DNIPROVS’KE, Ukraine — The smell of sawdust hangs in the air around a network of neatly dug trenches in a quiet and densely forested area on Ukraine’s border with Belarus.
Freshly cut planks reinforce the 5-foot high earth walls in the channels crisscrossing the forest floor. Every few meters, logs across the top form a kind of shelter, the makeshift roof covered in branches and earth for camouflage.
Ukraine is preparing for battle in this quiet forest clearing less than five minutes driving from the border with Russia‘s close ally. Originally built in April, Ukrainian forces continue to update and strengthen 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 the invasion in February. Air force drills will be held until Feb. 1 using all of Belarus’ military air fields and joint army exercises involving a “mechanized brigade subdivision,” the Belarusian defense ministry said.
Standing next to an empty trench, Sr. Lt. Anton knows that he and his men have to be on high alert — the next attack could strike anywhere along front lines stretching thousands of miles.
“In all areas of our responsibility we are building these fortifications to be able to defend and mount counter offensives clandestinely,” the 32-year-old a father of four and a former civilian border guard said. “The potential offensive from the Belarusian side could come from anywhere. That’s why we are getting ready for all scenarios.”
The officer uses only 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 cleared from the area before NBC News’s arrival for security reasons.
Passing through the city of Chernihiv, jittery police demanded identification papers from NBC News. More military personnel than civilians appeared to be on the streets.
Still, a Russian push is more likely to come from occupied territory in the east, Vadym Skibitsky, Ukraine’s deputy military intelligence chief told NBC News.
“We are now focused on the reserves and groupings of troops that Russia is putting in the temporarily occupied territories. We’re talking about the winter spring period, in three main directions: Donbas, Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia,” Skibitsky said on Thursday.
Across the Dnipro river from Belarus, not far from the trenches, Ukrainian forces are taking no chances.
A vast bridge between the two countries plunged into the icy water below, having been blown up by Kyiv’s forces to stymie Russia’s advance shortly after the February invasion.