In the ruins of Chernobyl, Ukraine awaits Russia – again

Reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 2022.

Reactor No. 4, protected by a structure called New Safe Confinement, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 2022, the 36th anniversary of the disaster. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)

KYIV — The Belarusian border with Ukraine is 674 miles long. But one of the most strategically important areas is directly north of Kyiv, in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the largely abandoned and heavily irradiated area around the Soviet nuclear power plant that melted down in 1986. Russian forces occupied the area from 24 February. until April 2, when they withdrew after a fierce Ukrainian counteroffensive.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is now where Ukrainians fear the Russians are trying to return, perhaps in league with a new combatant in the 10-month war: the army commanded by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko .

Yahoo News spent time with Andrii (pseudonym), the commander of a Ukrainian reconnaissance team operating in the area. Soldiers from Andrii’s unit played cat and mouse with Russian and Belarusian special forces infiltrators in the desolate environment surrounding the infamous nuclear power plant.

An aerial view shows the new safety containment structure covering the damaged No. 4 reactor.

An aerial view shows the new safe containment covering Chernobyl’s No. 4 reactor in 2021. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

Nuclear contamination in the area has subsided in the decades since the disaster, but pockets of intense radiation remain. Russian soldiers, apparently unaware of the danger, dug trenches in the highly contaminated “Red Forest”. They also stole radioactive samples from the laboratory adjoining the factory. Several Russian soldiers were reportedly evacuated to Belarus suffering from acute radiation poisoning in March after being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.

Exchanges of fire took place in the abandoned city of Pripyat, according to Andrii, as Russian and Belarusian reconnaissance teams probe Ukrainian defenses in the area, searching for Ukrainian positions and attempting to sabotage critical Ukrainian infrastructure like electricity pylons , as well as secretly laying mines. Ukrainian patrols try to stop them.

For the Ukrainians, maintaining a presence as close to the Belarusian border as possible is critically important, not only to defend against infiltration, but also to spot Shahed-136 suicide drones targeting Kyiv.

People look at the residential building destroyed by a Russian drone strike, which local authorities believe were Iranian-made Shahed-136 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in central Kyiv.  (Oleksii Chumachenko/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A residential building in Kyiv destroyed in October by a Russian strike believed to be from Shahed-136 drones. (Oleksii Chumachenko/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

These Iran-supplied drones are small and fly low and slow, making them a challenge for traditional radars to detect. Old-fashioned visual detection from a reconnaissance team, like Andrii’s, is often the first warning Kyiv will receive of an incoming swarm of these cheap but deadly weapons.

“It’s one of the only places where you can visually detect them before they fly over the water,” Andrii said, referring to the vast stretch of the Dnipro River just north of Kyiv, which the Shaheds are attempting. to circumvent without prohibition. by Ukrainian air defenses recently reinforced by the West.

In February, tens of thousands of Russian troops invaded Ukraine from Belarus in an attempt to surround the capital and overthrow the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky, although Belarusian troops did not directly participate in the assault . Andrii thinks that before a full attack on Belarus, a false flag provocation would be staged by the Russians or their Belarusian allies, which would give Lukashenko the justification he needs to sell the deployment of Belarusian troops in the war. of Russia to its public.

The question of Belarus joining Russia’s war is as old as the war itself. In a speech broadcast live at a G7 meeting on October 11, Zelensky called for an internal monitoring mission “to monitor the security situation” at the border.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on November 2. 3. (Genia Savilov/AFP via Getty Images)

According to a senior Western intelligence official, there is no indication so far that Minsk plans to play more than a behind-the-scenes role in the war. “Belarusians train Russians mobilesaid the source, referring to Russian troops being mobilized, “but that’s about it. Things may still change, but it would take Lukashenko a month or two to build up enough numbers for an invasion.

As for the Russians, Andrii thinks they have learned the lesson of their previous failed attempt to seize Kyiv. In Belarus now, he said, there are about 10,000 Russian soldiers mobilized, in addition to Kadyrovtsymilitants loyal to Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, and previously mobilized Russian soldiers redeployed from the western part of Kherson, a region in southern Ukraine recently taken over by Kyiv.

Several other Ukrainian military sources told Yahoo News they feared a simultaneous push from the north and east, Belarus and Donbass, forcing the Ukrainians to spread their forces across multiple fronts. This could not only hamper Ukraine’s ability to mount more counter-offensives, but also allow Moscow to recover ground lost in recent months.

Should the Russians attempt another ground assault on the Ukrainian capital, Andrii said, they would “abandon rapid armored thrusts deep into Ukrainian territory in favor of World War II tactics”, using massive artillery and large numbers of weapons. ‘infantry.

Ukrainian soldiers take cover as they fire a mortar charge.

Ukrainian servicemen take cover as they fire a mortar charge in the Donbas region on December 2. (Narciso Contreras/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Russia has tried – and so far failed – a similar style of warfare to take the strategically insignificant town of Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region.

For more than four months, Russian forces, including the US-sanctioned mercenary corps known as the Wagner Group, massaged artillery fire and human wave attacks against the stiff Ukrainian defenses. Bakhmut’s scenes so far resemble World War I more than World War II, with muddy, half-submerged trenches and trees shattered by artillery.

According to a Ukrainian government official, who spoke to Yahoo News on condition of anonymity, “We’ve seen satellite images showing that the Russians are even using corpses as barricades. Dead human flesh is now their sandbags.

In October, Lukashenko announced the creation of a “regional grouping” of Russian and Belarusian troops in the country, created due to supposed threats from Ukraine. Claiming that it was a purely defensive measure, Lukashenko failed to mention the constant use of Belarusian territory and airspace to both invade Ukraine and launch attacks against Ukrainian targets during past 10 months, including missile strikes that crippled Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.

All of this, many Ukrainians insist, already makes Lukashenko a longtime party to the conflict.

Such an offensive would largely be carried out by recently mobilized Russian conscripts and Wagner auxiliaries, according to Andrii, and would use the same human-wave type attacks that Russia used at Bakhmut, with little or no regard for its own casualties. .

Ukrainian soldiers, standing in front of high flames, fire artillery at Russian positions.

Ukrainian soldiers fire artillery at Russian positions near Bakhmut, Ukraine on November 20. (LIBKOS/AP Photo)

Along the Belarusian border, Ukrainian troops, mostly Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces (TDF) reservists, dug, prepared battle positions, planted mines, and built tank traps and other obstacles. The TDF demolished bridges and scouted targets for artillery strikes at potential lines of enemy advance.

The morale of the defenders is high, not least because the Ukrainians camped on the northern border live in relative luxury compared to their Russian counterparts. The bunkers are well appointed with the comforts of home: log fires, mobile internet, wall-mounted flat-screen TVs. Some dugouts, as in other places along the front lines in Ukraine, even have makeshift saunas.

Morale is further boosted by the fact that the Ukrainians successfully repelled the first Russian attempt to take Kyiv and have since liberated thousands of square kilometers of additional territory previously occupied by Russia. Despite this continued success, concerns about a renewed Russian offensive by the Belarusian leadership have persisted for months. These rumors were only bolstered by Putin’s mobilization which gave Russia a large pool of poorly trained but disposable new recruits.

Whether the joint Russian and Belarusian offensive eventually materializes, or whether this is just another example of maskirovka, or Russian military deception, the potential attack has at least the partially desired effect. Kyiv cannot afford to ignore the threat at its doorstep, even if it remains just that.

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