Post-Soviet border town in northern Ukraine wonders if Russia will return

Hard to find a quieter place than this hamlet on the edge of northern Ukraine. A collection of huts dotted along a barely there road, it adjoins the Zheveda and Tsata rivers. In winter, when the Tsata freezes over, the town’s approximately 70 residents, many of them old-timers with long memories, poke holes in the riverbed and fish amid a hushed birch forest draped in snow.

“Oh, I just started two weeks ago. I’m a beginner, but I’m unlucky. The fish don’t come,” said Vladimir, a grizzled and affable man in his 50s who preferred not to give his last name. He adjusted his ushankaor earflap hat, crouched down and gently dipped his line for another attempt.

Vladimir has lived in Klyusy all his life. Like other villagers near the border connecting Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, he remembered the days of the Soviet Union when the border was little more than a line on paper. Every June, locals crossed the Senkivka border crossing, six miles west of Klyusy, and joined tens of thousands of Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians celebrating the Festival of Slavic Unity held near the Friendship Monument called the Three Sisters.

But these days, there’s more threat than friendship along the border.

“The Russian army is 20 miles from here,” Vladimir said, pointing uphill across the border.

The buildup, including tens of thousands of troops, tanks, artillery, advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems as well as SU-30 fighter jets, is apparently for “Allied Resolve 2022” – 10 days joint military exercises with Belarus which started on Thursday. But despite repeated Russian claims to the contrary, US and NATO officials believe it is something much more sinister: one more turn of the vise against Ukraine.

What appears to be an invading force has all but surrounded a country that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who described the breakup of the Soviet Union as a 20th century catastrophe, wants to bring back into Moscow’s orbit. In recent months, it has mustered more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s eastern and northern borders and held drills near the west in Transnistria, a pro-Russian separatist region sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine. They are complemented by Russian naval exercises in the Black Sea and the neighboring Sea of ​​Azov. Exercises near Belarus, which NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said earlier this month were the largest Russian deployment since the Cold War, add 30,000 more troops to the melee.

The videos hint at a formidable force poised to swoop down on Ukraine even as Western leaders engage in furious diplomatic maneuvering with their Russian counterparts. On Saturday, Putin had phone calls with President Biden as well as French President Emmanuel Macron; the latter lasted an hour and 40 minutes.

In recent days, analysts and observers have been watching social media accounts closely, poring over Facebook and TikTok videos showing Russian armored vehicles, missile-spiking air defense platforms and trucks driving past cities. and villages of Belarus en route to its south. frontier.

Konrad Muzyka, an analyst at Rochan Consulting, a Poland-based open analytics firm, said troops were gathering in staging areas between 12 and 24 miles from the border.

A Ukrainian border guard patrols in 2015 near the Senkivka crossing point.

(Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

“What they are doing is positioning their forces in a way that suggests they are preparing for war,” he said.

The military logic of having these forces on Ukraine’s northern flank is hard to ignore. If the Russians — as Biden administration officials warned lawmakers over the weekend — are planning an attack targeting Kiev, Senkivka is 140 miles and 3.5 hours away on pristine roads; it is even closer to Novi Yarylovychi, the main crossing point between Ukraine and Belarus, which passes on the E-95, a vital highway.

And the arrival of these forces comes at a time of growing antagonism between Belarus and Ukraine. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko once acted as a mediator between Kyiv and Moscow after Russian-backed separatists sparked a war in eastern Ukraine. He has since become Putin’s most vocal ally. He rarely misses an opportunity to support the Kremlin and often raises the possibility of allowing a permanent Russian presence along the 674-mile Ukrainian-Belarusian border.

Anna Pylypivna, one of the few residents who did not abandon their homes in the frontline village

Anna Pylypivna, looking out of a window of her house on February 7, 2022, is one of the few villagers who have not abandoned their residences in Novooleksandrivka, on the frontline in eastern Ukraine.

