The trouble with the Ukrainian winter is that it slows everything down to a halt. That includes people, traffic, computer systems, walking, navigating, getting to the shops: everything becomes a colossal ordeal. This morning’s journey of approximately 90 kilometres from Przemyśl in Poland to Lviv in Ukraine was started early, at 7am, to avoid the traffic. But it had been snowing overnight. In Poland, snow clearance from the roads had begun immediately and the short taxi ride to the border was relatively straightforward if a little slower than usual. As is normal, we passed several kilometres of stationary trucks, all stuck indefinitely in limbo trying to enter Ukraine. I wanted to arrive early, to make sure the border formalities, that involve walking a couple of kilometres to immigration offices in the middle of a no man’s land, would be smooth.
The solitary Polish immigration official at 7.15am was a nice lady. Because of the weather, the Schengen Information System immigration computers are down, she explained. She used to live in Oxfordshire working as an au pair. Now she monitors the Ukrainian border. We had a chat as she rebooted the computer system while the howling snowy gales wailed outside. She wished me well on my way. As usual at this border - and that is why I use it - the Ukrainian officials had no questions. Plus they let met squat inside their hut, away from the icy weather, while I exchanged SIM cards in my ‘phone.
Then the problems began as I tramped out into the snow and the ice and the horizontal sleet. There were of course no taxis, and no marshrutkas (Soviet-era shared minibuses) either. There was no traffic. There were no people. There was just snow and ice. Bolt, the taxi App popular in Ukraine, wasn’t working. Some dubious looking criminal type offered me a ride into Lviv for 100 Euros. I rejected that and after lots of arguing and debating and standing around and attempting to hitchhike (hard in a snow storm on a road with no vehicles), I ended up taking a ride for 50 Euros, which is 10 Euros more than the going rate. The driver was elderly and we exchanged a few pleasantries in Russian which seemed to be his preferred language. He certainly didn’t speak any English. He got me to my destination, but my were the driving conditions poor.
He insisted that I strap on my seatbelt although the vehicle never I am sure went about 25 kilometres per hour. We were sliding around in the snow. My driver kept on crossing himself, about once every 30 seconds, which I found disconcerting. It really shouldn’t be a long journey - barely an hour - but at this speed it took an age. He wouldn’t drop me in the centre of Lviv. I tried to persuade him to drop me at the railway station but he didn’t think much of that either. The snow was too deep, the traffic too jammed, and he let me out to pursue my own welfare at some giant traffic island somewhere in which all the traffic was jammed up in snowdrifts.
I found a tram stop. This looked promising, but for the dozens of icy souls with blank stares peering out from their giant puffy fur-lined jackets. There hadn’t been a tram on this route for a while, I surmised, and even if one showed up I wasn’t sure how I would get on it. A man was enjoying a bottle of vodka for breakfast while waiting for the tram. I couldn’t blame him. I almost asked him for a swig.
I reconciled myself to walking into town, but this was not to be. The snow was too thick and the sludge and the streets virtually impassable. I also realised that I could no longer navigate, because I couldn’t recognise any of Lviv’s familiar landmarks in this diabolical weather in which everything is obscured by cloud and snow and wind and ice. Everything just looks white. There was no point trying to hail a taxi; the traffic was moving more slowly than the people. So I got on another tram, that turned out to be going in the wrong direction. While standing precariously on this ageing creaking beast from the Soviet era, with my rucksack on my bag, a small rotund powerful old lady barged me aside like a bowling ball, determined to get off the tram with the minimum of courtesies and the maximum of inconvenience to the other passengers.
I alighted somewhere or other. It didn’t look far now to my apartment. I wondered off in the snow, and I found a square I thought I recognised. But I couldn’t quite work out which direction to walk in, because in this foul weather everything looked the same. I almost stumbled and fell half a dozen times, risking taking off my gloves to try to play with my mobile ‘phone and work out the proper route. But it was no good; my phone had iced up as well. I approached a younger lady in the street, and I asked her for directions. Then I saw the bottle of vodka sticking out of her jacket pocket and she could barely stand up. It was 11.30am.
The weather has ultimately defeated every army that would seek to do battle in this region. Ukrainian winters are horrendously cold and the simplest of tasks become exceptionally difficult. I am now exhausted, hungry, shattered and wondering what to do with myself. Shall I attempt to stumble into work? Or shall I join the locals and indulge in breakfast vodka? It’s impossible out there. In the winter, Ukrainians just stay indoors.
The idea of fighting a war on the front line in these conditions is inconceivable. I wonder what on earth is happening in Kherson or Bakhmut right now. My guess is: not a lot. There is nothing you can do, except spend each day surviving the elements. Your opponent becomes not the enemy forces but the weather, and you have to struggle with it to stay alive. As I write these words I am still warming up and I can hardly even think. All I want to do is to find some food and go to bed.
Welcome to the Ukrainian winter fighting season. I am very glad I came back for it. It’s going to be an experience. Not necessarily a pleasant one, but it will be an experience and it teaches me once again the veracity of Field Marshal Montgomery’s famous adage: “Rule One, on Page One of the Book of War, is: do not march on Moscow. Various people have tried, from Napoleon to Hitler, and it is no good.” If the weather is like this, then it is no good at all.