Terror from the sky. What is the danger of air force exercises of Belarus and the Russian Federation, and why flights from Machulishchy are a signal of alarm for the whole of Ukraine?

January 13, 2023

Oleksiy Melnyk, co-director of foreign policy and international security programmes at Razumkov Centre, reflects on what may stay behind the joint Belarusian-Russian air force exercises 

After the Belarusian Defence Ministry officially announced joint flight and tactical aviation exercises with Russia from January 16 to February 1, the first helicopters flew to Belarusian airfields, including multirole Mi-8s and attack Mi-24s. According to official reports, all airfields and training ranges of the Air and Air Defence Forces of Belarus will be involved in these exercises.

In response, the Deputy Chief of the Main Operations Department of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Brigadier General Oleksiy Hromov said that under the guise of exercises, Russia was building up an air grouping on the territory of Belarus. In view of this, according to the general, the threat of airstrikes and the use of Iranian drones against Ukraine from the Belarusian airspace is increasing. Nataliya Humeniuk, the spokeswoman of the South Operational Command, also said about this, adding that the AFU monitor Russia's preparations for a new attack, and this time the Russians may use mixed tactics.

NV asked the co-director of foreign policy and international security programmes of Razumkov Centre Oleksiy Melnyk about the joint Belarusian-Russian air force exercises, and what targets the Russian A-50 long-range early warning aircraft, regularly flying from the Belarusian Machulishchy airfield together with the Kinzhal hypersonic missile carriers MiG-31K fighter, could track. 

— What do you think about the joint flight and tactical aviation exercises announced by Belarus and the Russian Federation?

— To date, most sources I trust tend to believe that most likely, these are demonstrative actions, aimed at creating the illusion that Belarus may soon become a bridgehead for Russia's expected offensive. These exercises support this version. Otherwise, the number of aircraft involved in exercises would simply have gone unnoticed and no one would have paid attention to it. The fact is that one or two dozen helicopters do not make any difference, if there is no ground component behind them - infantry and armour.

In addition, the assessment of mass media reports by our Belarusian colleagues deserves attention. In particular, they notice the demonstrative publicity and excessive coverage of these joint military exercises and other Russian-Belarusian events in the official media. And while earlier any such information, photos or messages intercepted by the Belarusian KGB were severely prosecuted, today the official authorities themselves are trying to give it as much publicity as possible. This is another argument in support of the version that most likely, these actions are demonstrative.

Still, I want to emphasise that it is an assessment of what is happening now and, perhaps, in the nearest future. Although the risk of a large-scale attack by Belarus is currently assessed as very low, this does not mean that the threat from the territory of Belarus has decreased.

— Apart from helicopters, what other aircraft can be involved in these exercises? Can there be strategic bombers carrying out massive missile strikes on Ukraine?

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Oleksiy Melnyk

Co-Director, Foreign Relations and International Security Programmes, Coordinator of International Projects

Born in 1962 in Khmelnytsty Rgn


Royal College of Defence Studies, London, UK (2007)

Air Field Operations Officer School, Biloxy, MS, US (2001)

Squadron Officer School, Montgomery, AL, US (1994)

Defence Language Institute, San Antonio, TX, US (1994)

Chernihiv Higher Military Air Force Academy, Ukraine (1984)


1980 – 2001 — Air Force Active Service (Cadet, Instructor Pilot, Flight Commander, Squadron Commander, Deputy Air Force Base Commander, Participant of two UN peacekeeping operations, Lt.Colonel (Ret)

2001 – 2004 — Razumkov Centre

2004 – 2005 — State Company Ukroboronservice

2005 – 2008 — Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, Head Organisational and Analytical Division — First Assistant to Minister of Defence

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