Evidence shows Russia and Belarus holding paratrooper drill near Lithuanian border
The DFRLab geolocated the joint military drill as taking place just 15 kilometers from the Lithuanian border.
Amid the ongoing migration crisis at the Lithuanian and Polish borders, Belarus held a joint paratrooper drill in mid-November 2021, which the DFRLab geolocated to 15 kilometers from the Lithuanian border. Their point of origin and a landing field used in the drill were also identified.
On November 12, a battalion tactical group comprised of Belarusian Special Operations Forces and approximately 250 Russian Airborne Troops conducted an airborne landing near the Lithuanian border. Two Russian paratroopers died during the exercise due to parachute failures caused by “a sudden strong gust of wind.” These kinds of deadly accidents near the border have the potential to spark military incidents with neighboring countries, or can be used as a pretext to start a conflict with NATO countries like Lithuania or Poland.
This exercise comes at the time of heightened tensions, and taken with other statements made by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, it can be seen as a possible sign of escalation to push the European Union to hold discussions on the border crisis. As previously reported by the DFRLab, the Belarusian government has facilitated the transit of refugees from Iraq and other countries through Belarus, fueling a migration crisis in neighboring Lithuania and Poland.
According to the Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin, these exercises were a response to NATO troops amassing at the Belarus border. Poland has deployed 15,000 troops at the border to aid with the crisis. According to Khrenin, NATO is “ready to unleash a conflict seeking to involve Europe as part of solving their domestic political problems,” with most of this criticism being directly towards Poland.
Geolocating the takeoff
Videos and photos of the exercise were recorded and widely shared online by pro-Kremlin sources. On November 12, Russian military channel TV Zvezda shared an article with three video clips showing the extent of the airborne operation, from paratroopers boarding the aircraft to the actual parachuting at an undisclosed location.
Airborne troops used Belarusian Mi-8 transport helicopters and Russian Il-76 transport planes for the operation. Geolocation analysis by the DFRLab confirmed that an aircraft involved in the exercise took off from Baranovichi military airfield in western Belarus. The airfield was identifiable due to it having a dark gray tarmac, mobile radar station and reinforced aircraft hangars.
The Baranovichi training grounds and airfield was one of the key locations for this year’s ZAPAD 21 joint training exercise with Russia, and is currently one of the main military training grounds in Belarus.
Geolocating the paratrooper jump
Prior to now, there was no confirmed reporting about the location where the airborne troops jumped and landed. Some Twitter users suggested that it was Grodno region, while others specifically mentioned the Gozhsky training ground close to the Lithuanian border. The DFRLab was ultimately able to confirm the location by geolocating frames in one of the videos posted by TV Zvezda.
The video in question contained several seconds of footage from the Il-76 aircraft, right before the paratroopers began their jump. Even though the camera was primarily recording activities inside the plane, some geolocation details could be spotted in certain video frames, particularly once the frames were rotated. More specifically, two different colored lakes and a field with light gray pathways were observed, leading the DFRLab to identify the specific location as south of Gozhsky training grounds. The light-colored lake is Beloye Ozero (“White Lake”), according to Planet.com imagery.
According to Google Maps, the paratrooper landing field is less than 15 kilometers from Lithuanian border.
Cite this case study:
Lukas Andriukaitis, “Evidence shows Russia and Belarus holding paratrooper drill near Lithuanian border,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), December 10, 2021, https://medium.com/dfrlab/evidence-shows-russia-and-belarus-holding-paratrooper-drill-near-lithuanian-border-4631a7573b4e.