CHERNOBYL, Ukraine — Ukrainian soldiers, Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders, patrolled a silent, snowy forest.
The fields are fallow, the cities deserted and the entire Chernobyl zone in northern Ukraine is still so radioactive it would seem the last place on Earth anybody would want to conquer.
But while most of the attention about a potential invasion by Russia is focused on troop buildups and daily hostilities in the east, the shortest route from Russia to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, is from the north. And it passes through the isolated zone around the Chernobyl power plant, where the meltdown of a reactor in 1986 caused the worst nuclear disaster in history.
In one of the incongruities of war, that makes Chernobyl an area that Ukraine thinks it needs to defend, forcing its military to deploy security forces into the eerie and still radioactive forest, where they carry both weapons and equipment to detect radiation exposure.
“It doesn’t matter if it is contaminated or nobody lives here,” said Lt. Col. Yuri Shakhraichuk of the Ukrainian border guard service. “It is our territory, our country, and we must defend it.”
The Ukrainian forces in the area, known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, would not be sufficient to rebuff an invasion, if one came; they are there mostly to detect warning signs. “We collect information about the situation along the border” and convey it to Ukraine’s intelligence agencies, Shakhraichuk said.
The concept of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone when Soviet authorities established it three decades ago was to limit, through isolation, the lethality of the accident at the nuclear plant. Radioactive particles left in the soil or trapped under the containment structure of the destroyed reactor while they slowly decay would pose little risk to soldiers, as long as those soldiers did not linger in highly irradiated areas. But the land must be abandoned, in some places for hundreds of years.
Two months ago, the government deployed additional forces into the area, because of increased tensions with Russia and Belarus, a Kremlin ally whose border is 5 miles from the stricken reactor and where Russia has recently moved troops.
The Chernobyl zone covers about 1,000 square miles straddling the shortest direct route from the Belarusian border to Kyiv. While it is not necessarily the most likely invasion route, because it is swampy and densely forested, Ukraine has not ruled it out.