(Vadim Ghirda/Associated Press)

“Nobody ever said that Russian troops would stay on the territory of Belarus and there was never any question of it,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this week, according to Russian operator Tass. “These are Allied military exercises and, naturally, this implies that the troops will return to their permanent bases after the end of these exercises.”

Yet in an interview last week, Lukashenko said his forces would act in concert with the Russian military: “You think we are joking on our southern border? he asked in a television interview on Sunday.

Ukrainians certainly not. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in an interview broadcast on Monday that his army will conduct exercises in various parts of the country from February 10 to 20 – the same period as Russian exercises in Belarus – on the use of the Bayraktar. Turkish. drones as well as Javelin and NLAW anti-tank missiles.

But the sheer length of the border with Belarus, not to mention the greater need for troops to the east, rules out the possibility of a more robust line of defense, according to Ukrainian officials. Instead, they rely on border guards, police and emergency personnel backed by rapidly deployed special forces and hundreds of intelligence officers.

Although the United States and its Western allies have repeatedly warned that an invasion could come at any moment, there was so far little evidence of Ukrainian defensive forces near Klyusy and Senkivka. , apart from small groups of soldiers patrolling along a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. wire. The region also lacks a so-called Territorial Defense Force, a body of citizen-soldiers that was formed in major cities as a base for a popular uprising in the event of an invasion by Russia.

Meanwhile, there appeared to be little effect on the movement of shipping, with dozens of trucks lined up for miles on the Ukrainian side waiting to cross the border. A truck driver en route to Estonia, who only gave his name as Nikolai, said transit between the three neighbors was proceeding normally, from what he saw.

“I’ve already spent two hours,” he said. “It’s my first time here, so I don’t know how long I’ll have to wait, but on other borders it takes longer.

“I don’t believe there will be a war,” he said, adding that the only time he had heard of Russian tanks in Belarus was when “Ukrainian drivers asked us if we had seen”.

A Ukrainian serviceman feeds his dog while other soldiers eat in a shelter on the front line positions near Zolote, Ukraine

A Ukrainian serviceman feeds his dog while other soldiers eat at a frontline shelter near Zolote, Ukraine, February 7, 2022.

(Evgeny Maloletka/Associated Press)

Locals also seemed optimistic about a possible invasion. Some – especially older residents – even welcomed the prospect of returning to a time when Moscow played a greater role in their lives – no wonder in a region where people often have family and economic ties stronger with the neighboring region of Gomel in Belarus or Russia’s Bryansk region than with their own capital. (Many speak a unique dialect, a patois of Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian that seems foreign to those in other parts of the country.)

“We were 15 republics in the Soviet Union, with only one president. Now you have 15 presidents and it’s terrible,” said Mikhail Vasilovich, 57-year-old owner of one of Senkivka’s two stores. “How many states are there in the United States? Fifty-two? So imagine if it breaks up and you have 52 presidents. What would happen then? Catastrophe.”

He started screaming, his words jostling with both alcohol and rage as he ordered a reporter out of the store.

“Belarus and Russia don’t want to fight us,” he said. “We are brothers.”

His anger channeled the devastation left by the demise of the Soviet Union, which had left the villages here destitute. Many had fallen into a slowly deteriorating limbo: the kolkhoz, or collective farm, that once stood in the heart of Senkivka was abandoned, graffiti on its walls warning that the building was likely to collapse. Unemployed, many young people had left. The quaint, colorful cottages with lace-like watermarks on their windows have been largely abandoned. Much of the area felt like a snapshot of an earlier time: you still had to use a pulley to fill a bucket from the well; merchants calculated bills with an abacus.

However, not everyone had such a rose-tinted view of the Soviet past.

“I’m not sad that the Soviet Union has disappeared. Yes, there was no official border, but Russia’s attitude has always been that Ukraine is its little sister,” said Vladimir, the ice fisherman. If Russians come, common roots or not, he says, some in the village will be lucky and some will not.

“I’m not worried. It doesn’t matter if I’m worried,” he said.

He picked up his walking stick, trudged up the river bank to his ramshackle Volkswagen Golf, and drove off.

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