ODESA, Ukraine — With tourniquets, there is no way of doing things on the cheap. These lifesaving devices, used to stop blood loss from a wounded limb and prevent death from bleeding, need to be 100 percent reliable: a solid, wide Velcro band sufficiently long to be put around a thigh and a tough crank to pull it tight, with a sturdy locking mechanism. A good tourniquet costs $20 to $30 and the best ones are made in the United States. As with many other products, Chinese vendors sell a variety of fakes — something as simple as a rope on a rod is an invitation to counterfeit. Worse than useless, the Chinese knockoffs are a liability when they snap in the trembling, slippery hands of a bleeding person.
Tourniquets are probably not spoken about much at the high-level meetings where military officials and politicians discuss deliveries of HIMARS, Bradleys and Patriots, but the nature of the warfare in Ukraine makes tourniquets absolutely essential: This war is fought at a distance, with missiles fired from land, sea or air, and bombs dropped from planes or drones. Injuries from shrapnel or debris are increasingly more frequent than direct bullet hits.
In the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, tourniquets were hard to come by. The Ukrainian troops defending their country often had to make do with the black inner tubes of bicycle tires or similar devices. Now most have the imported high-quality “combat application tourniquet,” or C.A.T. However, for many other items required for their country’s defense, Ukrainians have found local solutions. This has largely been thanks to an army of civilians who call themselves “volonteri” — volunteers. These people may or not be part of some local nongovernmental organization, but they know that their country needs them, and they have answered the call.
A barbaric feature of this war is that Russia attacks civilian buildings like hospitals, schools, kindergartens, theaters and cultural centers. Recently, the Russian onslaught has concentrated on Ukraine’s power grid and the rest of the country’s infrastructure. So it is only natural that civilians participate so widely in the defense of their homeland. These patriots — a vital support for the dedicated and courageous army — were the biggest surprise for Vladimir Putin, who thought his takeover would be easy, if not welcomed. They annoy him as much as the Patriot missile systems the United States announced it would send to Ukraine. Both patriots and Patriots will defend Ukraine, although the president of Russia says that both constitute a threat to his country. But the president of Russia says many things.
At the very beginning of the conflict, volonteri focused on stopping the Russian advance and protecting Ukraine’s towns. This happened in Odesa and throughout the country: Train tracks were cut into pieces and welded together to make an anti-tank barrier known as a hedgehog. Entire parts of town were covered by these; now they are less prevalent and often painted blue and yellow after the Ukrainian flag.
In the first week after the invasion, civilians prepared themselves to directly face the assailants, and there was a frenzy of Molotov cocktail production among Ukrainians of all walks of life. Those improvised incendiary weapons did not serve much use, though, in a war where the Russian aggressors are rarely close enough to hit with a Molotov cocktail.
The volunteers learned on the go, by trial and error. Take the body armor: Ukrainian soldiers now wear flak jackets, but they didn’t always. Soon after the invasion, the business community of Odesa started purchasing bulletproof vests online, mostly from Turkey and China, but — with no previous experience of land war — these ad hoc army suppliers went for the more easily available type of vest usually worn by the police, which protects against shotguns but not against heavier weapons.
On the night before Russia’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, Nikolay Viknyanski, a furniture maker from Odesa, called a meeting of local businessmen to enlist them in civilian support for the military effort. As a result, a maritime logistics operator named Oleksandr Yakovenko joined forces with a few others — a bank manager, a contractor for the Azovstal metallurgy company, an owner of a restaurant chain — and soon “Made in Ukraine” flak jackets appeared.
Back in February, bulletproof vests were still improvised from whatever was at hand. Aleksandr Babich, a historian who worked as a tour guide before the war, was receiving sleeveless men’s dress jackets outfitted with sawed-off pieces of plowshares in the hope they would act as ballistic plates. At first, some of these homemade flak jackets had the metal plates uncovered, with nothing to absorb the shock; a few soldiers wearing them were injured. Quickly, a solution was found: When cut into pieces, transmission belts for grain loaders in the Odesa port turned out to be just the right rubber damper. The metal plate and rubber damper were held together by duct tape, but the ensemble looked surprisingly tidy.
Now flak jackets are produced locally, and the vests that carry the plates — on both the front and the back — are sewn from professional-looking khaki, camouflage or “pixel-patterned” nonflammable fabric. These vests are covered with pockets and pouches, for tourniquets and everything else a soldier needs to carry. The sewing work could be neater, but many women, especially mothers, who had the most experience with a needle and thread, left Ukraine with their children at the beginning of the war, so workshops lack nimble-fingered staff.
Another important item of military equipment that was outsourced to the volonteri was the periscope, which soldiers use to observe the field from trenches and under cover. The first ones were made on 3-D printers, but this was an expensive and slow process, with only five fabricated each day. Soon a low-tech replacement was found: a water pipe, two mirrors at each end of the pipe set parallel to each other at a 45-degree angle, and voilà.
