Things are starting to get quite tough. The days are increasingly short and the periods of darkness increasingly long. The temperatures today are reputed to be down to -6 degrees celsius during the day; presumably they will be lower at night. Working outdoors in these conditions is quite a challenge. I have pair of woolly socks inside my trench boots and soon it will be time for another pair of woolly socks on top of those. I wear one fleece and then a huge jacket lined for the warmth and for the rain, which is now icy and relentless. None of us are sleeping so well these days. I am up again after barely five and a half hours’ sleep. The various pains I have from my injuries remain but I can no longer remain cooped up and I imagine doing another full day’s work today. I feel strong enough again to manage that although I am sure my doctor - if I had one - would demur.
I am hearing repeated stories about Russia apply pressure on the front line in the Bakhmut region. There is a significant foreign presence around Bakhmut in the form of the International Legion, the branch of the Ukrainian Armed Forces that consists of foreign volunteers. I won’t say exactly where they are or what they are doing but everyone “in the know” does in fact know where they are and what they are doing and therefore I infer so do the Russians. There aren’t many military secrets in this World War One style trench warfare scenario. With reconnaissance drones buzzing overhead everywhere, every day, there simply can be no secrets. Anyway the Russians know where these troops are and they are shelling those positions. The international troops are outside accurate Russian shelling range for the most part, but they are within inaccurate Russian shelling range and for the Russians, that’s perfectly good enough. So the Russian Armed Forces are lighting up the skies with the relentless boom of artillery, trying to get lucky and kill a few foreigners.
It’s well known that the Russian Armed Forces offer bounties for the killing of foreigners because to do so offers such a public relations boost back home to the Russian people who are privately increasingly wondering what on earth this war is all about. Therefore inaccurate use of shells beyond their ordinary target ranges is a bit like one of those fairground shooting ranges with air rifles with bent sights: you never know; you might get lucky. The problem with the International Legion is that they are sitting ducks for the Russians because of their high public relations value for both sides: for the Ukrainians (if they stay alive) and for the Russians (if they are killed). While I very much admire the men from around the world who come to Ukraine to fight in the International Legion, I wouldn’t want to be one of them right now. You have to ask what they really can do that the Ukrainian Armed Forces, who know their own territory vastly better of course, cannot, except become medical priorities clogging up the hospitals when (as they inevitably do) they get injured. Wars are collective affairs won by large numbers of well-trained troops and each foreign soldiers is ultimately just one more soldier.
I don’t personally think any kind of breakthrough by the Russians is likely in Bakhmut, as some pessimists in the media have been predicting. The warring parties’ positions in Donetsk Oblast have been dug in for the best part of a decade; Sloviansk was occupied then evacuated by the Russians in 2014 and Bakhmut has been most occupied by the Russians likewise constantly since that time. This is the front line. The road between Sloviansk and Bakhmut is still there and I suppose you are free just to drive down it from one side to the other. But it’s hell of course. Most likely you will die, and many people have done so trying it. The war is in stalemate in Bakhmut, but that doesn’t stop the Russians trying to increase pressure on the Ukrainian side by upping the shelling and the sense of chaos on the Bakhmut front line, in particular to draw Ukrainian resources away from the Dnieper bridgehead established northeast of Kherson. It seems that the sides are determined to squeeze a few more weeks’ fighting out of this grimy, grey season in which the winter weather has set in with a vengeance.
Somebody pointed out to me yesterday that the conditions in which I am working are incredibly basic. And I looked around me, and I saw myself working in what at one point was obviously an auto garage with a mechanic’s pit in the floor, perched on a plastic stool and sitting along a long basic bench, with buckets and trays of different sorts of foodstuffs everywhere, rough padlocks on the doors, simple lighting hanging up held by wires, barely any heating, sitting there working away with a heavily padded coat. And I suppose I thought that yes, conditions here are pretty basic but then this is a pretty serious situation.
This is the world’s largest ground war since 1945. A Ukrainian army in excess of 700,000 troops stands across a series of trenches, barbed wire, tank traps and minefields from a Russian army with 1,500,000 troops. The Ukrainian Armed Forces are the only thing stopping the Russians from re-occupying large chunks of eastern Europe. We are fighting for the existence of the contemporary European polity, and for peace in our time. I hear multiple reports that the Russians are now agitating on the borders of other European countries, and this doesn’t surprise me at all. Russia has by far Europe’s largest land army and we are holding it back and the brave men and women who are doing this need to be fed. People say that this could descend into World War Three. It is World War Three, and it is being fought here and now in Ukraine.
What people didn’t realise about World War Three is that it wouldn’t be fought with nuclear weapons (although the Russians periodically threaten them but they know this would entail their own utter self-destruction) but instead with trench warfare tactics more appropriate to World War One. In other words war has regressed technologically, in many ways. Aeroplanes are less important because ballistic missile technology has improved so much. So now we are back to a massive land war along an extended front of thousands of kilometres, of a kind perhaps more appropriate to one hundred years ago. We’re fighting for freedom and democracy and respect for international law and all the other things we assumed were taken for granted both after 1945 and then after the collapse of communism at the end of the 1980’s. And Russia wants to turn back the clock and recreate some version of the Soviet Union. And if the Russians succeed in Ukraine then they won’t hesitate to turn their sights elsewhere. So we’re fighting for everything that is important for us. Vladimir Putin is Josef Stalin, and he has to be stopped. That is how important this war is. That is why I’m here.