Along the Frontline in Ukraine’s Unforgiving Winter
Fighting continues, but the gruelling cold takes a toll on soldiers in the trenches and civilians in destroyed villages.
All photos by Oleh Arkhanhorodsky.
All along the crescent-shaped 1,000km-long front in Ukraine, solders have built what Ukrainians call “blindazh” or hidden bunkers – makeshift trench dwellings of sandbags, wood and mud.
Thick blankets cover mattresses placed on uneven wooden planks, while tables are littered with the bare necessities: coffee, tea and cigarettes. Here is where soldiers sleep, eat, catch up on the news and cuddle the cats who have become key allies in catching mice. Images of servicemen, drenched and shivering in the cold, standing guard in the ditches, echo scenes from WWI, more than a century ago.
Hard at the best of times, life in the trenches is harsher during Ukraine’s unforgiving winter.
Amid the gruelling cold, soldiers rotate more frequently between watch duty and the warmer trenches to prevent frostbite. Digging new positions is impossible due to the frozen ground. Positional warfare is slower and camouflage is arduous: the lack of leaf cover on the trees means that any colour changes are instantly noticeable in the all-white landscape.
Vehicles struggles on the terrain. Roads are icy, significantly slowing the movement of trucks and SUVs, which are critical for transporting troops. A mix of melted snow and rain turns roads into a morass of mud, preventing even tracked and armoured vehicles from advancing.
Military analysts have warned that Ukraine would have to focus on defence during the winter months as they re-evaluate a new offensive strategy with Western allies, increase domestic weapon production and possibly mobilise more men.
Kyiv’s long-awaited summer counteroffensive to regain territories lost to Russia in the first phase of the invasion has not yielded the expected results. Lacking air support and medium-range missiles, Ukrainian forces did not manage to disrupt Russia’s supply lines and break through its defence installations.
Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s commander-in-chief, said in November that the war would transition to a positional battle in the coming months, with the two sides engaging in more infantry assaults but gaining minimal ground.
Meanwhile, despite the fighting and the impossible conditions, civilians ignore local authorities’ advice and trickle back to de-occupied Ukrainian towns close to the front.