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Ukraine stages war games near Belarus amid fears of Russian assault

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2023-01-11T17:22:09Z

The crackle of gunfire and roar of armoured vehicles reverberated around sleepy west Ukrainian towns near the Belarusian border on Wednesday as Kyiv’s forces trained for the threat of a fresh assault across a new front in the north.

Ukraine fears Russia could build up forces on the territory of its Belarusian ally before striking in the northwest or even try to drive towards Kyiv as it did when it invaded last February.

By reopening a northern front, Russia would stretch Kyiv’s forces, which have been focused for months on battles raging in the east and south, forcing it to divert troops to the north.

Colonel Roman Voloschuk of the 104th Territorial Defence brigade sought to project an image of strength on the sidelines of military drills in three locations in Ukraine’s northwest that the army asked not be disclosed for security reasons.

“They can try, but we’re ready for them. We’ve prepared, every turn and every junction has been dug up. There will be colossal resistance from every building,” he told Reuters.

Soldiers from his territorial defence unit, one of hundreds of militias raised shortly before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, said they were well prepared to face down any new threat.

“They will get their comeuppance… we are waiting for them,” said Artur Horodniuk, a 28-year-old machine gunner.

In a clue as to the kind of attack Ukraine may face from Belarus, Kyiv’s troops on Wednesday practised urban warfare, firing assault rifles, driving armoured vehicles and freeing hostages.

Another exercise took place in the snowbound countryside where troops practised ambushing and destroying reconnaissance groups in civilian vehicles, a feature of the first Russian assault from Belarus that Moscow abandoned in early last April.

Voloschuk said that any defence effort would be helped by the mild winter so far that has made the mud more watery and the river levels higher than usual. Many of his soldiers are battlehardened from last year’s fighting.

“They fought on the Kyiv front, destroying Russian tanks and armoured personnel carriers,” he said.

Despite bringing colossal pressure onto the eastern town of Soledar in recent days, Russian forces have appeared on the back foot on the battlefield for months and a sudden assault from Belarus would mark an astonishing change of dynamic.

Serhiy Nayev, commander of Ukraine’s Joint Forces, said Ukraine had enough forces to defend the current threat and would match any increases on the other side of the border in kind if it needed to.

“At present we don’t need to increase our forces,” he told Reuters in a short interview.

“At present, the balance of forces and equipment between our side and the enemy is not in favour of the enemy,” he said.

Local Ukrainian commanders said there were currently 15,000 Russian troops in Belarus at present — almost certainly too small to launch a major offensive.

There has been a slew of military activity for months in Belarus, a close Kremlin ally, ranging from joint exercises to the establishment of a joint regional Belarusian-Russian military force.

Some analysts have speculated that the military activity is designed to tie down Ukrainian forces at the northern border to spread them more thinly.

Top general Valeriy Zaluzhnyi said in a December interview that Ukraine needed to prepare for a possible fresh Russian assault in the coming months that could come from the east, south or from Belarus.

Last week, Minsk announced it had strengthened its joint regional force, and that the two countries would hold new aviation drills together.

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko in December in a rare top level Russian trip to Minsk, prompting speculation it was intended to prepare for an attack on Ukraine.

At the time, Ukrainian general Nayev expressed alarm that the visit may have been intended to bring Belarusian forces directly into the war, but during the exercises in Rivne region he downplayed the immediacy of the threat.

“We remain where we were in December. We do not see an increase in the presence of Russian troops on Belarusian territory,” he said, though conceding that anything was possible in future.

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Ukrainian servicemen attend a joint drills of armed forces, national guard and Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) near the border with Belarus, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine in Rivne region, Ukraine January 11, 2023. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Ukrainian servicemen attend a joint drills of armed forces, national guard and Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) near the border with Belarus, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine in Rivne region, Ukraine January 11, 2023. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Ukrainian servicemen attend a joint drills of armed forces, national guard and Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) near the border with Belarus, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine in Rivne region, Ukraine January 11, 2023. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

A Ukrainian serviceman attends a joint drills of armed forces, national guard and Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) near the border with Belarus, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine in Rivne region, Ukraine January 11, 2023. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

A Ukrainian serviceman attends a joint drills of armed forces, national guard and Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) near the border with Belarus, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine in Rivne region, Ukraine January 11, 2023. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Ukrainian servicemen attend a joint drills of armed forces, national guard and Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) near the border with Belarus, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine in Rivne region, Ukraine January 11, 2023. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Ukrainian servicemen attend a joint drills of armed forces, national guard and Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) near the border with Belarus, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine in Rivne region, Ukraine January 11, 2023. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Ukrainian servicemen attend a joint drills of armed forces, national guard and Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) near the border with Belarus, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine in Rivne region, Ukraine January 11, 2023. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Ukrainian servicemen attend a joint drills of armed forces, national guard and Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) near the border with Belarus, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine in Rivne region, Ukraine January 11, 2023. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Ukrainian servicemen attend a joint drills of armed forces, national guard and Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) near the border with Belarus, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine in Rivne region, Ukraine January 11, 2023. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
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