Ukraine troops dig in at border in staredown with Russia

Ukraine troops dig in at border in staredown with Russia
A Ukrainian soldier guards a road not far from Prokhody, a village in the Kharkiv region, some 4km from the Russian border

PROKHODY, Ukraine - Braced against the driving snow, fresh-faced Ukrainian conscripts stare out toward the border with Russia, waiting to repel an invasion from invisible-but-feared troops amassed on the other side.

The soldiers trudge around in cloying black mud in the eastern Ukrainian countryside, where army tents have sprung up on a chicken farm only a few kilometres from the boundary with Russia.

Officially they are conducting military exercises. But with a reported 40,000 Russian troops gathered along the border just weeks after annexing Crimea, these soldiers are not willing to give up their part of the country without a fight.

"Tension does exist but I can't say that we feel it strongly or are afraid," said Major Theodor Shevchenko, his cheeks wet from the snow whipped sideways by frigid gusts of wind.

"We are carrying out military exercises on our own soil and we don't feel any fear. Of course we understand that the integrity of our state depends on each of us, from soldiers up to officers and... we are ready in case of any aggression to defend our people."

He won't say how many men are deployed in the region but confirms there are military exercises happening at several points along the border, a mostly invisible frontier which cuts through swathes of winter-hardened grassland and forest that were largely unguarded until now.

A few armoured personnel carriers stand to one side and a tank dug into a trench is mostly covered by camouflage netting near a few army tents, a deliberate message to the Russians that rolling into other parts of eastern Ukraine would not be as simple as it was in Crimea.

'Armed robbery'

Soldiers in the Black Sea peninsula, which was overrun by Russian troops in a matter of days after the fall of a pro-Moscow government in Kiev, faced a humiliating withdrawal after citizens voted in a March referendum to breakaway from Ukraine.

Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk hit out at Russia for carrying out "an armed robbery" and said the country would respond if it tried to annex the eastern regions, home to many Russian speakers as well as industries on which Moscow relies.

"I want to officially warn Russia: we will respond firmly, including through military means, against any attempt to seize Ukraine, to cross borders, or annex eastern or other regions by Russian troops," Yatsenyuk said.

Moscow has brushed off concerns about the massive military drills it is carrying out near the Ukrainian border. Reports it had withdrawn a battalion of about 500 soldiers have done little to ease what the European Union said Friday was a "very dangerous" situation.

"Currently, it is impossible to talk about any concrete picture of what is going on near our borders. Troops are being withdrawn at some stretches and regrouped somewhere else," Ukraine foreign ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebiynis said.

Far from the militant rhetoric of diplomats and NATO warnings that the Russians are poised to attack, the youthful troops' life at camp mostly consists of daily military routines.

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