The Ukraine-Belarus border. Taking the Russian threat seriously
Ukrainian border guards patrol the Ukrainian-Belarusian border. Video grab
Article by: Yaroslav Krechko
In a recent interview with leading Russian media, Alyaksandr Lukashenka stated that Belarus and Russia have a “single and powerful army”. Many military experts have previously reported that the Belarusian armed forces are fully integrated into the Russian army, but Lukashenka has always insisted that Ukraine should not be worried about attacks coming from Belarusian territory. Has the situation changed now? How strong are the Ukrainian military forces deployed along the northern border with Belarus and how have Ukrainian border guards strengthened the Ukraine-Belarus border?
Chernihiv Oblast, near the village of Novi Yarylovychi. A Ukrainian patrol vehicle moves slowly along the border through the dense forest. As soon as the protests in Belarus began, the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine tightened security at the Ukrainian-Belarusian border. Equipment and technical resources have been increased and border patrols intensified.
“Of course, the locals continue driving around this area, but we’ve scheduled more patrols and positions along the border. We have posts almost every 50-100 metres, so the border is under constant observation and well protected,” says Yuriy Baidych, First Deputy Chief of Dobryanka Border Guard Department.
Ukrainian border guards use drones and all-terrain vehicles, and have intensified traditional patrols with dogs. They also make regular use of technical instruments and barriers, such as the warning device “Khmil”.
“For example, if a person tries to cross the state border, he’ll have to avoid this installation. It’s a very fine thread, almost invisible, so if you accidentally touch it, the device will emit a loud alarm signal,” explains Yuriy Baidych.
Belarus – a new base of operations for Russia?
Ukraine’s border with Belarus stretches more than a thousand kilometers, mostly through forests, swamps or rivers. Should Ukraine expect an attack anywhere in this area? The fact that Russia can use Belarus as a springboard has come up incessantly since the beginning of the war in the Donbas. Lukashenka has always denied this, but now he openly says that Belarus and Russia have a “single and powerful army”.
“Hypothetically, we can say that Russia might use Belarus as another base of operations. Of course, if we look at it from the geographic point of view, the situation for Ukraine will then deteriorate significantly. But, it won’t help the Russian army to become bigger or stronger.
Belarus plays a simple, but important role in Russia’s military strategy. Its role is to distract our Supreme Command from more important tasks and create more of a dilemma. For example… where will the enemy strike first? This will be a big problem, because the border area is so vast and stretches for so many kilometres,” says Mykola Belieskov, chief consultant at the National Institute for Strategic Studies.
This would not be the first time that Russia has used the territory of Belarus for its military purposes. According to InformNapalm, Russian military transport aircraft and fighters were stationed at air bases in Bobruisk and Baranovichi. In 2015 and 2016, Russian troops practiced mock air strikes from Belarusian airspace against strategic sites in the Baltic States and Ukraine. Finally, during the Zapad-2017 military exercises, the Russian high command gave the orders and the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Belarus performed the required tasks.
“All these factors lead us to believe that the Lukashenka regime is working hand in hand with the Russian Federation, and for Ukraine, there can be no illusions about this regime.
This regime is hostile and, in principle, Ukraine should take things very seriously and increase its defense capabilities in the northern regions,”says Dzianis Ivashyn, editor of the Belarusian service of the international intelligence community InformNapalm.
Ukrainian military forces stationed in the northern regions
There are two operational command posts of the Armed Forces of Ukraine near the Belarusian borders of Belarus: Zakhid and Pivnich (West and North). Brigades, paratroopers, artillery and missile units are deployed all across Volyn, Chernihiv and Sumy Oblasts.
“Formally, the situation doesn’t look so bad, because many units have their permanent bases relatively close to the Ukrainian-Belarusian border. But there’s one important nuance. We have all these units stationed along the border, i.e. mechanized, tank, motorized infantry brigades, marines, air assault troops and artillery divisions, which can actually perform tasks on the ground, but there are no support troops. There are about 36 -37 brigades, and 10-12 are constantly in the war zone. What I mean is that many brigades are needed in the JFO area (the war zone in the Donbas),” says chief consultant of the National Institute for Strategic Studies Mykola Belieskov.
