In a heated shelter near the eastern front, Ukrainian soldier Dmytro watched as rats sniffed the air and fled behind plastic sheets insulating the walls and ceiling.
A 36-year-old man who operates a BM-21 Grado self-propelled multiple rocket launcher said, “I didn’t see a single mouse last winter, but from fall to early winter this year there were a lot of mice.” .
His unit is located near the industrial city of Bakhmut, a front-line area that has seen some of the heaviest fighting in Russia’s nearly 22-month invasion.
Hidden out of sight under the bushes, the approximately 20 square meter (215 square foot) shelter includes bunk beds, a kitchen area and, importantly, a small diesel-powered car heater and A power source was provided that provided power from a battery.
It was about 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) inside, but about 0 degrees outside. The sky was gray and the air was damp and cold due to the continuous rain that had fallen over the past few days.
The first snow of the year fell last week, marking the beginning of a second winter of war for Dmytro and some of his fighters.
Although it was tough at first, soldiers say they learned to cope, especially by installing heating.
– “Three Pants” –
“My butt froze. When I came back from my shift, I put on three pairs of pants, several jackets, everything I could think of,” Dmytro said, reflecting on last winter.
“We were always ready for battle. We were firing constantly all day. It was very cold,” he said, pulling a blue woolen hat over his ears.
Dmytro was scheduled to spend the next three days in the dugout, sheltering from artillery and drone attacks at his position near Bakhmut.
Inside, three dead rats were stuck to a glue trap.
“The problem is that they chew through the cables,” says Volodymyr, the unit’s 45-year-old commander, pointing to the cables used to connect to the Internet via Starlink satellites.
Rodents may also munch on soldiers’ clothing for warmth and food.
“My wife bought me this sweater just last month, but the rats have already started eating it,” Dmytro told AFP.
Winter not only brings colds and mice, but leaves fall from branches, exposing troops to Russian drone cameras.
In addition, icy roads make it difficult to move weapons systems, leaving vehicles stranded in early winter.
“Now there is mud. Later it will snow,” Volodymyr said, pointing to deep ruts dug by heavy military vehicles in the dark, sticky soil of the Donbass region.
A few kilometers away, Dr. Osmak, a military call sign near Bahmut, also said he was better prepared for this winter.
In the basement of his hard-walled front-line medical facility, staff use mineral wool and boards to insulate doors and windows.
– Chemical warmer –
There is a wood burning stove and some rooms have car heaters.
Last winter, “the work was very difficult because we did not have time to equip ourselves with proper equipment. We were working in the cold,” the doctor said.
He explained that a “comfortable temperature” should be “28, 29 or 30 degrees Celsius” in rooms used to treat patients, and like other staff, he wore a short-sleeved T-shirt.
Wounded soldiers can suffer from blood loss and hypothermia if they lie down for long periods in the open.
Two soldiers arrived on stretchers, both with shrapnel wounds to their thighs. One of the soldiers was shivering on the operating table.
Medics wrapped him in an aluminum foil blanket, placed a pipe inside and used a large outdoor generator to blow hot air.
As temperatures drop below freezing, cases of frostbite will occur, doctors said.
But he said he’s noticed more soldiers using chemical hand warmers.
“When a casualty comes in, you often see them wearing chemical warmers on their bodies, under their jackets, in their gloves, even at these times,” he says.
“Last winter, such things decreased considerably. Men did not use them very often. Now they take care of themselves,” he added.