The air raid sirens have started up in Lviv again, although as I’ve now been in Ukraine for over three months I have developed a habit of completely ignoring them. Russian long-range missiles are actually seldom reaching Lviv; they’ve run out of most of the ground-launched ones and they are taking to using bomber jets to take off in Russia, fire long-range missiles and targets in Ukraine, and then land again, all without ever leaving the territory of the Russian Federation so that these expensive aeroplanes are not themselves the target of Ukrainian air defences. Anti-aircraft ballistic missile technology has reached such a crescendo of superiority that these are the sorts of absurdity that the warring parties are reduced to in this mostly air-free war.
When the air raid sirens sound in Lviv, it is typically because Russian reconnaissance drones are flying overhead, trying to find targets for longer range missiles and armed drones to strike. This usually takes place at night, and as a result the Lviv military authorities typically plunge the entire city centre into darkness, flicking the electricity switch to confuse the drones that work at night by infra-red technology in trying to identify their targets. So there you are, sitting drinking your beer or eating your pizza or whatever you are doing, and you are plunged into darkness and we all sit there next to total strangers laughing and joking as we can’t see the hands in front of our faces and the music screeches to a halt and the pool ball stops rolling and everyone suddenly reaches for their mobile ‘phones to look for the torch function. And then, after a few minutes of this silliness in which it is still possible to make a telephone call or to order a beer or even to pay for it with a credit card because the mobile phone connectivity is not cut, all the lights are turned back on and the music starts again in a groove and off we all go and we cheer and we laugh and the conversation starts once more like nothing ever happened.
The challenge with using sophisticated air defence systems to shoot down drones is that the air defence costs much more than the drones themselves. I hear that Iranian Shaheed long-distance drones with high explosive ordnance attached cost something like US$20,000; mere reconnaissance drones cost but a fraction of that. Air defence technology can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop. Therefore the Ukrainian Armed Forces have resorted to the most primitive of methods in shooting down Ukrainian drones; they are spotting them with binoculars or, at night, with flashlights mounted on the back of “technicals” (open-backed trucks) and then shooting them down with assault rifles or general purpose machine guns.
I have learned that most restaurants and bars in Lviv and indeed in all Ukraine where people are making a noise at night tend to be downstairs in cellars, and there is probably a good reason for this: they emit less light and sound and they are safer if a piece of ordnance does, against all odds, come flying in. The Russians haven’t taken to striking restaurants and bars; they don’t have enough accurate long-distance ordnance. Instead they are focusing principally on military installations. Unlike last year, although there are dozens of drone and rocket attacks per year in this very much the winter fighting season in which freezing conditions on the ground make front line advances exceptionally difficult, there are far fewer attacks on civilian energy infrastructure and it doesn’t seem that we are all going to be plunged into icy freezing temperatures because the Russians don’t have sufficient reliable ordnance this winter seasons accurately to repeatedly strike energy infrastructure with sufficient frequency to disable it before it can be quickly repaired.
Nevertheless it is cold. Last night I slept in my fleece, and today at lunchtime it is -4 degrees amidst clear skies and a bright, frosty sun. Tonight temperatures are forecast to drop to -12, which I assume means the skies will remain clear. The whole of central Lviv has become like a skating rink to pedestrians and cars alike, making it very difficult to move around the city. There is insufficient hot water in the apartment buildings’ water tanks, meaning that for hot water you need to rely upon kettles or electric showers. Thankfully I have an electric shower in my current lodgings, and it is not much fun washing in the day if you don’t. I had trouble struggling out of bed this morning; the cold was keeping me wrapped indoors. Because it will be dark by 4.30pm at the latest, I have very little time in my day to go out and do the things I need to do. I have committed to making candles this afternoon for the Ukrainian Armed Forces, because the soldiers are freezing to death on the front line and military candles are the principal way they can stay warm and stave of the frosty extremes.
Nevertheless I admit it; I am feeling war weary today and I think this is an inevitable sensation after over three months in military theatre. The relentless grind of the day becomes less fun when the mercury plunges and the daylight is extinguished so prematurely. Each day seems a struggle to get through the hours, one after an other, and you need to find ways to pass the time as you wait for the weather to get better. Thankfully I have a flight back to England in a couple of weeks, where I can take stock of all my experiences and see my beloved family who I miss so much. I am thinking of them every day now, and every moment of every day, determined to plough on with everything that needs to be done here but also rational and calm and pacing myself.
While it is inevitably a lonely and somewhat solitary experience living through a war, with your family and friends far away and coping with the daily anxieties and hardships, I take solace in the fact that you find friendships with strangers and people very different from yourself in the midst of the chaos of wartime conditions. A lady I don’t know has just contacted me. She wants to meet me. She’s a Ukrainian and I know nothing about her. So of course I have offered to meet her in a public place. And then you form a view, and you see what she wants and you form your judgments and you decide whether her intentions are benevolent or malign. It’s just like experiences in every day life and work and social time, I suppose - only it’s not. It’s all rather more intense, with arcs of pleasure and sadness, excitement and tedium, arcing around in the neurones of the mind.