In Northern Ukraine, a Different Sort of War Game

Russian forces are shelling border areas there to tie up thousands of Ukrainian troops that might otherwise defend against attacks farther south.

Ukrainian soldiers at a position near the border with Russia this month. Ukrainian officials say Russia is tying down their troops in the region to keep them from battlefields farther south

SLAVHOROD, Ukraine — Out in the snowy fields and birch and oak forests along the far northeastern border with Russia, the war on the Ukrainian side is mostly one of watching and listening.

Working in shifts in the town of Slavhorod, just a mile or two from the border with Russia, Ukrainian soldiers were recently peering through a powerful set of field binoculars at their counterparts milling about a position on the Russian side. From time to time, Russian attack helicopters buzzed about, as artillery fire boomed from the Russian side, as it does nearly every day.

But none of that was cause for concern for the Ukrainian soldiers, even as officials in Kyiv and military analysts have issued a stream of warnings about an imminent Russian offensive, possibly around the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion on Friday.

“We cannot say they are preparing for something. They don’t have heavy weapons to attack,” said Col. Roman Tkach, a border guard officer. “Most likely, they are shooting to keep our forces stretched along the border.”

The fiercest battles in Ukraine are raging elsewhere along a 600-mile crescent from south to east within Ukraine’s borders. If a major Russian counteroffensive does eventually materialize, analysts say it is most likely to occur farther south, in the Donbas region and around Zaporizhzhia.

A different war game seems to be playing out in the Sumy region along the far northern border areas, where cross-border shelling has been occurring for months.

With the help of a powerful telescopic instrument, Ukrainian border guard soldiers in the country’s northeast keep an eye on nearby Russian positions.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

Armies typically fire artillery bombardments to soften defenses for ground assaults. But in northern Ukraine, Russia has fired away at civilian and military targets without any follow-up, apparently with the aim of tying up tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers far from the more decisive battles in southeastern Ukraine, analysts say.

Indeed, along the northern border, the Ukrainian military has dug mazes of fresh trenches. Armored vehicles rumble along the roads, and soldiers fan out to staff the fortified positions, all this activity done to prepare for an offensive that might not come anytime soon.

At the Ukrainian position near Slavhorod, the soldiers look out over the golden stubble of a harvested wheat field dusted with recent snows, receding into gently rolling farm fields and a reedy swamp, from which flocks of robins flutter up whenever a car passes.

A Russian position stands only a mile or two away, visible through the field binoculars, with Slavhorod lying in between. Although the Ukrainian soldiers can clearly see the Russian infantry position across the valley in Russia, they do not fire artillery at it. Their infantry position, in contrast, is regularly shelled.

That is because the Ukrainian government permits its forces only to return fire at Russian artillery, not strike preemptively at Russian infantry positions. And they have to use their Soviet-era weaponry, not the more powerful and accurate howitzers or guided rockets provided by the United States and other allies, who fear attacks on Russian territory with Western weaponry could escalate the war into direct conflict between Russia and NATO.

That limitation is a source of considerable frustration for the Ukrainians all along the front.

The entrance to a dugout next to a Ukrainian checkpoint in the Sumy region. Ukrainian forces there are frustrated by rules of engagement that prevent them from firing on Russian infantry positions.

“It’s one thing for an army to fight an army, another thing when they fight civilians,” said Lieutenant Kostyantyn, who was commanding a position to the south in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region. He and other soldiers asked to be identified only by first name and rank, for security reasons. “I want to tear Russians apart with my bare hands.” 

When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 last year, border guards were ordered to pull back from Slavhorod and most points at or near the border, said a Ukrainian commander, Colonel Serhiy.

A hidden camera that Colonel Serhiy set up in Slavhorod captured Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbling in just after dawn, he said. Then they rumbled back the other way, having taken a wrong turn. That typified the Russian assault, Colonel Serhiy said. Bogged down after a month of punishing ambushes, the Russians eventually retreated.

Safely across the border, the Russian army began shooting back into Ukraine in barrages that have become more intense in recent months. “Every day since, the border regions are shelled,” Colonel Serhiy said.

Russia has fired rocket artillery and incendiary shells that burst in the air above the ground, sending down a brilliant, white rain of burning phosphorus and other chemicals, sent jets and attack helicopters on sorties and deployed sabotage units to slip across the border and plant land mines.

A Ukrainian military report of shelling on Wednesday, for example, cited artillery strikes on dozens of villages, all along the border. “We file reports like that every day,” Colonel Serhiy said.

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