While you’re getting ready for Christmas and you’re happy and fun and it’s joy and merriment and laughing and smiling and one more glass of sherry and a piece of Christmas cake, I want to tell you about rats. Hundreds of thousands, millions of mice and rats, squeaking and squealing and biting and gnawing, in your food, in your bed, in your car, in your socks, in your clothes. Squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak. Because that is the Christmas this year for hundreds of thousands of soldiers on the front line, on both sides, are enduring right now. The trenches that both sides occupy along a 1,000 kilometre hardened front line from Izyum in the northeast to Kherson and even beyond into the Dnieper delta in the southeast: they are all now infested with mice and rats. Imagine that Christmas cake or steak or turkey or goose you’re biting into, overflowing with rats.
By all accounts the Russian Armed Forces and the Ukrainian Armed Forces are both struggling with rat infestations. In the Russian positions the rats are spreading diseases, but sadly it cannot seriously be expected that the same diseases will not spread to the Ukrainian trenches as well in due course. Rats naturally carry disease and they are a dreadful pestilent. We consider them a plague because they breed very quickly and live in unhygienic conditions which promote the exponential promulgation of diseases and some of those diseases inevitably pass to humans. Mice and rats are particularly prevalent on the Ukrainian front line this winter by reason of the relatively mild winter so far. The temperature in Zaporizhzhia, the front line city where I began my most recent Ukrainian adventure in the beginning of September, is currently several degrees above zero and for the Ukrainian southeast this is relatively warm at this time of year. Global warming is having its effects across the world and Ukraine is no exception. Normally subzero weather would kill off all the mice and rats but because the weather is clement the rats have been breeding rather than dying.
The next thing that happens is that the rats go looking for food and warmth and in the middle of the semi-frozen tundra of southeastern Ukraine the best place to go looking for those things is in the thousands of kilometres of trenches that the two sides in this hellish, relentless war have dug for themselves. Because soldiers need to keep warm and they need to eat, much the same as the rats, and hence the trenches become overwhelmed with vermin. The rats seek protection from the elements and hence they take refuge in soldiers’ lodgings as well as in their vehicles, where they gnaw through electrical wires and brake cables and anything else that they might mistake for food. In the summer months the rats are not such a problem because they are not seeking refuge in warm places but in winter they become a major problem for soldiers based in frontline trench positions.
In fact this is not a modern phenomenon; virtually every European land war, including both World War I and World War II and the various Balkan wars of the 1990’s, and going back to the Napoleonic invasion of Europe and all the wars in between, have suffered problems of rats in the winter. Soldiers end up catching and cooking and eating them or laying traps for them or leaving poison for them. Most importantly you need to stop the rats from eating your own food and this requires the use of metal or plastic boxes or specially lined bags that are immune to rats’ teeth. The whole thing is absolutely disgusting and it requires additional care and attention on the part of the soldiers and it also requires special equipment and supplies. And, as the regular reader of these diaries is aware, there is an abject lack of specialist or even normal equipment and provisions on the front line. We have some 500,000 Ukrainian soldiers serving on the front line at any particular time (another 200,000 may be in active service behind the front line) and in all likelihood a few hundred thousand more soldiers in the Russian Armed Forces who are facing them. That is why President Zelenskiy’s military advisors have asked him to enlist a further 500,000 troops: because the front line needs bolstering in the face of superior numbers on the Russian side and the Russians may be preparing to mobilise more. If Ukraine does not do the same thing then she risks being overrun and then there will be a rout.
Russia has decided to fight through the winter season this Christmas, whereas last winter there was a decline in fighting as the Russian Armed Forces directed their attentions more against civilian infrastructure. Those tactics are being repeated to a degree - Kyiv has been struck with Shaheed drones (essentially flying warheads) in recent days - but not with the same intensity because Russia used up the greater majority of her modern ballistic missile arsenal last winter doing the same thing, with a view to demoralising the Ukrainian civilian population, but without actually achieving much in that regard. Hence Russia seems more committed at this stage to actual battlefield success which is why the fighting is continuing notwithstanding all the millions and millions of rats and precisely why the Ukrainian Armed Forces now need all of our wholehearted support more than ever.
More than one source has reported to me that morale is low in the trenches. The soldiers might be forgiven for thinking that the West has deserted them, with all of this bickering about continued financing. President Zelenskiy naturally wants to know that funding is confirmed from the West before he calls up another 500,000 soldiers as his generals desire. In the meantime British troops are amassing in Estonia, American troops in Poland and German troops in Finland and Lithuania. This is already the largest land war since the end of World War II in 1945 and it is being fought in trenches full of rats. Einstein famously observed that he did not know what World War III would be fought with but now we know the answer: it is being fought in trenches and without aircraft because contemporary ballistic missile technology has outstripped the capacity of combat aircraft to avoid them. Modern warfare is going backwards in technological terms and we are fighting World War III right here and right now. We must give it our all. We owe it to future generations to ensure that the liberties and the values of the West prevail over the tyranny of autocracy. The Ukrainian people are our heroic partners in this ideological struggle and we cannot - we must not - let them down.
Finally, here is my favourite version of the Ukrainian National Anthem. Happy Christmas.