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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.