Bridge Appears In Chernobyl Exclusion Zone That Could Give Russia Unique Access To Ukraine

Amid persisting concerns that the Kremlin may soon launch a new military incursion into Ukraine, recent satellite imagery shows a pontoon bridge across a potentially strategic portion of the Pripyat River in Belarus. This was very likely constructed by Russian forces, possibly in cooperation with Belarusian units.

It’s not clear if this temporary bridge is still in place, but its appearance, even briefly, is notable and unusual in that this portion of the river is less than two and a half miles north of the Ukrainian border and is also situated inside Belarus’ Polesie State Radioecological Reserve. This is a companion region to an adjacent exclusion zone in Ukraine and both areas were heavily contaminated by radioactive fallout as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.

Satellite images from Planet Labs showing the bridge first began to appear on social media yesterday. A review of the images that the company has available of this area of the Pripyat River shows that the span was erected sometime between February 14 and 15, 2022. Another shot from February 13 shows that there was work done beforehand to clear areas on both sides of the river for the bridge.

Before that, the most recent image of this portion of the river that is not completely obscured by cloud cover, dated January 8, shows no indications whatsoever of preparations to build this bridge, suggesting that this all began recently. The resolution of all of these images is too low to determine exactly what type of bridge this is. However, high-resolution shots from a different commercial provider, Maxar, which emerged online today, show that it is a PMP-series pontoon bridge.

Videos and pictures have appeared on social media in recent weeks showing Russian forces equipped with PMPs, as well as TMM-3 bridge systems, among many other things, in Belarus and areas of western Russia. The PMP and TMM-3, which are both Soviet-era systems, consist of standardized sections that can be connected to each other to make complete bridges of variable lengths. 

The videos below are from unrelated Russian exercises, but show how the PMP and TMM-3 bridge systems are employed.

The deployment of these bridging units is part of a massive Russian military buildup near the country’s borders with Ukraine, and in neighboring Belarus, which began last fall. Russian and Belarusian authorities continue to insist that this is all for exercises, but the U.S. government and others have repeatedly pointed out that these drills would present an ideal cover for preparations for a new, large-scale military incursion into Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine have been fighting a relatively low-level conflict in the latter country’s eastern Donbas region since Kremlin-backed proxies declared nominally independent control over two breakaway republics there in 2014. 

It seems all but certain that the construction of this bridge across the Pripyat River is linked to Russian and Belarusian military activities around Ukraine. On February 12, the Belarusian Ministry of Defense announced that “motorized infantry units of the Russian Armed Forces [would train to] repel strikes by means of air attacks by a conventional enemy, work out issues of maintaining survivability, withdrawing and occupying defensive lines, and crossing a water barrier (the Pripyat River),” according to a machine translation of an official post on the Telegram social media network. Whether or not Belarusian forces are or were involved in the deployment of this particular bridge is unclear.

It’s not clear if the bridge is still there now. Radar satellite imagery of this location taken today from commercial provider Sentinel Hub suggests it has already been broken down, although the radar image alone cannot provide a reliable conclusion. Even if that is the case, the fact that it could be removed so quickly, and erected with such speed, to begin with, underscores just how easy it would be to put back in place in the future. 

Whether or not this bridge is still in place, or if it is part of Russian efforts to lay the groundwork for an intervention into Ukraine, its appearance so close to Belarus’ border with that country can only raise new questions about the actual purpose of these “exercises.” Furthermore, the decision to erect it within the Polesie State Radioecological Reserve is extremely curious. There are areas of the Pripyat River, which runs from Ukraine across nearly the length of southern Belarus toward the Polish border, that are not inside this zone, not to mention other rivers and bodies of water where troops could practice bridging operations elsewhere in the country.

In addition, while the exact health risks that troops operating in this part of the reserve are unclear, it’s very likely that some work had to have been done initially to determine that the area was relatively safe. Earlier this month, Ukrainian security forces conducted their own training in the city of Pripyat, which is situated near the now-defunct Chernobyl nuclear power plant and has been a ghost town ever since the disaster there, but only in a specific area that had been checked to make sure it was clear of radioactive hotspots.

At the time, Ukrainian officials said that this exercise had only been carried out in Pripyat because it presented an ideal real-world urban area to practice in that also happened to be completely devoid of civilians. They said that there were no indications of any threats to the Chernobyl plant, specifically, or the area in general.

“This area is very hard to get through – forests, swamp, rivers – it’s complicated enough to move by foot let alone with a tank,” Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told journalists who had been flown into to observe the drills. “And don’t forget that still since the disaster there remain some highly radioactive areas on the route from Belarus.”

We don’t know if the Ukrainian government’s assessment of the situation has changed since then. Reznikov’s comments earlier this month do highlight how sending forces through this area into Ukraine, if possible, could be very advantageous for Russia during any future potential intervention given that it is viewed as an unlikely vector for an attack. Bridging capabilities would be essential to any offensive in this area, which would give Russian forces highly strategic access to an additional route toward Ukraine’s capital Kyiv from the north.  

Overall, it remains as unclear as ever if Russia will indeed launch a new invasion of Ukraine and, if so, when. There had been reports that U.S. intelligence had indicated that such an attack could come as soon as today, but American officials have consistently said publicly that the Kremlin’s window for making any final decision about kicking off an operation like this will likely remain open for weeks to come. Russian authorities did announce yesterday that some forces were withdrawing from areas near Ukraine and others would follow in the near term. 

However, by every indication, there has been no substantial drawdown. The U.S. government, among others, says that additional forces may actually still be arriving in key locations. It is important to note that this assessment comes as the U.S. military has been conducting a significant number of persistent aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions over Ukraine, as well as from airspace over neighboring NATO countries and the Black Sea, for weeks now. Together with satellite imagery, this can only be providing a steady stream of information regarding Russian troop movements in the region.

“Every indication we have now is they mean only to publicly offer to talk, and make claims about de-escalation, while privately mobilizing for war,” a senior U.S. official told reporters tonight.

The sudden appearance now of this bridge over the Pripyat River so close to Ukraine is certainly concerning and a sign, no matter what happens going forward, that this crisis is not yet over.

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Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.