Belarus has announced that Russian troops are staying in the country beyond the joint military drills. Observers in Lithuania see it as a “creeping occupation” of Belarus that may eventually be completely annexed by Russia.

The 10-day Allied Resolve drills saw the biggest deployment of Russian troops to Belarus since the cold war, as described by NATO.

The exercise concluded on Sunday. Even though the Minsk government had previously assured that the 30,000 Russian forces would leave the country, it announced that they were staying indefinitely, purportedly to respond to an escalation in Ukraine’s Donbass.

Lithuanian observers say that it will be up to Moscow how long the Russian forces remain in Belarus and not Minsk – the strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko may not be in charge anymore even as he is clinging onto power.

“Lukashenko is too hungry for staying in power, it’s his currency for ingratiating himself with the Kremlin,” says political scientist Vytis Jurkonis of Vilnius University. “It is only a matter of time before [Belarus’] independence and sovereignty, which is being traded, will be completely sold out.”

What is happening in Belarus is a “creeping occupation”, according to Gintautas Mažeikis, a professor at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas.

“It will be concluded de facto. Belarus is totally dependent on Russia economically, politically, militarily, energetically, financially. It is essentially being turned into a Russian province,” he says.

As Russia is pursuing aggression against Ukraine, Belarus will be drawn into the conflict, whether Minsk wants it or not, says Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis. The 30,000 Russian troops in Belarus represent a direct threat to Ukraine, as well as Lithuania.

Russian military helicopters are now 30-40 kilometres from the Lithuanian border, notes political scientist Giedrius Česnakas of the Lithuanian Military Academy.

“It is a dangerous situation. Why? Because Russia has strong forces in Kaliningrad and now, with a presence in Belarus, it enjoys a strategic advantage,” he says.

However, attacking the Baltic states is a more serious red line for Putin than invading Ukraine, according to Jurkonis of Vilnius University.

According to Mažeikis, of Vytautas Magnus University, Moscow’s boldness will depend on how successful its campaign against Ukraine turns out.

“Putin, if he sees that NATO and the EU are weak in Ukraine’s case, he will doubtlessly be willing to start a Baltic adventure, too,” he says.

As Belarus is holding a constitutional referendum this month, Mažeikis believes its purpose is to build a Russian-Belarusian union state.