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What it's like to spend a winter in the trenches, according to Ukrainian soldiers

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In the northeastern Ukrainian region of Kharkiv, near the border with Russia, Ukrainian troops are standing out in the cold. They're preparing fortifications and trying to stay warm while bracing for a possible renewed Russian military offensive. The top commander in the area, Brigadier General Serhiy Melnyk, gave us a tour of the living conditions his troops are enduring as they prepare for more fighting. NPR's Tim Mak has more.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Sometimes, it's the days where the weather stays slightly above freezing that are the worst. This region of Ukraine has this black, tarry, sticky mud, impossible to get off your boots. Hiking through it, you feel it in every step, the suction of the mud pulling up against your feet. As a defensive feature, it worked wonders for Ukrainians fighting against the initial wave of Russian attacks last winter.

SERHIY MELNYK: (Through interpreter) In the first days of war, when they did a full-scale invasion, they encountered this problem. Their vehicles got stuck. Our firing made it so they couldn't take back their vehicles, and they had to retreat.

MAK: General Melnyk is guiding us through the defensive front lines, trenches not far from Russian territory. In September, Ukrainian forces retook all of Kharkiv Oblast, pushing Russian troops out. His soldiers are now occupying former Russian positions and building new ones of their own in the mud.

MELNYK: (Through interpreter) We already know the ambitions of that terrorist Putin. As of today, he's lost the first way of combat actions in Ukraine. But we already have some intelligence, and they don't hide the fact that they mobilized a lot of personnel. And they will try to flood our country with a second wave to try and break us fully.

MAK: There are occasional bombardments, but the cold has meant that the battle lines, like the countryside, have been mostly frozen. That's according to Melnyk's subordinate Lieutenant Colonel Maksym Zinchenko.

MAKSYM ZINCHENKO: (Through interpreter) The winter has a really strong impact - bad weather, difficulty for vehicles passing through terrain. Now the enemy can only use roads, and the winter makes it harder at the checkpoints and the trenches.

MAK: To get to these trenches, you have to pass countless Ukrainian checkpoints where soldiers stand guard out in the elements, looking for signs of enemy personnel. Melnyk says that the warmth of these troops is a key condition of morale as they await a possible attack.

MELNYK: (Through interpreter) The places in which they live, they have stoves and other conditions to stay warm. And there's nothing that can scare or break them.

MAK: At one such checkpoint stood Alexander. Like the other enlisted troops interviewed, he declined to give his surname. Warm clothing and short shifts are key, he said.

ALEXANDER: (Through interpreter) There are usually two people always outside on the street, but the moment you get cold, you can change with the other two people here and warm up.

MAK: Petro was a construction worker before the war. Now he commands the crew of a tank, which spews thick, dark smoke but not a ton of heat. He relies on hot drinks and a thermos, he told us. Sometimes, they'll get an order to wait in the cold for six to eight hours.

PETRO: (Through interpreter) We put warm clothes on. We have heaters here. We put them on and get warm.

MAK: Ukrainians have a word for the hastily built living structures in the trenches constructed with sandbags and wood, sand and mud - a blindazh. Serhiy Sharnyuk took us on a tour of his. As we enter it, we're greeted by the sweet smell of burning oak. He said this blindazh and the adjoining trenches took months to build.

SERHIY SHARNYUK: (Through interpreter) They'll bring us prepared warm meals here and sometimes canned meat as well.

MAK: Thick blankets cover the beds, and the tables are littered with the necessities - tea, coffee, juice. Trench candles made of wax and cardboard provide light and a little extra warmth. Nearby, a stray dog named Yulia stands watch.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

MAK: The soldiers feed her and. In return, she barks in the night if someone unusual approaches. And not far away, there's a Starlink satellite terminal, which gives soldiers the ability to access the internet. Even in this rural, remote area of Ukraine, it's an absolutely critical piece of equipment, General Melnyk said.

MELNYK: (Through interpreter) Any soldier, no matter the rank, can connect to the Starlink and connect with his leadership, his colleagues and also with his family.

MAK: The winter conditions are harsh, he said, but he has hope that the end of the war is in sight.

MELNYK: (Through interpreter) I'll tell you sincerely - and you know it yourselves - that every war has its beginning and its end. I'm sure that 2023 will bring victory and peace in the houses of Ukrainians.

MAK: If Ukraine's partners in America and the West continue sending heavy weapons to Ukraine, Melnyk said, this will be the last winter of this war on these front lines.

Tim Mak, NPR News, Kharkiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.