Ukrainian soldiers conducted tactical drills and exercises in an abandoned city near the notorious Chernobyl nuclear power plant Friday as their countrymen live with the possibility of an invasion by thousands of Russian troops.
Soldiers dressed in tactical gear practiced firing a mortar launcher and participated in crisis situation exercises in Pripyat, which had a population of around 50,000 when it was evacuated after a deadly meltdown at the nearby plant in April 1986 — an event dramatized in the acclaimed 2019 HBO miniseries “Chernobyl.”
Pripyat is roughly 10 miles from the border with Belarus, where up to 30,000 Russian troops are expected to take part in military exercises later this month. Western officials fear the exercises could provide cover for an invasion by Moscow, either directly or through Belarussian territory.
The New York Times reported last month that the Kiev government had moved soldiers into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which covers more than 1,000 square miles around the now-shuttered plant, beginning in the fall.
“It doesn’t matter if it is contaminated or nobody lives here,” Lt. Col. Yuri Shakhraichuk of Ukraine’s border guard service told the Times. “It is our territory, our country, and we must defend it.”
According to Sky News, Ukraine has deployed roughly 7,500 border guards to the region in the last two months.
“Chernobyl area is an area of increased danger,” Shakraichuk told the outlet. “We increased the strength of protection, we increased the number of patrols, and we increased the number of people in these patrols.”
On Thursday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg described the movement of Moscow’s forces into Belarus as “the biggest Russian deployment since the Cold War.” Stoltenberg added that Russia is also moving Spetsnaz special operations forces, SU-35 fighter jets, S-400 air defense systems and nuclear-capable Iskander missiles.
Russia has massed an estimated 100,000 troops along several points of its border with Ukraine, stoking fears that Moscow could invade at any time.
While Russia has denied any intention to attack its neighbor, it has demanded that Ukraine be blocked from ever joining NATO — a demand both the US and its allies have denied.
On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin teamed up with Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games to urge the Atlantic alliance to halt any expansion.
“Some forces representing a minority on the world stage continue to advocate unilateral approaches to resolving international problems and resort to military policy,” a joint statement from the two leaders read.
Moscow and Beijing “believe that certain States, military and political alliances and coalitions seek to obtain, directly or indirectly, unilateral military advantages to the detriment of the security of others,” according to an English-language translation of the statement released by the Kremlin.
While Ukraine has attempted to push a message of “calm” and urged Western nations not to create a “panic,” the US and NATO have begun to increase their military presence in Eastern Europe, while providing Ukraine with additional military aid.
This week, the Biden administration announced it will be sending 3,000 US troops to Eastern Europe to aid in the “deterrence and defense posture” of NATO in the event of an invasion. The move follows a previous announcement by the administration, which placed up to 8,500 US forces on “heightened alert.”
Despite Russian claims that no invasion is planned, the Pentagon revealed Thursday that the US is aware of a doctored Kremlin video of Ukraine forces carrying out an attack against Russia or Russian proxies — which would serve as a pretext for Moscow to invade.
The video would be “very graphic propaganda,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters, adding that it would include images of “corpses, and actors that would be depicting mourners, and images of destroyed locations, as well as military equipment, at the hands of Ukraine or the West.”
“We’ve seen these kinds of activity by the Russians in the past,” Kirby said, “and we believe it’s important, when we see it like this — and we can — to call it out.”