By Max Hunder
VOLYN REGION, Ukraine (Reuters) -Burst river banks, thick mud and waterlogged fields could be seen for miles around northwest Ukraine's border with Belarus on Thursday, making the prospect of a Russian assault from across the border unlikely for now despite recent warnings from Kyiv.
Ukrainian officials have warned of a new looming Russian assault, with Belarus to the north named as one possible launchpad, as Moscow seeks to revive its faltering invasion.
Russia and its close ally Belarus have beefed up their joint military grouping in Belarus and plan to hold joint aviation drills there from next Monday.
Against this backdrop, the borderland's thick forests and treacherous swamps are guarded by the Volyn territorial defence brigade, one of hundreds of Ukrainian units recruited from local people willing to defend their communities.
On the sidelines of training exercises several kilometres south of the Russian border, soldiers and officers from the unit told Reuters how the unusually mild winter had given them a considerable tactical advantage.
"On your own land, everything will help you to defend it - the landscape, lots of rivers, which have burst their banks this year," said Viktor Rokun, one of the brigade's deputy commanders. The fields and trees around him were submerged in murky lakes of cold water.
The unit's spokesman, Serhiy Khominskyi, said that help in making the terrain unpassable had also come from an unlikely ally: the local beaver population.
"When they build their dams normally people destroy them, but they didn't this year because of the war, so now there is water everywhere," he said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned on Tuesday that Russia was "gathering forces for another escalation" of the nearly 11-month war between the two countries.
Ukraine's top general warned in December that one of the possible directions of a new assault could be Belarus, where Ukraine's military estimates the presence of 15,000 Russian troops, while military analysts put the figure at 10-12,000.
Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko allowed Moscow to use his country as one of the launchpads to invade Ukraine last February, when Russian forces were beaten back in an attempt to take the capital Kyiv.
Across the border on Thursday, the deputy commander of what Moscow calls its "special military operation" inspected Russian forces in Belarus. On the Ukrainian side, the Volyn brigade was busy practicing indoor combat and coming under artillery fire.
Analyst Konrad Muzyka, who runs defence consultancy Rochan Consulting, told Reuters that although a Russian troop build-up could be observed in Belarus, an attack into north-west Ukraine from Belarus would face enormous difficulties.
"It's a horrible place to conduct an offensive operation. There are many watercourses there, very few roads," he said.
"This makes it easy for Ukrainian forces to channel the movement of Russian forces into specific areas where they would be shelled by artillery."
(Reporting by Max Hunder; editing by Tom Balmforth)