Ukrainian forces have established a new line of defense along the country’s previously unfortified northern border with Belarus amid signs of another attack.
Russian troops invaded Ukraine across the Belarusian border in February in an attempt to seize the capital, Kyiv.
On May 10, Belarusian army chief Viktor Gulevich announced the deployment of Belarusian special forces and equipment in response to what he described as a “southern threat” from Ukraine and NATO. Belarus has been conducting military exercises on its border with Ukraine since early May.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was Russia’s closest ally in its war in Ukraine. On Tuesday, Lukashenko urged the Russian-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, meeting in Moscow, to remain united in Ukraine and accused the West of prolonging the conflict.
The Guardian was granted access to Ukraine’s border positions on condition that it would not reveal the exact locations or the surnames of Ukrainians on duty.
In the forests along the Belarusian border, a Ukrainian territorial defense unit made up of fighters aged between 19 and their mid-60s guards a network of trenches and positions built up since the February invasion.
Before February, much of Ukraine’s border with Belarus consisted of small kiosk-like checkpoints that Russian tanks easily breached. Two days after the invasion, Ukraine closed all of its border crossings with Belarus and Russia.
In its analysis of the threat posed by Belarus, Britain’s Defense Ministry said last week that the presence of Belarusian forces on the border would likely prevent Ukraine from deploying support operations on its Donbass front.Soldier Vitaliy in a trench north of the Zhytomyr region. Photo: Viacheslav Ratynskyi/The Guardian
Armed with AK47s and a few dozen men per position, the fighters hope the Belarusian border will not be used again by invading forces.
“We’ll be in the frying pan,” joked Vova, a man who volunteered to fight in Donbass in 2014 and was in the Soviet Army. Vova volunteered to fight alongside his brother Ihor and his brother’s son Maksym on the second day of the war.
“They took the first 500 men in line that day, but we were over 800,” said Ihor, sitting between his brother and son in the makeshift barracks near the border.
“I have hypertension, he has hypertension, he takes insulin,” Ihor said, pointing to the middle-aged and retirement-age men in the room. “And then the other part of the unit is made up of younger guys like Maksym.”Elderly members of the Territorial Defense are resting in the forest near the battle emplacement. Photo: Viacheslav Ratynskyi/The Guardian
Ihor and Maksym were working at a construction site in Kyiv on the morning of the invasion. They rushed back to the Zhytomyr region, where her family lives, . Territorial Defense Units in Ukraine are made up of people fighting in the same region where they live.
The men and some women in the unit said some of them knew each other from before the war. In almost all other cases, there are few degrees of separation.
“In some cases it was like, ‘Oh, your grandmother knows my grandfather, maybe we’re brothers,'” said Ihor, who added that fighting between people from his own region gave him a great sense of duty and motivation. Sign up for First Edition, our free daily newsletter – every weekday morning at 7am BST
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The unit said they had no support from heavy artillery units, but were fortunate to have local geography on their side. The miles of narrow roads leading down from the border are surrounded by dense forests covering the deep, swampy ground.
“No one ever managed to hold this area for that reason,” said Ihor, the unit’s military press secretary, of the fighting on the northern border during World War II.