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In the ruins of Chernobyl, Ukraine waits for Russia — again

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

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

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is now where Ukrainians fear the Russians may try to come back, possibly in league with a new combatant in the 10-month-long war: the army commanded by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Yahoo News spent time with Andrii (not his real name), the commander of a Ukrainian reconnaissance team operating in the zone. The soldiers in Andrii’s unit have been playing a cat-and-mouse game with Russian and Belarusian special forces infiltrators in the desolate environment surrounding the infamous nuclear power plant.

An aerial view shows the New Safe Confinement structure covering the damaged No. 4 reactor.
An aerial view shows the New Safe Confinement covering the No. 4 reactor at Chernobyl in 2021. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

The nuclear contamination in the zone has died down in the decades since the disaster, but pockets of intense radiation remain. Russian soldiers, apparently oblivious to the danger, dug trenches in the highly contaminated “red forest.” They also stole radioactive samples from the laboratory adjoining the plant. Several Russian soldiers were reportedly evacuated to Belarus suffering from acute radiation poisoning in March after being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.

Firefights have taken place in the abandoned city of Pripyat, according to Andrii, as Russian and Belarusian recon teams probe Ukrainian defenses in the area, scouting out Ukrainian positions and attempting to sabotage critical Ukrainian infrastructure like electricity pylons, as well as covertly planting mines. Ukrainian patrols have been attempting to stop them.

For the Ukrainians, maintaining a presence as close to the Belarusian border as possible is of critical importance, not just for defending against infiltration but also for spotting incoming Shahed-136 suicide drones aimed at Kyiv.

People look at the residential building destroyed by a Russian drone strike, which local authorities consider to be Iranian-made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) Shahed-136, in central Kyiv. (Oleksii Chumachenko/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A residential building in Kyiv destroyed in October by a Russian strike that was believed to be from Shahed-136 drones. (Oleksii Chumachenko/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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

“This is one of the only places you’ll be able to 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 attempt to bypass without interdiction by Ukraine’s recently Western-bolstered air defenses.

In February, tens of thousands of Russian troops swarmed into Ukraine from Belarus in an attempt to encircle the capital and topple the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky, although Belarusian troops did not directly take part in the assault. Andrii believes that before a full attack from Belarus, a false-flag provocation would be staged by the Russians or their Belarusian allies, which would give Lukashenko the justification he would need to sell the deployment of Belarusian troops in Russia’s war to his public.

The question of Belarus's becoming a party to Russia’s war is as old as the war itself. In a livestreamed address to a meeting of the G7 on Oct. 11, Zelensky appealed for an internal monitoring mission “to monitor the security situation” on the border.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Nov. 3. (Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images)

According to a senior Western intelligence official, as of now there is no indication that Minsk is planning to play more than an offstage role in the war. “The Belarusians are training Russian mobiks,” the source said, referring to mobilized Russian troops, “but that’s pretty much it. Things can still change, but it would take one or two months for Lukashenko to build up sufficient numbers for an invasion.”

As for the Russians, Andrii believes they’ve learned the lesson of their previous aborted attempt to seize Kyiv. In Belarus now, he said, are around 10,000 Russian mobilized troops, in addition to Kadyrovtsy, militants loyal to Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, and previously mobilized Russian soldiers redeployed from the western part of Kherson, a region in southern Ukraine recently recaptured by Kyiv.

Several other Ukrainian military sources have told Yahoo News that they fear a simultaneous push from the north and the east, Belarus and Donbas, forcing the Ukrainians to split their forces among multiple fronts. That could not only hinder Ukraine’s ability to mount more counteroffensives but potentially allow Moscow to recapture land lost in the last several months.

Should the Russians attempt another ground assault toward the Ukrainian capital, Andrii said, they will “abandon quick armored pushes deep into Ukrainian territory in favor of Second World War tactics,” using massed artillery and large numbers of infantry.

Ukrainian servicemen take cover as they fire a mortar load.
Ukrainian servicemen take cover as they fire a mortar load in the Donbas region on Dec. 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 city of Bakhmut, in the eastern region of Donetsk.

For over four months, Russian forces, including the U.S.-sanctioned mercenary corps known as the Wagner Group, have massed artillery fire and human wave attacks against stiff Ukrainian defenses. Scenes out of Bakhmut so far resemble the First World War more than the Second, with mud-filled, half-submerged trenches and trees blasted to splinters by artillery.

According to one Ukrainian government official, who spoke to Yahoo News on the condition of anonymity, “We have seen satellite images showing 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, established due to supposed threats from Ukraine. Claiming it was a purely defensive measure, Lukashenko neglected to mention the consistent use of Belarusian territory and airspace to both invade Ukraine and launch attacks on Ukrainian targets for the past 10 months, including missile strikes that have incapacitated Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.

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

Such an offensive would largely be conducted by recently mobilized Russian conscripts and Wagner auxiliaries, Andrii believes, and would use the same human-wave-style attacks that Russia has been using in Bakhmut, with little or no regard to its own casualties.

Ukrainian soldiers, standing in front of tall flames, fire artillery at Russian positions.
Ukrainian soldiers fire artillery at Russian positions near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Nov. 20. (LIBKOS/AP Photo)

Along the Belarusian border, Ukrainian troops, mainly reservists of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces (TDF), have been digging in, preparing fighting positions, planting mines and constructing tank traps and other obstacles. The TDF has demolished bridges and spotted targets for artillery strikes on potential lines of enemy advance.

Morale among the defenders is high, not least because the Ukrainains encamped at the northern border live in relative luxury compared with their Russian counterparts. Bunkers are well appointed with the comforts of home: wood-burning fires, mobile internet, flat-screen televisions mounted on the wall. Some dugouts, as in other places along the frontlines in Ukraine, even boast 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 miles of additional territory previously occupied by Russia. Despite this continuing success, concerns about a renewed Russian offensive from the Belarusian direction have persisted for months. These rumors have only been given more strength as Putin’s mobilization has given Russia a large pool of poorly trained, but disposable, new recruits.

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