The roar of machine guns echoed through the abandoned buildings of Pripyat, in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, where soldiers of the Ukrainian National Guard carried out on Friday urban combat exercises.
The training held in one of the most radioactive sites on the planet was done amid fears of a potential Russian invasion. Moscow has amassed more than 100,000 soldiers on the border with Ukraine and has sent personnel to Belarus, 10km to the north, for joint exercises.
For the Ukrainian forces, the deserted streets and apartment buildings of Pripyat, empty since residents were evacuated after the 1986 nuclear disaster, are a perfect training ground. Soldiers in camouflage gear practiced dislodging armed attackers from buildings, firing mortar rounds, and engaging snipers in urban conditions.
Emergency services staged evacuations, in which a loudspeaker on a drone asks residents to leave, and put out fires caused by the fighting. “Since there are no civilians around here, we can do the exercises with live ammunition in a situation as close to urban warfare as possible,” said a soldier who identified himself as Litva.
Washington maintains that Russia is preparing a total invasion of Ukraine
But training inside the exclusion zone has its risks. Before the training, the first of its kind in Pripyat, workers with radioactivity meters evaluated the route to verify that there were no radioactive sources.
“Everything has been checked and there is no danger,” Litva assured confidently, clutching his automatic rifle.
Some Western rulers insist that the presence of Russian troops on the border is a real and urgent threat, but authorities in Kiev warned against “panic “.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov downplayed the possibility of an incursion by Russian forces from Belarus.
The United States has said there could be as many as 30,000 Russian troops in the country, but Reznikov insisted the “several thousand” Russians across the border in Belarus are not enough for an attack.
He also cited the difficult terrain as an obstacle, as well as the danger of radiation if they try to pass the exclusion zone towards the capital, Kiev.
US says it will work to ‘prevent’ any action in region
“This area is very difficult to cross. Forests, swamps, rivers, it is difficult to cross on foot, even more so with a tank,” Reznikov told journalists taken to the exclusion zone to observe the exercises.
“And don’t forget that, since the disaster, some highly radioactive areas remain on the route from Belarus,” he recalled.
Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy said that due to increased tensions, security has been reinforced around all nuclear reactors, including the Chernobyl site, now covered by a huge protective sarcophagus.
“We are absolutely certain that the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is not under threat,” Monastyrskiy said. But the National Guard forces in Pripyat were not training to counter a full-scale Russian invasion.
They prepared for the threat of uniformed infiltrators who could take over buildings and destabilize the country. That’s what happened when Russia seized the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and started fueling the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian authorities insist that internal destabilization is their main concern. “We have to show our ability to react to any event,” Monastyrskiy said.