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Threat at 200 metres away. How the border with Belarus is being fortified. Are they waiting for Lukashenko's command to conduct offensive?

Friday, 23 December 2022, 04:30

In a full-scale war, Ukraine unfortunately is surrounded by two neighboring authoritarian enemy regimes. Belarus, whose people enjoyed the exceptionally warm attitude of Ukrainians all these years, meekly bowed its head to the Moscow invader.

News from Belarus appears almost weekly in the information space: about military trainings, large-scale movements of equipment, "preparation for defence", provocations on the border and many other disturbing messages indicating a possible attack from the territory of this northern neighbour.

These active movements naturally evoke Kyiv's reaction, one more reason why President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently held the Staff of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief regarding these threats from Belarus.

However, the authorities of the Rivne region, which borders Belarus on a 218-kilometer border, have not yet labelled Belarus a direct enemy.

"It is still too early to assess the role of Belarusians in this war," the head of the regional administration Vitalii Koval said in an interview with Ukrainska Pravda.

He is waiting for the Belarusians, who have been unable to overthrow their dictator, to show themselves in a bloody war: either joining Ukraine, or finally fall into the enemy role.

But not everyone has the luxury of waiting. Border guards and military personnel in the Rivne region are actively strengthening the border, preparing it for a possible attack from Belarus.

Ukrainska Pravda visited the "zero kilometre" of the Belarusian border. We share what is happening there, whether the military envisions a threat of breakthrough and what they think about the Belarusians, and with whom they have been living side by side with for many years.

200 metres to Belarus

The small border village of Horodyshche in the Rivne region is a barely visible intertwining of several streets on the map. Apart from the memories of the old residents, carefully noted by someone on Wikipedia, the Internet knows very little about this village.

The checkpoint Horodyshche is named after the neighbouring village, located directly on the border with Belarus

60 kilometers from Sarny, the district centre in the Rivne region, to the Ukrainian-Belarusian border are a test both for the ubiquitous network and for the wheels of cars, that are not particularly well adapted to the broken roads there.

"Big construction" had not yet reached Horodyshche. Although immediately behind the checkpoint on the border, sharing the same name as the village, there is a sign of the presidential program. 

Before the invasion, the authorities of this region began to build a road to its remote border; so that the smooth roads of our authoritarian neighbours would not be a cause for envy compared to  our road landscape of Ukrainian pits and potholes.

"There is still a little left," assures Vitalii Koval, the head of the Rivne Oblast Military Administration. "We started from Rivne and reached Sarny. This road is terrible in sections that we did not have time to do in 2022."

Vitalii Koval is the head of Rivne Oblast which borders with Belarus. He does not undertake to evaluate the role of Belarusians in the war

For residents of the many surrounding villages like Horodyshche, the road to Belarus used to be a regularly driven, and the border - a point on the daily schedule.

Local residents went to the neighbouring country to collect berries and visit relatives. Residents from the Belarusian side came to Ukraine to eat inUkrainian local restaurants, or to fly out from Rivne airport on vacation.

Before the big war, the authorities began to repair the road from Rivne to the border, but did not have time to complete it.

With the beginning of a full-scale war, the border with Belarus was boldly drawn with a pencil, as in a contour map. 

Up until 2020, the Horodyshche checkpoint allowed several hundred people to pass through every day. Sometimes you would wait in line for an hour or two.

The doors for pedestrians, as well as the barrier for cars, were closed here due to the Covid-19 pandemic. And the full-scale war, which began with the advance of Russian troops from Belarus, left no chance that the checkpoint would be able to reopen before the end of hostilities.

This place, where the economy of such villages as Horodyshche once flourished, has become reminiscent of an exclusion zone: with an empty gas station, a rusty "Cafe-bar" sign and the snow-covered booth of a customs broker.

Three years ago, Horodyshche was a 24-hour border point, through which local residents passed through daily to visit their relatives, along with tourists on vacation
What was once a civilian point, has now been transformed into a military facility

In 2022, damaged areas had to be rebuilt and supplemented with fortifications; anti-tank ditches were added and hedgehogs placed, while roads were mined.

"And a number of our surprise border boobytraps, which will be a surprise for the enemy if they intend to cross the state border," Anton Kviatkovskyi adds with a light but bold smile.

