Imminent attack from Belarus border 'unlikely' as Ukrainian soldiers take no chances

Europe Editor James Mates reports from Chernihiv - just a few miles from that crucial dividing line with Belurus

Words by ITV News Foreign Producer Natasha Tierney

On Ukraine's border with Belarus, just north of the city of Chernihiv, you don't have to search hard to find the fortified trenches that now snake their way through much of the pine forest.

A year ago, in the early hours of the 24th of February, Russian tanks first rolled across the border here hoping to advance on the capital.

Residents in the towns and villages nearby were the first to face Russian occupation, with their defences little match for the invaders.

Twelve months on, and once again there are fears that Russia could be making plans for a new offensive from the north, even if only to divert the Ukrainian army's attention away from the eastern front. 

Speculation has mounted that an attack could come from Belarus.

With around 10,000 Russian soldiers stationed in Belarus, recent joint military drills and meetings between their respective presidents Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko have increased speculation that Belarus could be about to take a more active role in the war.

Ukrainian soldiers on the border are taking no chances, and have spent the months since liberation building and fortifying new trenches, and learning how to use their newly supplied weapons. All told us they are now fully prepared to push back any new advance.

"Of course they will come again," one soldier told us, as he and his unit showed us their training exercises in the snow. "And we will meet them." The hope for now is that threat may not be imminent.

Ukrainian military intelligence officials have told ITV News that although they are closely monitoring their northern neighbour, they don't believe an invasion from Belarus will happen in the coming weeks: "We understand Belarus's efforts are to support Russia and refrain from joining the war themselves, but we also know how much Russia is pressuring them.

"The Belarusian military must obey Lukashenko’s commands and could still attack. However, according to our intelligence, an invasion from the territory of Belarus in the next two to three weeks is highly unlikely," said Andriy Chernyak, a spokesperson for the ministry of defence.

"They just don't have the manpower for that at the moment."

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know.

It also helps that un-seasonally warm temperatures this winter have meant much of the frozen ground Russia advanced over this time last year is now marshland, and would be almost impossible to pass through with tanks and armoured vehicles. 

This winter’s weather has been on Ukraine’s side.

So for now it is aerial attacks - missiles and drones frequently launched from Belarussian territory - that remain a more pressing concern.

Newly trained units of "drone-hunters" are stationed along the border too, and must be constantly on the lookout.

"We are on alert at all times and drive out day and night. We watch the skies all the time", one told us.

Just behind the frontline, it's not hard to see where this determination comes from.

As Nina tried to escape she watched on as a Russian missile destroyed her home and killed her dog.

Towns and villages here all show the scars of Russian occupation, and many communities have been reduced to rubble.

We met Nina outside what was once her home, before it was destroyed by Russian shelling.

The whole street is still in ruins more than 10 months after liberation, with most of those who stayed now living in shipping container housing provided by the Polish govenment.

"The building we lived in had two apartments, everything is destroyed. I have seven members in my family - we've lost everything," she told us.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know.