Ukraine Situation Report: Evidence Russia Dug Trenches In Contaminated Chernobyl Forest Emerges

Video footage, shot using a small drone, has emerged that the Ukrainian military says shows evidence supporting previous reports that Russian forces dug trenches and other fighting positions in the so-called Red Forest surrounding the now-defunct Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. This area is highly contaminated; large amounts of soil there could help explain, at least in part, a spike in detectable radiation after elements of the Russian armed forces first took control of the site shortly after the invasion began in February.

Ukrainian units recently retook the Chernobyl site after Russian forces pulled out. Ukraine’s armed forces have liberated or otherwise reasserted control over much of northern Ukraine as a result of a combination of counter-offensives and Russian withdrawals. Over the past few weeks, Russian units have been repositioning out of various regions in the northeastern end of Ukraine as the emphasis has shifted to securing areas further to the east and south. There have been reports that the pressure is coming from the Kremlin to show some kind of victory by May 9, the annual commemoration date of Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

Before getting into the latest news below, The War Zone readers can get themselves fully up to speed first on how the conflict in Ukraine has been progressing so far through our previous rolling coverage here.

WARNING: Some of the updates below contain graphic material.

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You can find our continuing rolling coverage of the conflict in Ukraine here.


The video, seen in the Tweet below, that shows what look to be trenches and other fighting positions dug around a base camp area near the old Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant first emerged on the Telegram social media network earlier today. There had been reports that Russian forces had dug trenches and otherwise established themselves in the Red Forest, but there had been nothing further to substantiate that.

A Ukrainian language post accompanying the new video on Telegram further claimed, without providing additional evidence, that Russian personnel had “managed [to]… eat fish from local ponds, drink water and ride on old military equipment, which was preserved here due to high levels of radiation.” That post also included a number of pictures reportedly taken by Ukrainian forces now on the ground in the area. 

Among those photographs was a shot of a BTR-60-series 8×8 wheeled light armored vehicle seen in the Tweet below. This is a very dated vehicle, the first variants of which entered Soviet service in 1959. It’s not immediately clear if this is one that Russian forces brought with them into the area in the course of the invasion or one that was leftover from the response to the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. 

The vehicle does have “V” markings, which are among those that Russian units have been using to differentiate themselves from elements of Ukraine’s armed forces, but these appear to have been hastily applied. The exterior of the vehicle also appears to be rusted or corroded, and there is a gas mask covered in dirt or dust hanging on the front. This might point to this BTR-60-series vehicle having already been there, which could fit with the claim that Russian troops took a “ride on old military equipment” in the area and would mean that is likely highly contaminated with radiation. 

At the same time, it is important to note that the Russian military does continue to utilize BTR-60-based vehicles in specialized roles and examples configured as mobile command posts and to conduct reconnaissance in environments where chemical, biological, or nuclear threats may be present have been observed elsewhere in Ukraine since the invasion began.

Previous reports had also indicated that some number of Russian troops operating in the Red Forest experienced the effects of acute radiation syndrome after preparing this base area, but there remains nothing to substantiate this. 

“I would say because they were digging the trenches in the Red Forest, it will pose a danger because if you would do it without protective gear and without a respirator, you would inhale radioactive dust, and it will really increase the probability of the person having cancer,” Olena Pareniuk, a Ukrainian nuclear researcher specializing in aftereffects of disaster like the one that occurred at Chernobyl in 1986, recently told The War Zone. “It’s not enough to cause acute radiation syndrome.”

Pareniuk did talk with The War Zone at length about very real potential risks for nuclear catastrophes in Ukraine as a result of the current conflict, which you can read more about here.

More details about what happened in and around the Chernobyl site, as well as other areas across northern Ukraine, are likely to continue to emerge now that Ukrainian forces have retaken them. The latest map regarding the conflict in the country from the U.K. Ministry of Defence shows that British authorities have assessed that Russia’s units have been pushed out or otherwise withdrawn from much of the northern end of the country. The U.S. military has assessed that there are now no more Russian forces at all in the vicinity of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and that some 40 percent of Russia’s total invasion force has now left the country, at least temporarily.

Fighting in areas of eastern and southern Ukraine continues to be heavy. Russia continues to try to defeat the remaining Ukrainian forces in the strategic southern port city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. This city, which has been surrounded and under siege for 37 days now, is a key element in the larger Russian objective of securing a land bridge to the occupied Crimean Peninsula. In the meantime, the humanitarian situation there continues to deteriorate and there are ongoing efforts to try to help civilians evacuate.

Local Ukrainian authorities claim that Russian forces have deployed mobile crematorium vehicles to Mariupol to help dispose of bodies of civilians killed in the fighting so far, potentially as part of an effort to conceal the extent of the carnage and possible war crimes. So far, there is no evidence to help independently verify these assertions. Ukraine’s Security Service, better known as the SBU, an internal security and intelligence agency, has separately warned that Russian officials may use dead civilians to claim that Ukrainian forces have been using them as human shields.

The U.K. Ministry of Defence has released an annotated satellite image obtained via commercial provider Planet Labs showing what appear to be dead bodies in the streets of the Ukrainian town of Bucha while it was still occupied by Russian forces. This adds to the already growing evidence of potential war crimes, including the deliberate targeting of civilians, which elements of Russia’s military carried out there, among other locations in the country. 

Ukrainian authorities say that at least 400 residents from the town of Hostomel outside of the capital Kyiv are missing, with witnesses reportedly saying that some of them were killed by Russian occupation forces.

Lithuania’s Minister of National Defense has said that Ukrainian troops that received direct training from his country on the use of Stinger shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, also known as man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), have shot down at least 8 “targets” over the course of the conflict so far. “This only confirms that training of Ukrainians to use sophisticated techniques is possible and necessary to repel Russian aggression,” he wrote in a Tweet today.

Ukrainian authorities say they have flown members of the country’s national Emergency Service, or SES, to Germany and the Czech Republic for treatment after suffering serious injuries while carrying out their duties. At least one of these individuals was reportedly injured after triggering a mine in a recently liberated area. There is growing evidence that Russian forces deliberately placed mines and other booby-traps before they withdrew from various locations. Exploded ordnance that is now spread across portions of Ukraine simply as a result of the fighting is a major threat, as well.

More imagery showing the general devastation that Russia’s war in Ukraine has wrought continues to emerge, especially from areas now back in Ukrainian hands in the northern part of the country.

The United Nations General Assembly is set to vote tomorrow on whether or not to suspend Russia from the organization’s Human Rights Council. Two-thirds of the General Assembly would have to vote in favor of such a move for it to take effect. The Russian government has, unsurprisingly, warned that any country that votes yes on this motion could suffer diplomatic or other consequences as a result.

The U.S. government has hit Russia with new sanctions, including ones that target Russian President Vladimir Putin’s adult children, among other elites in the country.

Hungarian authorities say they are willing to pay for imports of Russian gas in rubles, something officials in Moscow say will be the rule for “unfriendly countries” going forward. This goes against an effort by top European Union officials to oppose this payment requirement across the bloc. 

We will continue to update this post with new information until we state otherwise.

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

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.