Residents of the Ukrainian town of Ovruch, just 15 kilometers from the border with Belarus, know that if the current crisis with Russia metastasized into a full military conflict, their community could be the first the invaders would come to.
“Teachers remind us that if there is [is] an offensive by the Russian Federation or Belarus, we shouldn’t panic,” Ivan Trostenyuk, a 14-year-old eighth grader at local school number three, said in a recent interview with CBC News as he was going home.
“Our [Ukrainian] the soldiers will help us.”
While Ovruch has a population of just 15,000, it is 200 km – or about two and a half hours’ drive – north of the capital, Kiev. The newly renovated highway south of Ovruch is one of the fastest routes to reach the political and economic center of Ukraine.
For weeks, Russia has sent troops and advanced weapons to Belarus, with some of the staging areas within 30 km of Ukraine. Military experts estimate there could now be more than 30,000 Russian troops in Belarus, and on Thursday they began moving in formation and conducting live-fire drills in exercises called Allied Resolve.
More than 130,000 Russians in total have gathered in places near Ukraine’s land border, in addition to a large naval deployment in the Black Sea.
Putin ‘just can’t back down’
Some Western analysts say the Russian deployment to Belarus represents the largest Russian troop movement there since well before the end of the Cold War. It also gives President Vladimir Putin and his generals additional options to attack Ukraine, should they choose to do so.
“When you have this amount of troops amassed at the borders, with the amount of naval power [Putin] moved into the Black Sea, with the amount of air power he has, he has to do something. He just can’t back down,” said Canadian Mychailo Wynnyckyj, associate professor of sociology and director of the doctoral program at Kyiv-Mohyla Business School.
Putin demanded that the United States and NATO rewrite existing security agreements in Europe, refuse to admit Ukraine to NATO and withdraw all foreign troops from former Soviet republics or former members of the Warsaw Pact. , such as Poland and Romania.
Wynnyckyj says Putin knows such demands cannot be met, and so he and many Ukrainians are preparing for the worst. “I think he’s going to move in.”
At the school in Ovruch, and others across Ukraine, teachers trained children in emergency drills in case the conflict escalated.
“The action plan for the children depends on the signal we receive,” said headmistress Ludmyla Zalizko of school number three in Ovruch.
“If bombings or other scenarios [happen]we could move to the basement, or outside.”
Several students told CBC News that psychologists came to their classes to try to reassure them but also to prepare them in case their city was attacked.
“We are not as worried as [the grown-ups] said Ivan Trostenyuk. “I think everything will be fine.
Heed the instructions
Other students said their parents trained them on home emergency plans.
“I live in a house and we have our own basement, where we already have a stock of food and other things, and we can go down there in 30 seconds,” 13-year-old Vania Zubiychuk said.
“If I’m in school [when an attack comes]I have to listen to the instructions of a teacher or adults around, and if at home … [I] listen and do whatever the parents ask you to do.”
Volodymyr Kublynsky, also 13, said his parents told him the less he told people about the political situation, the better. They say, “we shouldn’t be provocative, nobody should blow this up.”
The CBC News team spent several hours one day this week driving through Ukraine’s border areas north of Kiev and saw no evidence of the country’s military or mobilization efforts to protect the capital or the border region.
Nor, apparently, many people who live in Ovruch.
Petro Levkivsky, a municipal politician, says he understands his government wants to avoid panicking people, but a show of force would make people feel better.
“I’d rather see something happen,” he said. “I would rather there was a huge fence [at the border] and there were many troops to protect us.”
Levkivsky said the Ukrainian military has improved significantly with the help of foreign countries, such as Canada, and this gives him hope that if hostilities break out, Ukraine will have a strong defense.
“It gives me confidence that we have an experienced army,” he said. “We are truly grateful that our foreign partners are providing military assistance, and we hope this will deter the aggressor and there will be virtually no war in central Europe.”
Ukraine’s government has released a video of its own tanks and soldiers carrying out exercises east of the capital, near the cities of Kharkiv and Kherson, and says its preparations will reflect Russia’s schedule for its exercises until 20 February.
In addition, there have recently been almost daily flights from the United States bringing new weapons to the Ukrainian military, including Javelin anti-tank missiles and other small arms ammunition.
Most Ukrainians see the current crisis with Russia as a continuation of a conflict that began in 2014, when Putin ordered his troops to seize the Crimean peninsula.
Shortly after, separatists in eastern Ukraine – which are supplied, financed and armed by Russia – launched an offensive against the Ukrainian army, in a conflict that has left more than 13,000 people dead. combatants and civilians.
Warnings from the US, Britain and others that a Russian attack could be ‘imminent’ come as no surprise to a war-weary nation that has spent years expecting an escalation from Russia at some point.
Wynnyckyj says like others in the country, he is preparing but also determined to carry on with his life as usual.
“We have 60 liters of water, just in case. We have lots of dried food and tinned food, just in case the electricity goes out for a few weeks, which might happen.”
But, he insisted, “it’s not panic. And we don’t have panic in the streets.”
In the border town of Ovruch, there is a sense of resignation that if an invasion did occur, it might not be possible to flee.
“If the incursion happens, it would happen suddenly, so we won’t have time to leave,” said Levkivsky, the local politician. “I have three children and no car. We won’t have time to escape.”
In this case, he says the plan would simply be for him and his family to stay put and do the best they can, as other Ukrainians did when their territory was invaded.
“Our compatriots in eastern Ukraine have experienced this, the Crimeans have experienced it too, we too, we will experience it too.”