All is not quiet on the Western Front, but the drumbeat of war along the long Ukraine-Russian border is nowhere near as loud as it sounds in Moscow.
According to dire warnings from U.S. military and intelligence officials, Russian President Vladimir Putin, fresh from his daring annexation of Ukraine’s strategic Crimean Peninsula, has concentrated tens of thousands of his forces on the border with Ukraine. Camouflaged and concealed to throw off U.S. spy satellites, the warnings say, the heavily armed combat troops and special operations forces are coiled and ready to spring across the border into restive regions of Eastern and Southern Ukraine such as Kharkov and Donetsk, where pro-Russian populations are eager to be annexed by Russia, just like Crimea.
Top Russian officials – including Putin himself – have denied any such troop concentrations near the Western border. One minor Ministry of Defense official, who didn’t want to be named because he wasn’t authorized to comment, told NBC News that there had been training exercises – war games – in the border region but, once ended, those troops and armor returned to their bases. “All of this international hype is completely unfounded,” he told us earlier in the week.
Still, the stream of YouTube video clips and photos seemed to tell a different story: long convoys of Russian armored personnel carriers on a highway headed toward Ukraine; tanks and artillery pieces moving by rail on dozens of train cars; squads of MI-24 combat helicopters perched on a hill near Belgorod, only 20 miles from Ukraine. Are these preparations for a Chechnya-like invasion, or just more maneuvers meant to intimidate Ukrainians and the West?
We went to look for ourselves. Cameraman Dmitry Solovyov, sound engineer Alexei Gordienko and I packed our bags, devices and news-gathering gadgets into the back of our grey, nondescript bureau minivan and began a journey along the 1,200 mile border between Russia and Ukraine – many segments of which give no indication that it’s an actual border between two countries.
Sudzha, a small town in the region of Kursk, site of the biggest tank battle of World War II, was our first destination. A tank column had been spotted there, 5 miles from the border, about a week before. But as we drove around the quaint town – equally proud of its freshly painted Orthodox Church and its bronze statue of Vladimir Lenin – we saw no tanks, or even armored personnel carriers. We did see ATM machines on almost every block. All was quiet. There was no tension in the air. Outside town, farmers were planting winter wheat.
We traveled some 500 miles along the border – sometimes right next to Ukraine, at other times 30 to 40 miles from it – before we came across any sign of military activity. As we passed Belgorod’s army base, near the airport, I recognized the same MI-24 choppers I’d seen on the Internet. We got lucky – a pair took off as we drove past. We turned back to see them banking within the base’s perimeter. Nearby, clusters of military vehicles, mostly heavy trucks, were out in the open, but where were the tanks and artillery?
In Belgorod – the Russian city adjacent to the restive Ukrainian city of Karkov – we were briefly detained by 2 officers of the Russian FSB security service after driving right up to the border gate and asking people about the rumors of impending war. (The taxi drivers said they were angry because the Ukrainian border guards weren’t letting any Russians into the country – fearing provocations – which had dried up their business.)
We had apparently wandered into a prohibited, 3-mile wide security zone. But the agents of the former KGB were polite, even willing to talk on background.
“Look over there, ‘’said the regional chief, pointing toward the border crossing. “The Ukrainians have tanks just inside. Can you imagine if a trained, Right Sector (Ukrainian ultra-nationalist militant) commandeers the vehicle and fires on us?”
Did he think that Kiev would give that order, I asked?
“No, I don’t. But we have no faith that Kiev can prevent such an incident,” he replied. After some two hours of discussion, we were let go, each with a photocopy of the law we’d broken. ‘’You’re not the first ones,’’ said the chief, seeing us off.
After the Belgorod confrontation, we spent the next two days traversing seemingly endless farmland on pot-holed roads, passing chicken coups and old ladies selling buckets of apples -- but no signs of brewing war.
"If Russians and Ukrainians on the other side unite, it would be better for everyone."
We found more army bases -- in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky and Rostov, both near Ukraine’s southeastern border -- but the only activity we saw was some serious latrine duty and a band of conscripts enjoying a friendly wrestling match.
Russian villagers living just 5 miles from the border in Novoshakhtinsky -- one of the most likely invasion routes into Donetsk -- didn’t believe Putin would give the order.
“If Russians and Ukrainians on the other side unite, it would be better for everyone,” offered Vladimir Kasianov, an unemployed 30-something who echoed the sentiments of many Russians we talked to along the border. But Kasianov didn’t want a military solution. “Everything must be done through politics, not war,” he told us.
We ended our journey in Rostov-on-Don, where the Russian-Ukrainian land border melts into the Sea of Azov, after 1,000 miles and 80 hours. But were we any closer to knowing if a war between Moscow and Kiev had been averted, or was just around the corner? The answer seemed to beg still another question: Will Russia’s most popular and powerful politician listen to his own people?