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Ukraine prepares for new offensive as Russia and Belarus begin joint drills


DNIPROVS’KE, Ukraine – The smell of sawdust hangs in the air around a network of carefully dug trenches in a quiet, densely forested area on the Ukraine-Belarus border.

Freshly cut planks reinforce the 5-foot-tall earthen walls in the channels that criss-cross the forest floor. Every few meters, logs on top form a sort of shelter, the makeshift roof covered with branches and dirt for camouflage.

Ukraine braces for battle in this peaceful forest glade less than a five-minute drive from the border with close ally Russia. Originally built in April, Ukrainian forces continue to update and reinforce defenses such as these trenches, amid reports of Russian troops and armor pouring into Belarus.

On Monday, Belarus and Russia began joint military exercises, adding to fears that Moscow will use its ally to launch a new ground offensive, as it did during the invasion in February. Air force drills will be held until Feb. 1 using all Belarusian military airfields and joint military drills involving a “mechanized brigade subdivision”, the Belarusian Defense Ministry said.

Standing beside an empty trench, Sr. Lt. Anton knows he and his men must be on high alert – the next attack could strike anywhere along the front lines spanning thousands of kilometers.

“In all areas of our responsibility, we build these fortifications to be able to defend and mount counter-offensives clandestinely,” said the 32-year-old father of four and former civilian border guard. “The potential offensive from the Belarusian side could come from anywhere. That’s why we are preparing for all scenarios.

The officer only uses his first name because he is on active duty, a reflection of the heightened security along the border. Another is that the soldiers who built the trenches were temporarily evacuated from the area before NBC News arrived for security reasons.

Passing through the town of Chernihiv, nervous police demanded identification papers from NBC News. More soldiers than civilians seemed to be on the streets.

Still, a Russian push is more likely to come from occupied territory to the east, Vadym Skibitsky, Ukraine’s deputy military intelligence chief, told NBC News.

“We are now focusing on the reserves and troop groups that Russia places in the temporarily occupied territories. We are talking about the period of winter spring, in three main directions: Donbass, Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia,” Skibitsky said on Thursday.

On the other side of the Dnipro river from Belarus, not far from the trenches, the Ukrainian forces are taking no risks.

A vast bridge between the two countries plunged into the icy water below, having been destroyed by Kyiv forces to thwart Russia’s advance shortly after the February invasion.

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