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Ukraine prepares for an ongoing defense on its border with Belarus

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We're going to take you now to the north of Ukraine and its border with Belarus. This border has been quiet for months, but Ukraine's military is hard at work there, preparing for what it believes could be a years-long defense. NPR's Kyiv correspondent Joanna Kakissis reports from the northwestern region of Volyn. And a warning - this story has sound of artillery.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAW BUZZING)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: I'm in the middle of a pine forest in northwestern Ukraine, and I'm walking around a construction site. Those who are building this construction site have gone to great pains to keep as many trees as possible because they're building an underground bunker here, and the trees are cover. A Ukrainian military engineer named Anton is supervising this project. Like the other soldiers interviewed in this report, he declined to give his last name for security reasons.

ANTON: (Through interpreter) This isn't a frontline, not yet at least. But we will continue to monitor this border as long as Russian troops are in Belarus.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

KAKISSIS: Anton leads us downstairs into the bunker. We walk through a labyrinth of hallways. Our last stop is a large room filled with several TV screens.

ANTON: (Through interpreter) Joint commander center.

KAKISSIS: Joint commander center. OK.

Stanislav, a 34-year-old computer scientist, is the tech support here.

STANISLAV: All these videos are from borders, and we have a live stream from the cameras from there. Even if something will start from border, invaders or something else, we will see it.

KAKISSIS: In the first days of the war, Russian troops entered Ukraine from Belarus before retreating. Ukrainian authorities say there are now about 11,000 Russian troops over the Belarusian border, just 10% of the number before the war. Most are likely east of this location, where the terrain isn't as muddy and swampy. But that does not mean saboteurs and infantry cannot cross here on foot.

To see the border up close, we go deeper into the woods to a small military outpost.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Hi, everybody.

(CROSSTALK)

KAKISSIS: Hello.

This camp is walking distance to Belarus, and the troops stationed here watch the border for any suspicious activity. A gray-haired soldier using the call sign STURMAN says he noticed something troubling on his patrol about a week ago.

STURMAN: (Through interpreter) I saw a man in military clothes digging trenches and fortifications on the Belarus side of the border. I saw them with my own eyes.

KAKISSIS: We drive away from the border to another military outpost.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS SPLASHING)

KAKISSIS: We have to trudge through swampy, half-frozen earth to reach it. The soldiers here are learning to use heavy weapons.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Shouting in non-English language).

(SOUNDBITE OF HOWITZER FIRING)

KAKISSIS: This is a howitzer, something between a mortar and a cannon.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOWITZER FIRING)

KAKISSIS: The shells used as artillery are rusty from years in storage....

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: ...So soldiers are wiping them down.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: One of the soldiers, Vadym, who used to be a banker, decided to write a message in English on one of the shells. It says, Biden, thank you for the weapons. We need more.

VADYM: Now we here, but we waiting. We understand that we will move near the front line.

KAKISSIS: You're all preparing to do that.

VADYM: Every day. Every day.

KAKISSIS: He says several soldiers from this area have already left for the eastern town of Bakhmut, where the Ukrainian military are reportedly surrounded on three sides by Russian forces.

VADYM: It's our job. We protect our country, and we will protect it whenever we need.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOWITZER FIRING)

KAKISSIS: After the training, the soldiers gather around a fire and fry potatoes and ham for lunch. They raise their mugs of coffee to those who have left for the eastern front line, those who may not return.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, in northwestern Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.