As Lieutenant Colonel Yuriy Trubachev walked through the thick snow, he pointed out the camera tower, the anti-tank ditch, the mounds of disturbed earth, and the barbed-wire fences that separate Ukraine from Russia.
“We are the first line of defense for our country,” he told me. “We are preparing for all kinds of scenarios to make sure we protect our borders.”
This may seem like a daunting task with large numbers of Russian troops gathering beyond the fields and woods in the distance and amid growing talk of an invasion, but the veteran border officer said his men are ready to repel Vladimir Putin’s forces.
“We have been preparing for this moment for eight years. We knew it might come one day and we felt fully prepared.’
In 2014, attempts were made to capture the nearby city of Kharkiv when the Kremlin covertly backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. But the forces were defeated and the country’s former capital remained loyal, unlike two other major cities in the Russian-speaking eastern regions.
Now, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned that Russia could attack Kharkiv again, so border guards meeting Lt. Col. Trubachiov on this icy front 25 miles from the city have the uphill task of stopping to Putin.
Journalist Ian Birrell (pictured) near the Russian border on January 25.
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, ready to attack Ukraine.
All that stands between us and a Russian invasion force is a 6-foot-deep moat, a 4-foot-wide mound of dirt, and razor-wire fences that slide across fields covered in snow, supported by watchtowers, some trenches and reinforced concrete bunkers. .
Walking through the fortifications with Ukrainian border guards (whose previous duties were dealing with smugglers and illicit crossings), I asked if such a powerful invasion force could really be stopped by such defenses. Lt. Col. Trubachev said that cameras, satellites and ten-mile lines of sight offered a good warning if Russian troops were advancing, and that his task was to delay any invasion until Ukrainian reinforcements arrived.
“If there is a strong Russian offensive, we will try to stop it long enough for the army to come here,” the officer said.
The fortifications, built along much of the Kharkiv region’s 175-mile border with Russia, are designed to stop mechanized vehicles, which would need specialized equipment to clear the barriers. “This would take time,” said Lieutenant Colonel Trubachev.
The Ukrainians also have a trained unit of reservists with anti-tank weapons that can be called up at short notice.
Some analysts say the Russians prefer to fight when they can move their tanks and forces quickly over icy ground, though Lt. Col. Trubachiov believes the snow-covered view gives his defenses a clearer view of any movement on the ground.
Yet as I looked across the border to Russia, my face and toes aching from the sub-zero cold and my boots soaking wet after stepping into the snow, this has to be one of the least enviable posts on the planet.
I asked this lieutenant colonel, a 25-year veteran of the Ukrainian State Border Guard, if he is afraid. “We are not afraid,” he said firmly, although he admitted that the situation is alarming. We will do whatever it takes. That is our job.
Talk like a real soldier.
Meanwhile, the closest substantial Russian army buildup is reported to be at least 125 miles away, giving his men a warning of any significant invasion of the Kremlin and advance on Kharkiv.
A Russian paratrooper attending a military exercise at the Pesochnoe training ground in Yaroslavl region, Russia
Helicopter combat drills are held in the Leningrad region of western Russia.
The Baltic Sea battleship is seen departing for the Atlantic Ocean
Russian forces are shown firing rockets during their artillery exercises in the Kemerovo region.
Yesterday, Ukraine’s security forces claimed to have arrested two Russian-backed saboteurs who were planning attacks with the aim of destabilizing the region.
Many fear Putin will use such “provocations” as an excuse for a military response, a trick he used in 2014 to seize Crimea and fuel bloody insurgencies in Donetsk and Lugansk.
About 25 miles from the front, in the small town of Veseloe, I met a middle-aged man named Sergiy who was buying cigarettes in a store stocked with bread, pastries, sausages and vodka.
He told me that some friends in a neighboring town who had been picking mushrooms were detained by Russian soldiers. “They thought they were trying to escape,” he said. So we know your troops are there.
I was worried? ‘Why should we be scared?’ answered. The Russians would be here in ten minutes, as we are 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 don’t expect a war with Russia, but the shop was stocked with items such as cereal, sugar and frozen dumplings, as some residents, concerned about reports, are stockpiling.
A proud Ukrainian woman who waved the blue and yellow national flag from her window during the 2014 conflict, when hundreds of soldiers were housed in tents along the street, said her patriotic gesture angered many residents.
Because she estimates that half of Veseloe’s 1,500 residents are pro-Russian, including the man who lives above her shop where we talked with our hands around cups of hot coffee.
“If, God forbid, the tanks come, I’m worried that half the people here will bring flowers to greet them,” Bilyk said.
“I think they would execute us because my husband was in the army for seven years and we are pro-Ukrainian.”
These are struggling towns, with declining populations and a shortage of decent jobs. They are suffering from rising costs as inflation rises, energy prices soar and the Ukrainian currency falls thanks to Putin’s encirclement of the nation.
A Russian soldier attends a military exercise at a training ground in Moscow.
Russian troops take part in a drill in the Samara region amid rising tensions with Ukraine.
The tanks are positioned in a military district bordering Ukraine amid escalating tensions between the two nations.
A helicopter flies over Leningrad in western Russia during training exercises.
It is therefore not surprising that such places are vulnerable to Kremlin propaganda with false promises of a better future.
Despite his patriotism, Bilyk was scathing about his leaders’ failure to help the poorer citizens of his city. Ironically, the name Veseloe translates to ‘cheerful’; however, the struggle of those towns became clear when an elderly woman, obviously in worse shape, entered the store to fill a plastic container with hard liquor.
Oleksiy Zimoglyg, the commune’s elected leader, said: “I should think about the development of our villages instead of worrying about the army and the war.”
But he added that ‘our worst enemy is snow’, words that struck a chord with me as temperatures reached -8C (18F) in Kharkiv last night.
Certainly few would argue with Oksana, 27, another shop worker in the city, who said she can no longer bear to watch the television news as the threat of conflict looms.
“War is horrible,” he said. “It was crazy in 2014 with all the military equipment and armored vehicles rolling through the streets. I hope it never comes back.
These are scary times here, in more ways than one. No one knows if Putin will unleash his war forces. But if he does, unflappable Lieutenant Colonel Yuriy Trubachev vows that his men will do everything they can to stop Russia’s formidable military machine.