Ukraine Soldiers Embrace Mobile Saunas Amid War: An Unusual Lifeline from Estonia

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In these turbulent times, even war has its peculiarities – and it seems quite an anomaly when you discover that mobile saunas have become a crucial part of the needs of Ukraine’s soldiers on the frontline. Not as eccentric as it might first seem; these mobile saunas are an ingenious resource from Ukrainian allies, the result of a plea for help from the weary troops.

The acclaimed Estonian filmmaker and active humanitarian Ilmar Raag – a regular visitor to Ukraine – is now producing these crowd-funded mobile saunas, specifically designed to attend to the hygiene necessities of the Ukrainian soldiers. Manufactured complete with showers and integrated laundry machines for military uniforms, these mobile units are subtly camouflaged from potential Russian fire.

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Estonia, with its pervasive sauna culture, has become a reliable source for this unusual request. The mobile sauna tradition within Estonian military expeditions goes back almost a century to the Bolshevik conflict, when a sauna train was stationed near the front lines, offering troops the opportunity to bathe and disinfect after enduring harsh trench conditions for weeks.

One can now comprehend the popularity of these saunas when one hears of Ukrainian soldiers going for days, even weeks, without bathing or removing their boots. These challenging circumstances, relayed through conversations with a frontline commander, make the arrival of these sauna units seem a godsend to Ukrainian soldiers.

People residing in EU and NATO countries adjacent to Putin’s territory are extending their support to Ukraine in various ways. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all Baltic neighbors who experienced long-term Soviet occupation, are attuned to Ukraine’s plight.

Besides diplomatic support, Lithuania’s national drifting champion, Gediminas Ivanauskas, quite literally shifted gears to aid Ukraine. From day one of the invasion, Ivanauskas utilized his expertise to evacuate civilians. He went on to crowd-fund and upgrade dozens of vehicles with armor plating for the Ukrainian military. In parallel, Mindaugas Lietuvninkas, a volunteer sniper with Ukraine’s International Brigade, sees his service as a way of safeguarding his home country, Lithuania.

This renewed sense of urgency has undoubtedly bolstered NATO’s resolve. Countries like Finland, who, due to its 800-mile land border with Russia had always refrained from joining NATO, changed its stance following the invasion of Ukraine. Finland’s application to NATO, along with Sweden, marked a seismic shift, inadvertently fuelled by Russia’s cross-border aggression.

The war has also crucially affected Russian neighbors like Finland, as Russian tourism that previously carried a financial impact of approximately £500m ($630m) has been suspended. Meanwhile, countries such as Latvia, whose second-largest city Daugavpils has a significantly large ethnic Russian population, fear Putin’s interest in its citizens as a pretext for aggression, given past justifications.

In an attempt to counter Russian influence, Latvia has banned Russian TV channels and ceased Russian-language schooling amidst other measures, striving to integrate their ethnic Russian population more into the Western society. Critics argue though that these moves risk isolating the ethnic Russian community even further.

Overall, the battlefield extends beyond Ukraine into the homes and hearts of those who live close to the fearsome “Russian Bear.” Throughout my journey across the Baltic states, I found that the impact of the war in Ukraine runs deep, far beyond the front lines, with uncertainty about the relationship with Russia casting a long shadow over the future. Reflecting on the complexities of this situation, it calls on not just the bordering countries but the entirety of Europe and Ukraine’s allies to carefully evaluate their relationship with Russia.