I cannot explain to you just how terrifying and appalling life is in the front line trenches in wartime Ukraine in this the icy winter season. Temperatures in Kherson currently hover around freezing, with rain and snow and wind and sleet and hail and driving misery and the soldiers’ feet are freezing and their hands are freezing and their ears are freezing and it’s going to get worse and worse and worse. Because the winter period has only just started. Their days are mind numbingly boring, when they are not fearing for their lives. In Kherson I hear there are dozens of artillery attacks per day upon the city, from the Krasnopol artillery systems with their high-explosive warheads on the south / east bank of the Dnieper River, and their distinctive double thud as they send in one volley promptly after another, to ensure maximum destruction of their target. Whether one of these laser-guided shells strikes you and blows off your arms of your legs or pierces your body doing irreparable organ damage or just takes off your head: it’s all just a matter of the luck of the draw. I haven’t been to Kherson since September, but I have been receiving constant reports of what life is like on the front line there and it’s not good.
The worst of the worst at the time of writing is the trench conditions in Avdiivka, a suburb of Donetsk valiantly held by the Ukrainian Armed Forces for years in fact - the Russians have been trying to seize Avdiivka from the Ukrainian Armed Forces since 2014 and they have consistently failed. Avdiivka is a small place and there isn’t much there - in fact right now there is probably nothing left of it because the Russians have been pounding it day in, day out. It is surrounded on three sides but the Ukrainian Armed Forces have dug themselves in and are maintaining a supply road from the west. The reason Avdiivka is so important is because it is a railhead for railway lines of a military grade that can serve as logistical support to the Russian Armed Forces both in Crimea and in the westernmost extent of the Russian occupied Ukrainian territories, to the south of Kherson. Amidst the bleak winter, Russian supply lines are becoming ever more tenuous and therefore the prospect of a Ukrainian breakthrough in their counter-offensive is becoming more likely - if the US Government continues its much-needed financial and military support to Ukraine, which we are all hopeful and confident will be maintained following a crucial imminent US Senate vote.
Hence the Russians are piling everything they have into Avdiivka, but they cannot dislodge the Ukrainians who are resisting ferociously, living in World War I style trenches, in the most appealing of conditions. They are dying by the dozens; and injured in even greater numbers; but their stoic heroism shines out as a beacon of inspiration for all people in the civilised world as they resist Russian neo-imperial aggression. Ukraine calculates that if she can progressively degrade Russian logistical supply lines this winter, then the Russian occupation of Kherson and possibly even Zaporizhzhia Oblasts may become untenable and they may withdraw. This would return the status quo in terms of unlawful territorial occupation to approximately the 2014 lines and it would represent a major strategic advance for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Moreover if this could be achieved then southeastern Kherson Oblast and southern Zaporizhzhia Oblast could be used as bridgeheads for an assault by land upon Crimea from the north. This is a much more plausible approach to retaking Crimea, in my opinion, than the occasionally vaunted proposal to initiate an assault upon Crimea by sea. The British tried that in the 1853-56 Crimean war, and it resulted in the most horrendous loss of life.
Yesterday afternoon I spent a few hours in what are very busy days helping a team of dedicated volunteers to make primitive paraffin candles for soldiers on the front line in a historical library in central Lviv. There aren’t many books there anymore; they’ve all been shipped out, in case the building gets struck by Russian missiles or the infamous Iranian-supplied Shaheed drones that engage in wanton attacks upon civilian areas to keep the Ukrainian population under a state of perpetual terror. Instead there was a group of volunteers all sitting around with tin cans from the supermarkets that had been cut in two. Each tin can is then stuffed with corrugated cardboard from boxes in food warehouses, in a particular design, cutting the cardboard up into strips so that when heavy paraffin oil is poured in it coagulates into a sort of wax around the cardboard strips and you include a small piece of cardboard that sticks out of the top and serves as a wick. Once you get the hang of it, you can make each of these paraffin lamps in about 10 minutes. But it needs a bit of practice. We all patiently got on with the job, local people and foreigners alike who could spare a bit of time, and we laughed and smiled as best we could.
These primitive paraffin lamps provide between five and six hours of much-needed heat to soldiers on the front line, who are always at risk of freezing to death as they sleep. I will repeat to re-emphasise a figure that we all need to keep in mind: Ukraine’s standing army is currently in excess of 700,000 military personnel, and they are all under-supplied and they are all suffering the most terrible privations and if the paraffin lamps I made yesterday keep one man or half a dozen men alive in those icy trench-like conditions than that is one of the most valuable days of my professional life. The conditions in these trenches, harking back to World War I standards, are sheer hell and the men who are serving in them are keeping at bay the most significant threat to European peace and stability since Nazi Germany in World War II. The conditions in which they are operating are truly horrendous, and they deserve all our support, sympathy, financial contributions and indeed our prayers. To borrow once more the harrowing words of World War I poet Wilfred Owen, whose writings are particularly apt amidst the horrors of the contemporary war in Ukraine:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
The Russians may not yet be using gas; but everything else about the front line trenches in World War I that Wilfred Owen described applies to the horrendous, atrocious, damnable and outrageous Russian invasion of Ukraine.