Standing next to the snowy Belarusian border, Vladyslav Gorban showed off Ukraine’s latest defences against Russian attack. New wooden posts topped with coils of gleaming razor wire ran alongside a slush-covered road. There was a shallow defensive ditch, dug some time ago, and a yellow and blue customs post. Plus a dog, used to sniff out narcotics.
Gorban, a border guard, admitted Russian tanks would be able to smash through this flimsy ensemble of barricades and continue towards Kyiv, 140 miles away. But he had a warning. “If the Russians come, they can expect a nasty surprise,” he said, hinting at the new portable anti-tank weapons sent by the UK to Ukraine’s embattled pro-western government.
He and his colleagues would try to hold off any attack using light arms, he said. They would summon help from operative reserves located in bases nearby. “We are all military-trained. We have enough weapons. Morale is high. We will defend our country,” Gorban said as a waiting truck driver stretched his legs in the cold.
An arrow-straight road leads south from the border village of Novi Yarylovychi to the capital. It goes through dense pine forest. There are deer, elk and wild boar. The route offers perfect cover for the Ukrainian army to ambush and harry any trundling military columns.
In Belarus, the Kremlin has brought together the largest concentration of soldiers and modern weapons since the cold war. According to the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, Russia has deployed 30,000 combat troops, elite Spetsnaz units, Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 missile defence systems.
It is a formidable force. The soldiers have been moved to Belarus ahead of military exercises due to begin on 10 February and to finish on 20 February. Russia’s hawkish defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, arrived in Belarus on Thursday.
In total there are now 135,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s border. Experts believe these are not sufficient numbers for a full-scale invasion. But the Ukrainians worry about an operation to encircle and then overwhelm Kyiv, possibly beginning when the Russian exercises and the Beijing Winter Olympics finish in 17 days’ time.
But what about the weather? Could armoured vehicles operate in the muddy conditions of spring? “This isn’t the first world war,” Gorban said, swatting aside claims by some pundits that the Russian army needs frozen ground. “The weather doesn’t make much difference. It isn’t a problem for any 21st-century tank.”
Putin insists he won’t invade Ukraine. At the same time, Russia’s president has made a series of unrealistic and maximal security demands: that Nato rules out Ukrainian membership for ever and pulls out of eastern Europe. The west’s refusal to agree to these terms gives Putin a pretext for offensive military operations, couched as self-defence.
In response to the unprecedented Russian military buildup, the Biden administration has decided to send more than 3,000 troops to Germany, Poland and Romania. Moscow has condemned the move as a “destructive step”.
Tensions between Ukraine and Belarus are growing, too. On Thursday the Belarusian foreign ministry summoned Ukraine’s ambassador to protest at what it said was Kyiv’s use of a drone to spy on a military training facility across the border. Ukraine dismissed the accusation, widely reported by Russian state media, as provocative and false.
Those who live in the crumbling village of Novi Yarylovychi, seem indifferent to what Boris Johnson, visiting Kyiv this week, called “a clear and present danger” posed by Russia. One shopkeeper said he saw nothing wrong with Moscow’s military exercises. “Nato does the same thing in the Baltics,” he said.
Another owner of a general store, Natasha, said she wasn’t worried. “War won’t happen,” she predicted. “Why would Russia attack us”? Natasha said her sister lived across the border in Gomel, Belarus’s second city, about 25 miles up the road. “It’s a big place, very clean, with lots of monuments. Everyone there has a car,” she said.
Natasha said her brother-in-law worked in Belarus’s security services. Her sister’s family lived better than she did, she said. She pointed to her clunky Ukrainian-made Stork bike, rusting and with a ponderous frame, propped up against the window. “That’s my Mercedes,” she joked. “We don’t have work here. My pension is small. In Belarus they have collective farms.”
In the event of an invasion, Russian tanks would advance through Polissya, a primordial natural area of swamps, forests, grasses and lakes. It includes Chernobyl, an exclusion zone after the 1986 nuclear disaster. Forty miles south of Novi Yarylovychi is Chernihiv, an ancient city that was once part of the original Slavic dynasty known as Kievan Rus’.
History is never far away. Novi Yarylovychi’s war memorial features a gold-painted Soviet soldier holding a helmet in one hand and a laurel crown in the other. Below him is a tablet with the names of those who died in the second world war. Side by side in Russian and Ukrainian are the words “never forget” and a hammer and sickle medallion.
If Russia attacks from the north, Ukraine’s first tank brigade would swing into action. It is located in a former Soviet barracks close to the Belarus border and within the Mizhrichynskyi landscape park. It has a crisscross of forest tracks used for training, as well as a shooting range and box-like accommodation blocks, visible from the road.
The Guardian’s scheduled visit to the base was cancelled because of a local outbreak of Covid. Security sources in Kyiv believe a similar epidemic has swept through the Russian soldiers and conscripts due to participate in next week’s Belarus exercises. It is one more variable that may affect Putin’s thinking on when – if at all – to attack.
The same officials suggest that while the world has been looking anxiously at Ukraine, the Kremlin has in effect militarised and taken over Belarus. After Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014, Belarus’s dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, rejected the idea of giving up his country’s sovereignty in exchange for a closer union with Russia.
His calculation changed in the summer of 2020 when there were massive street protests after a rigged presidential election. Moscow offered him political support and helped to quell the demonstrations. But there was a price: the seemingly permanent occupation of Belarus by Russia’s armed forces.
Lukashenko has sided with Moscow in its fight with Kyiv. He recently agreed to give Russia nearly unlimited use of four airbases, a surface-to-air missile base, and approximately 30 storage sites on Belarusian territory. Russian forces now face off against Nato on a new eastern European front, encompassing the states of Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.
Few believe Russia will remove its troops from Belarus once this month’s exercises are over. They look to be a permanent presence along the 600-mile border with Ukraine and a new potential attack vector. Russian forces are also stationed in Crimea, in the breakaway republic of Transnistria next to Moldova, and – covertly, Kyiv says – in separatist-held territories in the east.
Back in Novi Yarylovychi, Gorban said traffic had fallen dramatically since the start of the pandemic. About 1,000 people a day used the crossing, he said, compared with 10,000 a day in the pre-Covid era. For now, the vehicles that cross drag building materials and logs rather than missiles and artillery pieces.
“Putin is wrong. Ukraine and Russia are separate countries,” Gorban said, surveying a scene, for now, of calm. He added: “We were founded first. It was a Kyiv prince who went to Russia and established Moscow. Back then it was just a few bogs.”