map when they began on February 10 after the appearance of Russian forces in the area was widely reported. Yet another map with additional locations of Russian forces was issued on February 15.
According to a Telegram channel that covers developments on Belarus's railroads, the Russians began unloading military equipment in Khoyniki on the night of February 14-15. The channel reported that soldiers unloading equipment frequently remain on the tracks even as other trains approach within 200 meters of them.
"The engineers nearly have to apply their emergency brakes to avoid running them over," the channel wrote.
In addition, loading ramps, rolling stock, and other railroad equipment were reportedly damaged at Khoyniki, the channel reported.
"Military equipment is frequently dropped from the platforms during unloading," the channel wrote. "After unloading, a lot of abandoned equipment -- body armor, helmets, personal gear -- remained."
The same report claimed the troops left the rail lines littered with trash.
"Over a stretch of 3 kilometers there were 100-liter trash bags every 20 meters, as well vodka bottles, empty plastic beer kegs, and empty cookie packages," the Telegram channel reported. An anonymous commenter responded acerbically that the state railway would just arrange an "emergency" Saturday working day and "the railway workers will clean up everything after our 'brothers.'"
According to a February 15 statement by the Belarusian Defense Ministry, the 465th Tactical Missile Brigade conducted an exercise at the nearby Paleski firing range during which a missile reportedly hit a target over 60 kilometers away. If the missile had been fired in a southeasterly direction, it would have been able to reach the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv.
As tension mounted amid reports of increased shelling in eastern Ukraine, adding to fears that Russia could launch a new offensive against its neighbor, authoritarian Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on February 18.
Ahead of the visit to Russia, Lukashenka said he and Putin would discuss whether the Russian forces would leave Belarus when the exercises conclude.
U.S. officials say that Russia has been planning for a possible invasion of Ukraine that could come any day, and there are concerns that the troops now in Belarus could be used to attack Ukraine from the north.