Today I spent the day cleaning plastic buckets. I think I did about 80 of them. They were covered in slime and filth and grot and muck and I cleaned them with icy hose full of ice cold water in icy temperatures while the snow fell down. Then the icy water infiltrated into my jeans, my socks, my trench boots, my underpants, my gloves and eventually my private parts themselves I realised were in jeopardy. So I had to stop and take a break and type these words.
I had the chance for a proper chat with my colleague M——-, a trident of a man with a military background who knows how to build things and he’s been in charge of building a new, cleaner and more modern kitchen that we’re all moving to. So now we are packing up from the old site and it’s cleaning buckets and putting things in boxes and shovelling the packed snow with pickaxes and all this sort of thing. As I write these words my knees and legs and fingertips are all still numb with the cold and my clothes are hanging on the radiator to dry out before I return to the hard labour. We’ve probably got a couple more days of all this before we can actually start working at the new kitchen and bid this one goodbye.
I’m thinking about the fact that I’m leaving Ukraine on Monday and going back home for Christmas. I have a long bus journey to Kraków and I’m not looking forward to that. But I know that my family who love me are waiting at the end of the trip and I haven’t seen them all these months I’ve been in Ukraine and I know I’m in need of love and affection from those who care for me most and I know I need a bit of rest and recuperation before I come back here in January: I’ve committed for another three months at least.
Already my calendar for my trip back to England is getting full, with meetings with fellow volunteers, those with a keen interest in Ukraine for whatever reason, with family and with friends and I will be telling everybody all about my wartime winter adventure. Only it’s not just an adventure and a tale and a story; it’s about a struggle for ideology, between the West and Russia, between good and bad, right and wrong. It’s about the very way we live versus the Evil Empire of the Russian Federation, and that is the message I will be taking back to England: we need everyone’s support because our very way of life is under threat. If we don’t stop the Russians, they will continue their aggression elsewhere in Europe and we will all need to mobilise our armed forces in full and convert ourselves to wartime economies to stop them. I wonder how this message will go down. I wonder whether anyone will believe me. I wonder whether they’ll think I’m mad. I wonder whether I’m mad. But I don’t think so. This is all so scarily true, and that’s why I’m here.
From the front line, there is good news. Although there has been something of a news blackout, I am informed that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have held Avdiivka. The Russian offensive there has stalled and failed, just as have countless Russian offensives there previously. The Ukrainians are too well dug in. This is superlative news, and for all Vladimir Putin’s bluster and robust language in his hours-long “state of the union” address yesterday, a piece of staged propaganda that nobody inside Russia or outside with any sense takes seriously, his generals have been unable to deliver him a single piece of news of success or advancement. The Russian Armed Forces may not be able to be dislodged from their positions, but they cannot advance either. All they are motivated to do is to stay exactly where they are. If they retreat, they will be shot for desertion; if they try to advance, they will be shot by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. So the front line has become extremely hardened.
In politics there is also good news although it’s not obvious if you read the newspapers. President Zelenskiy of Ukraine had a private meeting in Washington, DC with Lindsey Graham, the principal Republican swing vote in the US Senate that needs to approve the US$61 billion additional Ukrainian funding. Senator Graham I understand told President Zelenskiy that he has every sympathy both for him and for Ukraine but the Republicans are standing firm on the issue of border security on the US border with Mexico and this is their point of leverage to get the funding they need for that project. So the US Republican Party centre does in fact support Ukraine and the funding legislation will virtually inevitably pass the Senate but the Democrats in the Senate will have to compromise on the border security issue. It is good to know that the greater majority of the American people and their politicians continue their robust support for Ukraine. Also the European Union members have agreed unanimously apart from Hungary to progress Ukraine’s EU membership application procedure. Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, thought he could wield a theoretical veto but a veto of one isn’t worth much in the EU system because all the other EU member states can just agree to go ahead and do whatever they are doing without you. And Hungary is too small a member to wield a practical veto: only a theoretical one.
Mr Orban is having a temper tantrum about this, now saying that is going to veto EUR50 billion in EU development funds to support Ukraine’s necessary institutional and infrastructure reforms to progress towards EU membership. Again he just doesn’t get it. The other EU member states will just agree to make these funds available without him. His imagined veto is just theoretical and not practical, because in practice Hungary won’t herself be contributing any proportion of this sum and therefore what Hungary says doesn’t matter. Hungary is a net recipient from EU funds, not a net contributor. All that will happen is that EU funds to support Hungarian institutional reform will continue to be frozen until Hungary herself implements the necessary reforms to stop her backsliding into quasi-authoritarianism. At some point the people of Hungary will decide they’ve had enough and vote Mr Orban out of office. That’s how democracy works.
So all in all, despite my wet trousers and frozen legs, it’s been a good day. I’m still contemplating the culture shock that awaits my return to England with all these military nutter clothes in my wardrobe and getting used to carrying round a plastic bag with essential foods hanging from my belt, a small bottle of vodka in my bag to keep me warm, and all these other strange things associated with living in a war zone. It’s just days away. I can’t wait until the Moss Eisley Space Port bar tonight, but now I need to go back to work after I’ve dried out a bit and see if there is anything further I can do.