Kviatkovskyi is the head of the 9th border detachment, named after the Sich Riflemen, which guards the section of state border with Belarus within the Kyiv, Zhytomyr and Rivne oblasts.

There is a column with the number 0 - the zero kilometre of the border next to it. And behind it is the stele "Republic of Belarus".


The Belarusian land begins very close to the emplacement of Ukrainian border guards. Fortunately, military excesses did not happen here

The local "zero", fortunately, is not front-line. Therefore, the Belarusian border checkpoint, which is perceived on the Ukrainian side of the border as a place of deployment of potential opponents, can be approached relatively closely.

Bypass several ditches and barricades, climb over fencs without stepping on spikes in the asphalt. Walk in a line behind the border guards on a booby-trapped road. On the side of the road, you can see an upside-down crumpled car-it was also booby-trapped, blown up by lightning.

All are within 200 meters away from the Belarusian point. 

Anti-tank ditches and other barriers were set up on the border, and roads are mined
There is a car between the Ukrainian and Belarusian points. It was booby-trapped and exploded from a lightning strike

"Sometimes when we go out, they start peeking out of the woods",  the border guards report. 

"Did you manage to catch the Belarusian radio?"

"We did. There is little political content there. Mostly there are reports of a social topic: they say that everything is fine with them, everything is fine."

The Belarusian "zero", fortunately, is now not front-line

Waiting for the offensive. On both sides

What happens beyond those 200 meters, through the forest and snow? – one can not see. 

"Belarusians are setting up positions for firing, putting up barbed wire fences – says Anton Kviatkovskyi. – We observe only Belarusian border guards guarding the state border. On ordinary UAZ trucks, on foot."


This behaviour of Lukashenko's troops is more in the order of preparing for defence than attack. It enhances though repeated suspicions that Belarus can manipulate provocations, and simulate an attack by Ukraine to justify its aggression.

A tool in the hands of the enemy can simply be an illegal migrant – to check security.

Recently, 6 Southeast Asian citizens,  who were travelling from Belarus, were detained at the border. The border guards cannot say for sure that they were agents, but they have these suspicions.

Border guards report only about some fortifications. Some will be a "surprise" for the enemy if he dares to break through the border

The military and the authorities unanimously assure that they track and know well who is on the other side of "zero", in what numbers and with what weapons.

"There are both Belarusians and Russians there. But there are more Belarusians", says Roman Voloshchuk, the commander of the 60th Territorial Defence Forces Battalion.

The commander of the local territorial defence, Roman Voloshchuk, is a strong man and clear voice for the army

The smile on the face of this stocky man appears rarely. When we ask if he has observed locals naming Lukashenkо "Bats′ka" (Father), he replies, "No." Roman also smiles when he remembers driving on the other side of the border as a child. Voloshchuk, like many here, has relatives from Belarus. 

The battalion began to form in February 2022. Even then, there was a full house of those who wanted to enter the service. The commander recalls how they were chosen from two thousand locals arrived as volunteers:

"Our staff is always packed, vacant positions only remain open a day or two. There is most often someone to choose from. 80-85% of our people have combat experience."

The military has its own "invincibility centre" near the Belarusian border – mobile showers and laundries

In addition to trenches and samples of domestic and Western weapons, nature itself has become a protection for Ukraine.

The border here is protected by 92 kilometres of impenetrable swamps and more than a thousand rivers. There are only a few ways to move deeply into the country. The military is already "waiting" for the attackers.

Near the fortifications built by the border guards, there are natural barriers-swamps – rivers and forests

"The enemy must understand that he will not defeat nature and God", says Koval, the head of the Rivne Oblast Military Administration.

Somewhere among these forests, modern rebels are training – the local volunteer formation of a territorial community.

At the head are professional military personnel who went through a hybrid war in eastern Ukraine and now train recruits who took up arms when the full-scale war began.

Training of the local volunteer formation of a territorial community near the Belarusian border. They are led by a professional soldier who fought in the Donbas during the hybrid war

"Ranging from juniors to 60 years old. But mostly we have a young unit", the commander describes his subordinates.

He shows us how the soldiers search for a mine among the forest roads and defuse it.

"How would you rate soldiers’ on the completion of this task?" we ask.

"Honestly? This should better stay off the record," he jokes, but adds: "The guys are trained, they know their job and do it well."


