It’s minus 8C on the frontline. All that stands between me and 127,000 Russian troops is a six-foot moat and razor wire

Published by The Daily Mail (26th January, 2022)

AS Lieutenant-Colonel Yuriy Trubachiov crunched through the thick snow, he pointed out to me the camera tower, the anti-tank moat, the mounds of shovelled earth and the razor-wire fences separating Ukraine from Russia.

‘We’re our country’s first line of defence,’ he told me. ‘We’re getting ready for all sorts of scenarios to ensure that we protect our borders.’

This might seem a daunting task with huge numbers of Russian troops massing beyond the fields and forests in the distance and amid rapidly escalating talk of invasion – but the veteran border officer said his men are ready to repel Vladimir Putin’s forces.

‘We’ve been getting prepared for this moment for eight years. We knew it might come one day and we feel fully prepared.’

In 2014, an attempt was made to capture the nearby city of Kharkiv when the Kremlin covertly backed separatists in the eastern region of Ukraine. But the forces were defeated and the country’s former capital stayed loyal, unlike two other major cities in the Russian-speaking eastern regions.

Now Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has warned that Russia might target Kharkiv again – so the border guards standing with Lt-Col Trubachiov on this frozen frontline 25 miles from the city have the forbidding job of stopping Putin.

There are an estimated 127,000 Russian soldiers – armed with the latest military technology and a terrifying arsenal of weapons including drones, missiles and tanks – poised to strike Ukraine.

All that stands between us and a Russian invasion force is a 6ft-deep moat, a 4ft-wide mound of earth and razor-topped wire fencing that slinks along the snow-covered fields, supported by surveillance towers, some trenches and reinforced concrete bunkers.

As I walked along the fortifications with Ukrainian border guards (whose previous duties were to deal with smugglers and illicit crossings), I asked if such a powerful invasion force could really be stopped by such defences? Lt-Col Trubachiov said cameras, satellites and ten-mile sightlines offered good warning if Russian troops advanced – and that his task was to delay any invasion until Ukrainian reinforcements arrived.

‘If there is a strong Russian offensive, we’ll try to hold them up long enough for the army to come here,’ said the officer. The fortifications, built along much of Kharkiv region’s 175-mile border with Russia, are designed to stop mechanised vehicles, which would need specialised equipment to bridge the barriers. ‘This would take them time,’ said Lt-Col Trubachiov.

The Ukrainians also have a trained unit of reservists with anti-tank weapons that can be summoned at short notice. Some analysts claim the Russians prefer to fight when they can move their tanks and forces swiftly over icy ground, although Lt-Col Trubachiov believes the snow-covered vista gives his defences clearer views of any movements over the terrain.

Yet as I looked across the border into Russia – my face and fingers pained by the sub-zero cold and my boots sodden after stomping though the snow – this must be one of the least enviable postings on the planet. I asked this officer, a veteran of 25 years in the State Border Guard of Ukraine, if he is scared? ‘We’re not afraid,’ he said firmly, although he admitted the situation is alarming. ‘We’ll do what needs to be done. That’s our job.’

Spoken like a true soldier.

Meanwhile, the closest substantial build-up of Russian military is reported to be at least 125 miles away – giving his men some warning of any significant Kremlin invasion and advance on Kharkiv.

Yesterday, Ukrainian security forces claimed to have arrested two Russian-backed saboteurs plotting attacks with the aim of destabilising the region. Many fear Putin will use such ‘provocations’ as an excuse for a military response – a stunt he used in 2014 to seize Crimea and foster the bloody insurgencies in Donetsk and Luhansk. About 25 miles along the frontline, in the small town of Veseloe, I met a middle-aged man called Sergiy buying cigarettes from a shop crammed with bread, cakes, sausages and vodka.

He told me friends in a neighbouring village who had been picking mushrooms were stopped by Russian soldiers. ‘They thought they were trying to escape,’ he said. ‘So we know their troops are there.’

Was he worried? ‘Why should we be scared?’ he replied. ‘The Russians would be here in ten minutes as we’re so close to the border. But we’re not going anywhere. This is our land. Besides, we have nowhere to go.’

Natasha Bilyk, 46, the shopkeeper, said many people do not expect war with Russia but the store was stocked up with goods such as cereals, sugar and frozen dumplings since some residents, worried by reports, are stockpiling.

A proud Ukrainian who flew the national blue and yellow flag from her window during the 2014 conflict when hundreds of troops were billeted in tents along the street, she said her patriotic gesture had enraged many neighbours.

For she estimates half of Veseloe’s 1,500 residents are pro-Russian – including the man living above her shop where we talked with our hands wrapped around cups of hot coffee. ‘If – God forbid – the tanks roll in, I worry about half the people here will go with flowers to greet them,’ said Bilyk.

‘I think we would be executed because my husband was in the military for seven years and we are pro-Ukrainian.’ These are struggling villages, with declining populations and a dearth of decent jobs. They are suffering from rising costs as inflation bites, energy prices soar and the Ukrainian currency falls thanks to Putin’s encirclement of the nation.

It is no surprise, therefore, that such places are vulnerable to Kremlin propaganda with phoney promises of a better future. Despite her patriotism, Bilyk was scathing about her leaders’ failure to help poorer citizens in her town.

Ironically, the name Veseloe translates as ‘Joyful’ – yet the struggle of such towns was clear as one elderly woman, already obviously worse for wear, entered the shop to fill a plastic container with hard liquor.

Oleksiy Zimoglyg, the commune’s elected leader, said: ‘I should be thinking about the development of our villages rather than worrying about the military and war.’ But he added that ‘our worst enemy is the snow’ – words that struck a chord with me as temperatures hit -8C (18F) in Kharkiv last night.

Certainly few would argue with Oksana, 27, another shop worker in Veseloe, who said she can no longer bear to watch the television news as the threat of conflict looms. ‘War is horrible,’ she said. ‘It was madness in 2014 with all the military hardware and armoured vehicles rolling down the streets. I hope it never comes back again.’

These are chilling times here – in more ways than one. No one knows if Putin will unleash his forces of war. But if he does, the unflappable Lt-Col Yuriy Trubachiov vows his men will do their utmost to stop the formidable Russian military machine.

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