Ukrainian forces have built a new line of defense along the country’s previously unfortified northern border with Belarus amid signs of yet another attack.
Russian forces invaded Ukraine through the Belarusian border in February as they tried to capture the capital Kiev.
On May 10, Belarus’s 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.
The President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, has been Russia’s closest ally in the war in Ukraine. On Tuesday, Lukashenko called on the Russian-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which met in Moscow to remain united over Ukraine and accused the West of prolonging the conflict.
The Guardian gained access to Ukraine’s border positions on the condition that it did not disclose the exact locations or surnames of the Ukrainians who served.
In the forests along the Belarusian border, a Ukrainian territorial defense unit composed of warriors between the 19s and mid-60s is manning a network of trenches and positions built since the February invasion.
Before February, much of Ukraine’s border with Belarus consisted of small kiosk – like checkpoints that Russian tanks broke through with ease. Two days after the invasion, Ukraine closed all its border crossings to Belarus and Russia.
In their analysis of the threat from Belarus, the British Ministry of Defense said last week that the presence of Belarusian forces on the border was likely to prevent Ukraine from deploying support operations on its Donbas front.
Armed with AK47s and a few dozen men per position, fighters hope the Belarusian border will not be used by invading forces again.
“We want to be in the frying pan,” joked Vova, a man who volunteered to fight in the Donbas in 2014 and was in the Soviet Army. Vova volunteered to fight with her 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 there were over 800 of us,” said Ihor, who sat between his brother and son at the temporary barracks near the border.
“I have hypertension, he has hypertension, he is on insulin,” Ihor said, pointing around the room at the middle-aged and retired men. “And then the other part of the device is younger guys like Maksym.”
Ihor and Maksym were working on a construction site in Kiev on the morning of the invasion. They hurried back to the Zhytomyr region, where their family lives, to sign up. Territorial defense units in Ukraine are made up of people fighting in the same region as where they live.
The men and a few women in the unit said some of them knew each other from before the war. In almost all other cases, there are only a few degrees of separation.
“In some cases, it was like, ‘Oh, your grandmother knows my grandfather, maybe we’re brothers,'” said Ihor, adding that fighting among 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 7.00 BST
The unit said they did not have the support of heavy artillery units, but that they were lucky to have local geography on their side. The mile-long narrow roads leading down from the border are surrounded by thick forests, which cover the deep, swampy soil.
“No one has ever managed to hold this territory for that reason,” said Ihor, the unit’s military press secretary, who spoke about fighting around the northern border during World War II.