In Kupiansk, Christmas is a name-only event. Just a small portion of the 26,000 people still live there after the majority of the children were evacuated.
Living near the front line brings with it a visceral tension. We heard two sirens and incoming artillery fire within the first hour of our arrival.
After being under occupation for half a year, this city was freed last year.
But the Russians started to retaliate as Western assistance began to decline.
Svitlana says, “We all live on the edge, afraid of dying.” She works at the neighborhood market in a kiosk.
The tension is strongest here. People eye us suspiciously and start recording us on their phones. All this while, loud explosions can be heard in the distance.
“When we go to work, we don’t know what will happen,” she says. “Whether Russia will hit us with rockets, or if we’ll make it home alive.”
As we moved away from the market, a decrease in pressure was met with the realization of how deserted the streets were. Mostly, elderly individuals are strolling on the sidewalks.
Through a wooden hatch, we encounter an exception, Sofia, a 17-year-old who has grown up with Russian aggression. Her father is fighting on the front, and you quickly understand how this war has toughened her.
“When the full-scale invasion began, we realised there were deaths everywhere,” she says. “Understanding this makes you stronger and more resilient in stressful situations, even during shelling.”
Sofia’s family home in the nearby city of Izium was destroyed so they moved here. All of her friends were forced to leave Kupiansk long ago.
She outwardly fears very little, but is clearly unimpressed with her country’s fate being determined by sceptical western politicians.
“I would invite them to see with their own eyes what it’s like here,” she says. “Then they would no longer question whether aid is needed or not.”
Similar to Avdiivka, another city in the east, Kupiansk is perched on a hill, and Ukrainian forces have been defending it from above. They are fighting to contain Russian advances, and you can see plumes of smoke across the Oskil River that splits it.
Although they are only about 8 km (5 miles) away, there are worries that they may retreat to the Oskil’s eastern bank.
Here, Ukraine’s goal of total territorial liberation seems incredibly far-fetched. Rather, its forces are fending off Russian attacks one after another.
With Russian drones constantly loitering above, large gatherings are dangerous. In a barn near Kupiansk, around 15 soldiers find the briefest of pauses for a Christmas prayer.
The candlelight illuminates the condensation from their breath. There’s a thin layer of snow on the frozen soil outside.
After some coercion from an officer to speak freely to us, Oleksiy, a soldier from the 14th separate mechanised brigade, explains the constant defending they’re having to sustain.
“It’s day and night, there are no breaks, it’s 24/7,” he says.
While Oleksiy fights, senior US politicians are on their Christmas breaks after failing to agree a military support package for Kyiv worth almost £50bn.
“The Russians have more targets, so we need more shells,” explains Oleksiy. “They throw a lot of men and machinery into battle, they don’t pity anything.”
Kyiv argues that Moscow won’t stop at Kupiansk, should it fall once more. It still wants the whole of Ukraine.
What it really wants to do is sell the idea of a Ukrainian victory. Although with the winds of battle blowing the way they are in Kupiansk, that’s become increasingly difficult.