The Lieutenant General Volodymyr Kravchenko, a former Joint Forces Operation commander [a set of military and special organisational and legal measures of the Ukrainian law enforcement agencies aimed at counteracting the activities of illegal Russian and pro-Russian armed groups in the war in the east of Ukraine – ed.], is among those people whose combat experience came in handy on the border with Belarus. He is currently the head of the Volyn military unit. He is also preparing land defence in the area, which is currently suffering from air attacks and lack of electricity caused by the war.

Like many military commanders, he is not very willing to talk on camera, although off the record he can tell many interesting stories about the relationship of the military on both sides of the border.

Volodymyr Kravchenko, the commander of the Volyn military unit, rarely speaks on camera

Despite the fact that there are no active military deployments in this area of the border, according to civilian authorities, an active information battle for the "souls of people" is going on.

Vitalii Koval, the Head of Rivne Oblast Military Administration, unhesitatingly calls the previous rumours regarding the preparation of an offensive from Belarus, attempts to destabilise the situation from the enemy.

"Each such message is a stop on the economy, triggers panic, and it disrupts the normal rhythm of life. Of course, we are not in a state of "disbelief" here. We are just preparing".

Soldiers of the 60th Territorial Defence Forces’ battalion in Rivne Oblast

"Friendship of nations"

Local villages have long been knocked out of the normal rhythm of life; even considering the fact that Russian missiles have not struck them nor Belarusian soldiers joined the attack.

Previously, the life of people here had been tied to the "friendship of nations", in memory of which there is a stele with Ukrainian and Belarusian symbols at kilometre zero [on the border – ed.]

Now their lives are determined by the war, in which the current Belarusian flag is associated with betrayal and complicity to Russia.

"7 men from one village have been drafted," one of the territorial defence forces’ fighters tells Ukrainska Pravda – "Half [people] of the [another] village joined the army. And four [people] have been brought back dead."

At the beginning of the war, as in other Ukrainian oblasts, there had been queues at military registration and enlistment offices in Rivne Oblast; there was a significant competition to join the local territorial defence forces [TDF]

TDF commander Voloshchuk confidently says that even after 10 months of trench digging, neither Belarusian soldiers nor civilians want war.

"Russians are dragging them along," the head of the oblast Koval agrees.

The authorities are not ashamed and do not demolish the stele where the Ukrainian and Belarusian flags symbolise good neighbourliness. Koval assures either himself or Belarusians that anybody 200 metres from the column with the number "zero" is not really an enemy:

"The people of Belarus are not the enemy of Ukraine, whereas the military-political leadership is. We believe that after the Ukrainian victory our relations will be restored.

It is very important to have a neighbour with whom you can conduct trade, business relations, as well as social and cultural exchanges. And when you have a point on the map where even a stork turns around, there is nothing good".

Stele between Ukraine and Belarus. The authorities do not plan to demolish it

These, undoubtedly, far-sighted political words will not always coincide with the thoughts of the Ukrainian defender, who will have to shoot in the direction of "not the enemy".

Anti-aircraft gunner Oleksii, serving in the territorial defence forces, is an example of such a fighter. He is a native who grew up in these borderlands. More recently, until 2022, he lived in Israel. When asked why he returned, he answered without hesitation: "Because the war started".

Rivne volunteers prepare evening snacks at the training grounds where the exercises are held

Oleksii also does not plan to forget about Belarus. However, he would not go there now to pick berries:

"In case they come, we will give them a good one. Then I’ll use my ZU [ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft cannon often mounted on a truck – ed.]".


Whether Ukrainian soldiers will have to face the Belarusian military directly is an open question. However, representatives of the Ukrainian military leadership are confident that Putin will do everything to drag Belarusians into an open war

However, we can already say for sure that the full-scale war has caused significant damage to the long-standing good neighbourly relations between the residents of the borderland.

Only future events will show whether these wounds, often running through entire families, are as deep as the ditches on the border of the two states;  and whether the time will ever arrive when these holes can be filled, or whether we will have to build even higher and thicker walls at the border.

Sonia Lukashova, Yevhen Buderatskyi, Ukrainska Pravda

Translators: Elina Beketova, Yulia Kravchenko, Artem Yakymyshyn

Editor: David Matthews

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