Two kilometers from Belarus, in the Chernihiv region of Ukraine, the men of burly 30-year-old platoon leader Boguslav are regaining their strength and spying on Russian and Belarusian positions on the other side of the border. After four months in the urban hell of Bakhmut – the city in the Donbas region that has become the epicenter of the fighting – their aerial reconnaissance unit (“Aerorozvidka” in Ukrainian) recently completed a rotation. The Ukrainian soldiers in uniform breathe in the zesty smell of the vast pine forest and feel a soft spring breeze on their hooded faces. The sun’s rays reach down to the bottom of trenches carefully protected by wooden boards.
“In contrast to the frequent shelling we experienced on the Russian side of the border [which begins 50 kilometers to the east], there is relative calm here. This doesn’t mean that there’s no military activity on the other side of the border. It’s just that [Belarusian leader Alexander] Lukashenko has obviously gotten Moscow to keep his thousand kilometers of border with Ukraine out of the war zone,” said Alexei, a Ukrainian military intelligence officer wearing small rectangular glasses.
The last military activity they observed was the fly-over of a Russian military surveillance drone, “Orlan,” a few days earlier, Boguslav noted: “No other Russian or Belarusian incursion on our territory.” He continued: “Our task is to spot enemy reconnaissance groups, their infiltration attempts. We observe concentrations of troops and military equipment. Any form of threat is immediately passed on to headquarters.” But in these parts, among the wildest in Europe, most of the movement detected is wildlife. “Sometimes we catch a deer and write ‘Long live Ukraine’ on its side before sending it back to the border,” laughed a soldier under Boguslav’s command.
In this area, Ukrainian border guards have spiced things up in recent months by taunting their Belarusian counterparts with defiant gestures. On March 12, Belarusian state television broadcasting a story in which a soldier complained of the “psychological pressure” exerted on his men by Ukrainians. In the footage, a mannequin wearing a Russian uniform could be seen hanging from a tree. “The aggressor is disguising himself as a victim. We are not interested in other people’s territory. We just gently warn them what will happen to them if they dare to enter our house again with weapons. If that makes them squeal, all the better, “said the Ukrainian soldier.
“Humor keeps our spirits high,” said Bogouslav, who continued on a more serious note: “We conduct three types of surveillance: aerial [using drones]radio-electronic [sensors installed in the forest], and patrols. We’re short on equipment because it gets sent to hot-spots first, but it’s safe to say that here, everything is under control.” Atypical flooding has made patrolling the forest complicated in this wet, swampy area, while also making it strategically simpler. “This flooding has come at the right time for us. It’s impossible to traverse the area except by road. That leaves only a handful of crossing points for the enemy and therefore reduces our work,” Boguslav was pleased to say. “Nature is on our side,” added one of his soldiers.
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