After the Russian-Belarusian Zapad-2017 military exercises, the 61st Separate Infantry Foresters Brigade was formed in northern Ukraine, but there is little information about it. We asked the Armed Forces of Ukraine to draw up a brief report about the unit, but have not yet received a response. One of the fighters explained the brigade’s mission.
“There are rumours that the Russian Federation is reinforcing its sabotage and reconnaissance divisions in the Belarusian forest along the Ukrainian border. The mission of the 61st Separate Infantry Foresters Brigade is to respond quickly to aggression and conduct combat operations in the wooded and marshland areas in northern Ukraine.”
As soon as the protests began, Alyaksandr Lukashenka announced the combat readiness of the Belarusian army. This week, such a regime was also announced at two artillery bases and a tank storage base.
For Lukashenka, the West is the first and most dangerous external enemy, but Ukraine is also targeted, as evidenced by the synchronized actions of Belarusian and Russian propaganda against Ukraine, says Dzianis Ivashyn, editor of the Belarusian service of the international intelligence community InformNapalm.
“First of all, Lukashenka reports the supposed presence of about 200 Ukrainian fighters in Belarus; they allegedly arrived in the Republic of Belarus to destabilize the situation. Of course, I believe that such declarations are also aggressive actions, and they obviously mirrir Russia’s discourse about Ukraine.” adds Ivashin.
The situation at the border
Ukrainian border guards patrolling the Chernihiv section of the border with Belarus have strengthened their positions, but have not recorded any provocations from the Belarasian side.
At one of the most important checkpoints, Novi Yarylovychi, the flow of people crossing the border dropped significantly in September. Today, about 1300 people cross the border every day, but the decline is largely due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“I can say that about half of the people crossing the state border are Belarusians. The Chernihiv Border Detachment has registered only one asylum appeal connected with the political events in the Republic of Belarus,” says the acting press secretary of the Chernihiv Border Detachment.
It is mostly truck drivers and people visiting relatives that cross the border. We met a Ukrainian national, who was not allowed into the country by the Belarusian border guards. Oleksandr says that he wanted to visit and travel around Belarus.
“They looked at my reservations, mulled it over a long time, then told me I couldn’t enter the country due to the COVID-19 situation,” says Oleksandr, but he believes he was denied entry because of the protests.
We also talked to Belarusian pensioners who were on their way to visit relatives in Ukraine. They said they did not take part in the rallies, and assured us that they were totally neutral with regard to Lukashenka and the protests.
The northern territories of Chernihiv Oblast are not densely populated. There are many abandoned houses in the villages. People living here do not fear attacks from Belarus. They say that the protests in the neighboring country do not affect them.
“For us, the worst thing that has happened is the coronavirus and if they close our border completely. The protests? No, they don’t scare us. My Belarusian friends say that everything’s fine. They’ve dug up the potatoes and rye will soon be harvested, ” says Olena Tkachenko, resident of the village of Novi Yarylovychi.
Her fellow villager Mykhailo believes that Lukashenka is a good man because he has preserved the industrial sector in Belarus.
“He may be a bit cruel, a bit of a dictator, but you know, we already have too much of this so-called democracy in our country and that’s also bad,” remarks Nina, a local resident, when we ask her how she feels about Lukashenka.
Nobody knows whether Alyaksander Lukashenko will remain in power or not, but Belarus will definitely change and Ukraine will have to face the challenges and respond adequately.
The Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine has endorsed a decision to close the Novi Yarylovychi entry-exit checkpoint on the border with Belarus in Chernihiv Oblast, the press service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported, citing its head Arsen Avakov.
“The relevant decision was voted for at a government meeting on September 16. Such restrictive measures have been introduced due to the spread of the coronavirus,”reads the report.
On September 4, the Verkhovna Rada adopted a resolutionthat supports the EU assessment of elections in Belarus as undemocratic; it also supported the imposition of sanctions against those responsible for election fraud and violence against protesters.