It’s a frigid Friday in Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and dozens of journalists in fluorescent yellow vests are frantically elbowing each other as they vie for camera position in a town where no one has lived since 1986.
Chernobyl has been abandoned since the world’s worst nuclear disaster here three decades ago. But with tens of thousands of Russian troops amassing on Ukraine’s border with Belarus just a few miles away, the ghost town is now playing host to security forces training for war. Ukraine is using Chernobyl to prepare for another potential cataclysm.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has consistently denied that the Kremlin is planning an incursion into Ukraine. Russia’s deployments in Belarus are ostensibly linked to joint exercises due to begin on Thursday. However, satellite photographs show Russian camps being established close to the border with Ukraine, hundreds of miles from where the exercises are taking place.
If Russia were to invade Ukraine, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is a possible conduit to Kyiv. American and NATO officials say President Putin is steadily increasing his military presence in Belarus from 5,000 troops in January to an estimated 30,000 sometime this month.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday that the deployment into Belarus is Russia’s biggest since the Cold War, and many of those forces are just a two-hour drive from Kyiv.
The air is thick with sulfur as national guard troops clear the town of imagined enemy soldiers, firing hundreds of rounds of live ammunition into plywood cutouts in the windows of surrounding buildings.
A sniper fires into an orange target high in an apartment block. A mortar is launched into a snowy clearing. An armored vehicle trundles past roadblocks to confront assailants held up in the second story of a building.
More than 35 years ago, an explosion at the Vladimir Lenin Nuclear Power Plant forced a region-wide evacuation, sending radioactive fallout billowing across Europe. Thirty-one people died in the blast, while millions were exposed to dangerous radiation levels. Estimates of the final death toll from long-term health problems are as high as 200,000.
Now, in training for war, Ukraine has brought the world’s media along to see.
Denys Monastyrsky, Ukraine’s internal affairs minister, told journalists that security forces were using the Chernobyl exercises to demonstrate how far they have come in urban combat tactics since Russia annexed Crimea and pro-Russian separatists seized a swathe of eastern Ukraine nearly eight years ago.
“All these scenarios are taken and summarized from the cases that have occurred since 2014,” Monastyrsky said.
The spectacle, however, is also an attempt by Kyiv to match the glitzy propaganda effort coming out of Moscow.
On the diplomatic front, Russia has repeatedly accused NATO of being the party responsible for the crisis, arguing the alliance’s eastward expansion poses an existential threat. Russia’s Defense Ministry, meanwhile, is pumping out propaganda videos worthy of a Hollywood production, with tank columns driving at maximum speed across the frozen steppe and ground-attack fighters swooping into bases in southern Belarus.
The exact nature of Russia’s threat to Ukraine remains unclear and a point of contention.
Ukrainian officials have spent much of the past few weeks playing down the US estimation that a Russian invasion could be “imminent,” concerned that the dire language was causing panic and destabilizing the economy.
“We have the same facts, but the different perception, or a different estimation,” Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told CNN after watching the exercises in Chernobyl.
The White House is no longer calling a potential invasion “imminent” due to concerns, they say, that the term suggests Putin has already made a decision to invade Ukraine.
Nonetheless, Ukraine admits that Russia’s military buildup in Belarus is worrying.
‘Only a fool would start a war’
War is far from the minds of many Ukrainians who live near the border where Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia meet.
“They’ve been saying ‘a war is coming’ for five years now,” said one man who asked not to be named.
“Only a fool would start a war,” he said. “There won’t be any winners.”
At the Three Sisters Cafe, named for the three former Soviet republics, 64-year-old Masha pours espresso in paper cups for the weary drivers who wander in.
Truck after truck is waiting to cross into Russia. Some are stuck for days, slowed by Covid restrictions. They have few options but to wait and sip a hot drink from the cafe.
Masha is convinced: No war is coming here.
“It ain’t gonna happen,” she yells, waving her hand in the air. “Will Putin go to war with civilians? He won’t do that. Never in his life. It’s all lies, politics. We don’t even think about it.”
She works in the cafe, she says, to supplement her pension, which is the equivalent of about $77 a month. She is less concerned with the geopolitical games being played by world leaders than the hardships of everyday life.
“If I could, I would have the Parliament dissolved,” she said. “They should have given the people proper pensions. So that people won’t be beggars, paupers.”
Peter Vujcic, a Serb truck driver old enough to remember war in his own country, is also unconcerned.
Vujcic spoke to CNN while on his way to the Serbian capital, Belgrade, shortly after crossing Belarus’ border with Russia. He said he’s seen military hardware coming back and forth in the Belarus, but he’s not worried about it.
“Everything will be fine,” he said with a smile, leaning out of his cab window.
CNN’s Mark Esplin and journalist Kostan Nechyporenko contributed to this story.