Igor Yakovenko, an engineer who produced 3,000 periscopes, came up with another piece of equipment to deal with a different problem the Ukrainian soldiers have faced: cold. The Russian onslaught began during some of the coldest days of winter, so a heating system for the troops in the field was urgently needed. Mr. Yakovenko started producing portable stoves made by welding together two empty gas cylinders from the back of refrigerators (they puzzlingly always come in pastel colors — baby blue, light green, pink or orange), fitted with a metal pipe and a door on a hinge to stuff the firewood. Last winter these contraptions, widely known as “bourzhuyki” (“bourgeois,” because of their potbelly looks), were used by the soldiers in the field, but since October, when Russian attacks on the power grid became more common, the whole of Ukraine started living “in the field.”
During long hours spent in bomb shelters, women weave camouflage nets by tying together fabric scraps, for use as covers for tanks and other vehicles and soldiers. The Ukrainian version of ghillie suits — full-body camouflage designed to make soldiers blend in with the bushes, trees and heaps of grass around them — are remarkably sophisticated. But these are mostly worn by snipers, so they are not frequently deployed.
Ukrainian troops look like a motley group because of the varied sources of their uniforms; the local volunteer groups that raise money to purchase gear buy whatever uniforms they can — at least a dozen foreign models are in use — so long as the colors are not too similar to those used by Russians. To prevent confusion, Ukrainian soldiers display a large strip of brightly colored duct tape on their helmets, or as an arm band or attached to their flak jackets. It changes at commanders’ orders; first it was green, then blue, now it is yellow.
Even tablets, smartphones and laptops have been deployed as part of civil defense since the earliest days of the war. Several apps provide warnings of the air raids; the message also comes up on most local Telegram channels. Ukraine still has ample internet access, thanks to the Starlink service, created and largely paid for by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. But after stating in early October (on Twitter, which he didn’t yet own) that Crimea should be Russian and that the fate of Ukrainian regions should be determined by new “elections,” Mr. Musk himself is persona non grata. His face has been covered up on billboards around Odesa, which previously expressed gratitude for his support.
Ukrainians who want to locate a missile, drone, helicopter or plane and feed its coordinates to aerial defense can do so with the ePPO app, based on the same principle as the apps that notified people about Covid exposure. When detecting an aerial threat, say, the Iran-made Shahed-136 kamikaze drone nicknamed — because of the noise it makes — the flying scooter, the user selects on the app the type of object, points the smartphone in the direction of its movement and presses a button to upload its GPS coordinates. The Ukrainian air defense collates and updates the data and can track the target to destroy it.
Installation of the app is restricted to Ukrainian citizens, so that Russians and other hooligans cannot abuse it. But Russians launch drones mostly at night, so the app’s utility was largely hampered. Then one of its creators came up with the idea of illuminating the sky with the powerful lights usually used for rock concerts. Twenty-four of those spotlights are in use in Odesa, ready to be switched on as soon as the buzzing noise is reported. In early November there was a first: a drone destroyed from the air, thanks to information provided by this civilian-operated tool.
Ukraine has many talented I.T. specialists who work to hack or otherwise counter Russian missile attacks or cyberattacks, and Ukraine’s digital infrastructure stands strong despite unrelenting cyberattacks by Russia. Many I.T. workers came back from jobs abroad when the war started; some of those who couldn’t now volunteer remotely. Meanwhile in the land of the aggressor, Russian “IT-shniki” share on the web instructions on how to avoid mobilization and escape from their country. No matter what the Kremlin’s propaganda says, this is one more proof that Ukraine and Russia are two very different nations.
Last September, as the Russians were increasingly attacking civilian infrastructure, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine wrote on his Telegram account about this difference between the two nations and stressed that his people must never surrender to the aggressor, not even in exchange for access to gas, electricity, water or food. Addressing himself to the Russians, he asked: “Do you still believe that we are one people? Do you still think that you can frighten, crush, and bend us into submission? You really understand nothing? You don’t realize who we are? What we stand for? What we are about? Read my lips: Without gas or without you? Without you. Without light or without you? Without you. Without water or without you? Without you. Without food or without you? Without you.”
In the face of the hell that Russians are trying to impose on them, Ukrainians show precisely the resilience that Mr. Zelensky alluded to in that address. With their resourcefulness and dedication, Ukraine’s civilians stand by their uniformed “boys and girls,” as Mr. Zelensky calls them.
As long as Russian forces remain in their land, Ukrainians will resist and struggle to get back every inch of occupied Ukraine. They will do so with sophisticated weapons provided by the NATO coalition and with all sorts of contraptions fabricated locally, because — as the opening lines of the Ukrainian anthem announce — “The glory of Ukraine has not yet perished, nor the will.” But this is not to say that tourniquets, flak jackets, bourzhuyki and periscopes will be out of use any time soon.
Anna Husarska is a journalist and political analyst.
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