In a Ukrainian border town, children practise drills and stockpile supplies in case of Russian attack

Russia and Belarus have started major military exercises along Ukraine's border, which some Western experts fear could be used as cover to launch an attack. In one Ukrainian border town, school children are practising drills in case that happens.

Schools and families preparing children for possibility of war

These Grade 8 students in Ovruch, Ukraine, which is very close to the border with Belarus, have all been training for the possibility of a Russian invasion. (Carly Thomas/CBC)

People in the Ukrainian town of Ovruch, a scant 15 kilometres from the border with Belarus, know that should the current crisis with Russia metastasize into a full-on military conflict, their community could be the first that invaders come to.

"Teachers remind us that if there [is] an offensive from the Russian Federation or Belarus, we shouldn't panic," said Ivan Trostenyuk, a 14-year-old eighth grader at local School Number Three, in a recent interview with CBC News while on his way home.

"Our [Ukrainian] soldiers will help us."

While Ovruch only has a population of 15,000, it is 200 km — or roughly a two-and-half-hour drive — north of the capital, Kyiv. The recently upgraded highway south of Ovruch is one of the fastest routes to reach Ukraine's political and economic centre.

For weeks, Russia has been pouring troops and advanced weaponry into Belarus, with some of the staging areas less than 30 km from Ukraine. Military experts estimate there may now be more than 30,000 Russian troops inside Belarus, and on Thursday, they began moving in formation and conducting live-fire exercises in drills called Allied Resolve.

In this still image taken from video released Feb. 11, military vehicles are seen doing a joint military exercise between the armed forces of Russia and Belarus at the Brestsky training ground in Brest Region, Belarus. (Russian Defence Ministry handout)

More than 130,000 Russians in total have assembled at locations near Ukraine's land border, in addition to a large naval deployment in the Black Sea.

Putin 'simply can't back down'

Some Western analysts claim the Russian deployment in Belarus represents the largest movement of Russian troops into that country since long before the end of the Cold War. It also provides President Vladimir Putin and his generals with additional options to attack Ukraine, should they choose to do so.

"When you have this amount of troops amassing on the borders, with the amount of naval power [Putin] has moved into the Black Sea, with the amount of air power that he has, he has to do something. He just simply can't back down," said Canadian Mychailo Wynnyckyj, an associate professor of sociology and director of the doctoral program at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School.

Putin has demanded that the U.S. and NATO rewrite existing security arrangements in Europe, refuse to ever admit Ukraine to NATO and pull all foreign troops out of former Soviet republics or past members of the Warsaw Pact, such as Poland and Romania.

Canadian-Ukrainian Mychailo Wynnyckyj teaches in Kyiv. He thinks Putin is unlikely to back down from the military build-up on Ukraine's border. (Carly Thomas/CBC)

Wynnyckyj says Putin knows such demands cannot be met, and so he and many Ukrainians are preparing for the worst. "I think he's going to be moving in."

At the school in Ovruch, and others all over Ukraine, teachers have been taking children through emergency drills in case the conflict escalates.

"The plan of action for the kids depends on what signal we get," said principal Ludmyla Zalizko at School Number Three in Ovruch.

"If shelling or other scenarios [happen], we might move to the basement, or to the outside."

Several students told CBC News that psychologists have come into their classrooms to try to reassure them but also prepare them in case their town is attacked.

"We are not as worried as [the grown-ups] are," said Ivan Trostenyuk. "I think everything is going to be alright."

Heeding instructions

Other students said their parents have been drilling them on emergency plans at home. 

"I live in a house, and we have our own basement, where we already have a stock of food and other stuff, and we can get down there in 30 seconds," said 13-year-old Vania Zubiychuk.

The Transfiguration Church is the dominant landmark in Ovruch, Ukraine. (Chris Brown/CBC)

"If I am at school [when an attack comes], I've got to listen to instructions of a teacher or any grown-ups around, and if at home ... [I] listen to and do whatever the parents ask to do."

Volodymyr Kublynsky, also 13, said his parents have told him the less he talks to people about the political situation, the better. They say, "we shouldn't be provocative, no one should inflate this."

The CBC News crew spent several hours one day this week driving through Ukraine's border areas north of Kyiv, and didn't see any evidence of the country's army or mobilization efforts to protect the capital or border region. 

Nor, apparently, have many people who live in Ovruch.

Petro Levkivsky, a municipal politician, says he understands his government wants to avoid panicking people, but a show of force would make people feel better.

"I'd rather see something going on," he said. "I would prefer there was a huge fence [at the border] and there were lots of troops to protect us."

Petro Levkivsky, a municipal politician in Ovruch, said citizens might feel more reassured if they saw the Ukraine army doing military drills of its own. (Carly Thomas/CBC)

Levkivsky said Ukraine's army has been vastly improved with the help of foreign countries, such as Canada, and it gives him hope that if hostilities do break out, Ukraine will have a strong defence.

"It gives me confidence that we have an army that is experienced," he said. "We are really thankful that our foreign partners provide military assistance, and we hope it will deter the aggressor and there will be no war practically in the centre of Europe."

Ongoing conflict

Ukraine's government has released video of its own tanks and soldiers conducting exercises to the east of the capital, near the cities of Kharkiv and Kherson, and claims its preparations will mirror Russia's timeframe for its exercises until Feb. 20.

An old Soviet T-34 tank and artillery piece serve as monuments to Ovruch's military history in a park near the entrance to the town. (Adrian Di Virgilio/CBC)

As well, there have been almost daily flights of late from the U.S. bringing in new weapons for Ukraine's army, including Javelin anti-tank missiles and other small arms ammunition.

Most Ukrainians see the current crisis with Russia as a continuation of a conflict that began in 2014, when Putin ordered his troops to seize the Crimean Peninsula.   

Shortly afterwards, separatists in eastern Ukraine — who are supplied, funded and armed by Russia — launched an offensive against Ukraine's army, in a conflict that has left more than 13,000 combatants and civilians dead.

Warnings from the U.S., Britain and other countries that a Russian attack could be "imminent" are unsurprising to a war-weary nation that has spent years expecting an escalation from Russia at some point.

A kiosk near a bus stop in Ovruch. (Adrian Di Virgilio/CBC)

Wynnyckyj says like other people in the country, he's making preparations but is also determined to carry on with life as usual.

"We have 60 litres of water, just in case. We've got a lot of dried food and canned food, just in case electricity gets turned off for a couple of weeks, which could happen."

But, he insisted, "that's not panic-buying. And we don't have panic on the streets." 

In the border town of Ovruch, there is a feeling of resignation that should an invasion happen, it may not actually be possible to flee. 

"If the incursion happens, it would happen suddenly, so we won't have time to leave," said Levkivsky, the local politician. "I have three kids and no car. We won't have time to escape."

In that case, he says the plan would simply be for him and his family to stay put and make do as best they can, as other Ukrainians have done when their territory was overrun.

"Our countrymen in the east of Ukraine lived through this, the Crimeans lived through this as well, the same with us — we will live through it, too."


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.