Satellite images shared by British intelligence show what are likely two MiG-31K FOXHOUND interceptor jets stationed at Belarus’ Machulishchi Airfield on Oct. 17, according to the U.K. Ministry of Defense. Located near the jets is a large canister, which the Ministry of Defense assesses is likely for the AS-24 KILLJOY air-launched ballistic missile.
The KILLJOY missiles are launched from a high-speed aircraft to go after their targets. Russia claims that the missiles, also known as Kinzhal or “dagger” missiles, can carry conventional or nuclear warheads and are hypersonic, since they are reported to travel at over five times the speed of sound.
Ukraine’s current air defenses can’t detect and destroy them, according to Hromadske, which could raise alarm about whether Russia intends to use Belarus as a staging ground for an assault on Ukraine, in a repeat of a tactic Russia used early in the war. Russian President Vladimir Putin has leaned on Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko since the early days of the invasion this year to prepare for attacks on Ukraine, including the failed offensive on Kyiv.
But Russia might be conducting the deployment to send a signal to the West and pull Belarus further into the war, rather than preparing an actual plot to unleash an attack on Ukraine, according to British intelligence.
“It has likely carried out the deployment mainly to message to the West and to portray Belarus as increasingly complicit in the war,” the Ministry of Defense said. “Basing KILLJOY in Belarus gives Russia little added advantage in terms of striking additional targets within Ukraine.”
If the move was all for show, it would fit a pattern for Belarus. The deployment comes weeks after Russia and Belarus embarked on a joint “grouping” and deployment of troops in Belarus in what could appear to be preparation for mobilization against Ukraine or other nations. But some U.S. officials and diplomats have said that the grouping is likely a ploy to dupe Ukrainian forces into diverting resources to defend against a possible incursion from the north, rather than focus on the south where Ukraine is making gains against Russian forces.
Efforts to pull Ukrainian forces away from their winning tactics in the south and in the east might be a last-ditch effort from Russia to try to regain momentum amid a series of crushing losses on the battlefield. Russia currently has “strained logistics” and is currently not able to stage offensive operations and is “only capable of defensive operations,” according to a British intelligence assessment released last week.
The White House warned Tuesday that Russia’s buildup with Belarus might be a ruse.
“While they claim it’s to bolster their bilateral readiness, it could also be an effort to try to pin down Ukrainian forces in the north of the country,” White House National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby told reporters on a call Tuesday.
In the same vein, the KILLJOY missiles might not even be that helpful to Putin’s goals. Russia has already deployed some of the KILLJOY missiles during the war in Ukraine to limited effect, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
“Hypersonics, as you can see from the conflict, is not necessarily the best use,” Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu said in remarks last month. “They've shot their KILLJOY hypersonics weapon against a dam. The dam is still there.”
Russia’s use of the weapon might not have a large effect on the war, British intelligence previously assessed. When Russia claimed to have used hypersonics in the war in March, the British said the Russian claim was “highly likely intended to detract from a lack of progress in Russia’s ground campaign.”
The news of their deployment to Belarus comes as Russia has been unleashing a barrage of missiles in Ukraine in recent days. On Monday, Russia set loose a wave of missiles that hit key infrastructure, leaving Kyiv without water and power for hours. Mayor Vitali Klitschko said Tuesday in a post on Telegram that the supplies had been restored, although the city will still use some “emergency shutdowns” of the power supply.
U.S. officials have said they don’t expect Russia to let up on its attacks against civilian areas but are working on improving Ukraine’s air defenses.
The Biden administration has committed to sending eight National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS) to Ukraine, with two headed Ukraine’s way “in the very near future,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters Monday.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is working with allies to support Ukraine in bettering its air defenses, the Pentagon said Tuesday.