It might sound odd that Ukraine would send troops to the 1,000-square-mile zone left abandoned and radioactive following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown, but the area might actually have strategic significance for Russian aggression.
According to a recent New York Times report, the region of ghost towns is actually the shortest route from Belarus to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, so Ukrainian troops actually have a vested interest in defending what is known as the "exclusion zone."
"It doesn't matter if it is contaminated or nobody lives here," Lt. Col. Yuri Shakhraichuk of the Ukrainian border guard service told the Times. "It is our territory, our country, and we must defend it."
Ukrainian troops patrolling the area are required to wear lanyards with radiation detection devices and are taken off duty if they are exposed, but none have suffered high doses so far, Shakhraichuk told the Times.
The mission is about collecting information, and not repelling an attack.
Russia has been amassing troops along the border with Ukraine, though the Kremlin says no incursion is planned, creating an international crisis with the United States and its allies in the West.
NATO said on Monday it was putting forces on standby and reinforcing eastern Europe with more ships and fighter jets, in what Russia denounced as Western "hysteria" in response to its build-up of troops on the Ukraine border.
The U.S. Department of Defense in Washington said about 8,500 American troops were put on heightened alert and were awaiting orders to deploy to the region, should Russia invade Ukraine.
Tensions are high after Russia massed an estimated 100,000 troops in reach of its neighbor's border.
Despite the Ukrainian troops watching the Chernobyl zone, it might not be as favored as it looks on a map, the Times notes. Despite its shorter distance, it is filled with swampy areas and thick forests.
One man, Oleksei Prishepa, who works on rotation in the area to keep safety features in place told the Times, "'We don’t know what will kill us first, the virus, radiation or war."
But he seemed not to care about losing the area to Russia.
"It's wasteland," he told the Times. "No crop will ever grow here."
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