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


It’s hard to find a quieter place than this village on the edge of northern Ukraine. A collection of huts scattered along a barely visible road, borders the Zheveda and Tsata rivers. In winter, when the Tsata freezes over, the town’s 70 or so residents, many of them elderly with long memories, drill holes in the riverbed and fish amidst a silent, snow-covered birch forest.

“Oh, I just started two weeks ago. I am a beginner, but no luck. The fish are not coming,” said Vladimir, a gray-haired, affable man in his 50s who preferred not to give his last name. He adjusted his ushankaor hat with earflaps, he crouched down and cautiously dipped his line for another try.

Vladimir has lived in Klyusy all his life. Like other villagers near the border linking Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, he recalled the days of the Soviet Union when the border was little more than a line on a piece of paper. Every June, residents crossed the Senkivka border crossing, six miles west of Klyusy, joining 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 are more threats than friendship along the border.

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

The buildup, comprising tens of thousands of troops, tanks, artillery, advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems and SU-30 fighter jets, is ostensibly for “Allied Resolve 2022,” 10 days of joint military exercises with Belarus that began Thursday. But despite repeated Russian claims to the contrary, US and NATO officials believe is something much more sinister: one more lap of vise in Ukraine.

What appears to be an invasion force has all but surrounded a country that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has described the disintegration of the Soviet Union as a 20th-century catastrophe, wants to return to Moscow’s orbit. In recent months, he has organized more than 100,000 soldiers on the eastern and northern borders of Ukraine and holding exercises near the west in Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway region sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine. They are complemented by Russian naval exercises in the Black Sea and the adjoining Sea of ​​Azov. The exercises near Belarus, which NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said earlier this month were the largest Russian deployment there since the Cold War, add 30,000 more troops to the fray.

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

In recent days, analysts and observers have closely followed social media accounts, poring over Facebook and TikTok videos showing Russian armored vehicles, missile-packed air defense platforms and trucks lumbering through the cities and towns of Belarus on its way south. border.

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

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

(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 such forces on Ukraine’s northern flank is hard to ignore. If the Russians, as Biden administration officials warned lawmakers over the weekend, plan an attack addressed to Kyiv, Senkivka is a 140-mile, 3½-hour drive on pristine roads; it is even closer to Novi Yarylovychi, the main crossing point between Ukraine and Belarus, which passes through the E-95, a vital highway.

And the arrival of those forces comes at a time of growing antagonism between Belarus and Ukraine. President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko he once acted as a mediator between Kiev and Moscow after Russian-backed separatists sparked a war in eastern Ukraine. Since then he has 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 Ukraine-Belarus border.

Anna Pylypivna, one of the few residents who did not leave 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 did not leave their residences in Novooleksandrivka, on the front line in eastern Ukraine.

(Vadim Ghirda/Associated Press)

“No one has ever said that Russian troops will remain on the territory of Belarus and that has never been talked about,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this week, according to Russian state news operator Tass. “These are allied military exercises and naturally this implies that the troops will return to their permanent bases after these exercises are over.”

Still, in an interview last week, Lukashenko said his forces would act in unison with the Russian military: “Do you think we’re kidding on our southern border?” he asked him in a television interview on Sunday.

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

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

Despite increased warnings by the US and its Western allies that an invasion could come at any moment, until now there was little evidence of Ukrainian defensive forces near Klyusy and Senkivka, apart from small groups of soldiers patrolling along along a chain-link fence topped with spikes. cable. Also missing from the area is the so-called Territorial Defense Force, a body of citizen-soldiers that has been formed in major cities as a base for a popular insurgency if Russia invades.

Meanwhile, there appeared to be little effect on the movement of shipments, with dozens of trucks lined up for miles on the Ukrainian side waiting to cross the border. A trucker heading to Estonia, who only identified himself as Nikolai, said traffic between the three neighbors was running normally from what he saw.

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

“I don’t think there will be a war,” he said, adding that the only time he heard about Russian tanks in Belarus was when “Ukrainian drivers ask us if we have seen any.”

A Ukrainian serviceman feeds his dog while other soldiers eat at a shelter in frontline positions near Zolote, Ukraine.

A Ukrainian serviceman feeds his dog while other soldiers eat at a shelter in a frontline position near Zolote, Ukraine, on 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 bigger role in their lives, not surprising in a region where people often have closer family and economic ties. strong with the neighboring region of Gomel in Belarus or Bryansk in Russia. region than to its own capital. (Many speak a unique dialect, a patois of Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarusian that sounds foreign to those from other parts of the country.)

“We were 15 republics in the Soviet Union, with a president. Now you have 15 presidents and it’s terrible,” said Mikhail Vasilovich, 57, who owns one of the two stores in Senkivka. “How many states are there in the United States? Fifty-two? So imagine if it was disbanded and you have 52 presidents. What would happen then? Disaster.”

He began to scream, slurring his words from both alcohol and anger, as he ordered a reporter out of the store.

“Belarus and Russia do not want to fight with us,” he said. “We are brothers.”

His anger channeled the devastation left by the demise of the Soviet Union, which had left the peoples here dispossessed. Many had fallen into a slowly degrading limbo: the kolkhoz, or collective farm, that once stood at the heart of Senkivka was abandoned, with graffiti on its walls warning that the building might collapse. Without work, many of the young people had left. The quaint, colorful cottages with lacework filigree on their windows were largely abandoned. Much of the area looked like a snapshot from an earlier time: he still needed to use a pulley to fill a bucket from the well; merchants calculated accounts with an abacus.

However, not everyone had such an optimistic view of the Soviet past.

“I am not sad that the Soviet Union is gone. Yes, there was no official border, but Russia’s attitude was always that Ukraine was her little sister,” said Vladimir, the ice fisherman. If the Russians come, common roots or not, he said, some in the town will be lucky and others will not.

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

He picked up his rod, trudged along the river bank to his beat-up Volkswagen Golf and drove away.

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