Ukraine bares its teeth in the shadow of Chernobyl

Published by The Daily Mail (5th February, 2022)

The warning boomed down from a drone flying over our heads: ‘The enemy is in town. You must stay inside. Please close all the windows. Take all your documents. Warn the neighbours. Be cautious. Do not panic.’

Then a bedraggled group of people, some covered in blankets, were escorted into a bus before several rounds of sniper fire smacked into the upper floors of the building beside me and a mortar shell flew over my head.

As smoke billowed down the road, an armoured personnel carrier pulled up. A team of 11 soldiers in mottled-white winter camouflage gear jumped down, fanned out behind the vehicle and moved stealthily down the street.

The soldiers scanned the Soviet-era buildings flanking the road, automatic rifles in hand. Suddenly there was mayhem as they blazed away into the buildings while the APC pumped out a barrage of shells.

The bullets were real. But this was an exercise – a show of strength by Ukrainian forces designed to send a clear message to the Kremlin that they were ready to resist the Russian military forces building over the border just six miles away.

And the location could not have been more symbolic – for we were in the shattered urban landscape of Chernobyl, devastated by a nuclear accident in April 1986 that was covered up with terrible consequences by an appalling Russian regime.

‘These are the ruins of the Soviet empire,’ said defence minister Oleksii Reznikov, pointing out we had just passed a building displaying the insignia of the Soviet Union. ‘We will ensure that the Russian empire does not come back to our borders.’

In normal times, few would consider the infamously deserted town of Pripyat a target for military assault. The eerie buildings, snow-covered streets, fallow fields and silver birch forests remain contaminated after the explosion of a nuclear reactor, which released 400 times the radiation of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

But these are not normal times. Ukraine has been encircled by the armed forces of another expansionist Russian regime – and thousands of Moscow troops have piled into Belarus for military drills that, if they invaded, places Chernobyl on the closest path to the capital Kiev.

The National Guard exercise, a rehearsal for urban warfare hosted by the defence and interior ministers before invited diplomats, dignitaries and the media, was impressive and smooth.

It involved air reconnaissance, snipers and a street battle that left windows riddled with bullet holes, before culminating with an assault involving armoured vehicles on a building occupied by a small unit of ‘enemy’ forces in prepared fortified positions.

Since it was designed to show off all interior ministry forces, there were also fire crews putting out a blazing building and rescuing ‘injured’ people, mine-sweeping teams, removal of an unexploded missile and medics treating ‘wounded’ fighters.

After the bullets stopped flying, one French journalist asked a guardsman lowering his gun if they felt bad about destroying such historic monuments. ‘No,’ came back the curt reply.

One member of the assault team, giving his nickname as ‘Litva’ (Lithuania), said: ‘We did a good job – we killed all the enemies. We are training to be ready for any scenario. We are ready to protect our country.’

His defiant words were underlined by the two ministers. When I asked them to define the message they wanted to send, interior minister Denys Monastyrsky said it was to reassure their own citizens that their forces were ready for anything.

The defence minister was more explicit. Reznikov said it was a deliberate warning Russia and its supporters would be stopped if trying to repeat the events of 2014, when Moscow stirred up protests that led to two regions breaking away from Ukraine and a war that has killed 14,000 people and displaced another 2million.

‘Russian citizens came and occupied our territory but there will be no repeat,’ he said firmly.

This follows a series of warnings, including in recent weeks by Britain and the United States, of plots to destabilise Ukraine with violent protests, faked propaganda and a plan to install a pro-Moscow stooge to run the country.

Another Ukrainian government source told me they have strong intelligence of plans to stir up unrest in Kyiv and eastern Ukraine after the Winter Olympics finish on February 20, which could be used as pretext for invasion.

‘We stand ready for a new series of provocations as soon as the Olympic Games are completed,’ the minister said. ‘If the Russian leadership want to direct aggression against us, they need some excuse.’

Three months ago, Kyiv deployed 8,500 extra guards into the border with Belarus – including into the 1,000-square-mile Chernobyl exclusion zone.

This region was largely unguarded until Alexander Lukashenko, the long-serving Belarusian dictator, slid into Moscow’s embrace after his brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters led to ostracisation by other countries in Europe.

Nato estimates 30,000 Russian troops, including Spetsnaz special forces, are involved in the Belarus drills along with tanks, fighter aircraft and missile systems transported from Siberia – ‘the biggest Russian deployment since the Cold War’ according to the body’s secretary Jens Stoltenberg.

Reznikov, however, insisted there was ‘no need to panic’, claiming they saw no evidence of the military strike units that would lead an invasion massing on that particular border.

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