A Journeyman's Guide to Travelling in the Donbass
UPDATE 30 April 2022
Russian authorities are taking the view that any third country national who needs a visa to enter Russia also needs a Russian visa to enter the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics. Those territorial descriptions should be taken to refer by the Russian governmment to the entirety of the territory in the pre-2014 Donetsk or Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine, and it includes Mariupol, and includes locations even if the territory you are in is not currently under Russian government control.
You are likely to encounter Russian authorities enforcing this rule at any of the front line; in Donetsk or Luhansk hotels; at checkpoints in Russian-controlled territory; or seeking to exit/enter the People's Republics to/from Russia.
Failure to hold a Russian visa is likely to lead to your immediate arrest, potentially on espionage charges.
Also, all 'business activities' of third country nationals in the two People's Republics are prohibited, even if you have a Russian business visa, unless express prior authorisation for the specific activity is obtained from the Russian authorities separately from the terms of your visa. 'Business activities' should be read to mean absolutely anything whatsoever except tourism, ordinary consumer shopping, visiting friends and family, possibly emergency medical treatment (although this has not been tested) or transit. If you breach this proscription, no matter how trivially, you may be arrested for espionage.
Do not enter any office or commercial or public premises for any reason in either of the People's Republics, or travel to anywhere within them, unless your purposes are obviously pursuant to one of the above-mentioned permitted activities and could not conceivably be interpreted otherwise. Otherwise you risk arrest for espionage.
You should assume you are being followed everywhere.
Be prepared for Russian officials to insist that you unlock your mobile telephone in front of them and/or give them the telephone and password. If you do not, you may be beaten, shot or arrested for espionage, depending on the situation. Obviously if you have anything incriminating on your phone, such as photos or emails of matters relating to the war, you may be arrested for espionage. The same goes for laptops, tablets etcetera.
Handwritten notes about the war may cause you to be arrested for espionage so may handwritten notes in a language the Russian authorities cannot easily understand.
We trust that the general theme is clear the slightest thing that the Russian authorities consider suspicious (and they operate to a broad definition of what is suspicious) is likely to lead to your arrest for espionage at the current time. If you travel, then it is imperative to take meticulous care in pre-travel preparations. And do not take a list of those preparations with you!
Should we hear of any updates to this advisory, we will endeavour to publish them here.
18 April 2022
This article explains to the seasoned traveller in military theatre the extent to which it is possible to travel through the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine / Russia (this article makes no assertions about de jure sovereignty, only de facto events on the ground) some eight weeks into the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Much of the information in this article is subject to short-term change as military operations in the region continue.
Leave all media impressions of this region, whatever their source or bias, behind when you seek to travel round this region. They are all of them unhelpful. Contemporary Donbass is something else entirely, that this article will seek to describe.
At the time of writing, this is a perfectly safe region to travel to, provided you have the documents to enter and unless you get yourself involved in some inadvisable military confrontations between the Russian Armed Forces and certain (rapidly depleting) Ukrainian militia groups in the area.
The Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic became de facto separatist territories formed in early 2014, carving themselves out of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (regions) of southeast Ukraine led by Russian-speaking local military forces supported logistically by the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Aside from some bloody fighting over the frontiers and over the immediate area around Donetsk Airport, the takeover of these regions of the two oblasts was relatively straightforward and uncontested. Each of the so-called People's Republics occupied some 50 per cent of the territory of the Ukrainian oblasts of the same names, but encompassed a majority of the population of both oblasts, including the two major cities, Donetsk and Luhansk.
Each city was mostly undamaged during the 2014 invasions, save for some suburbs and Donetsk Airport.
The oblasts had, pre-2014 invasion, been divided up for control between the two Ukrainian oligarchs Rinat Akhmetov (in control of Donetsk oblast) and Igor Kolomoisky (in control of Luhansk oblast). Each of these 1990's power brokers who had privatised Ukrainian state industrial assets in their respective favours had cut the country of Ukraine into regions of control using private militias.
In 2014, at least three of Ukraine's oligarchs, including Akhmetov and Kolomoisky and a third man, Victor Pinchuk who controlled the steel pipe industry in Crimea, cooperated with western interests to fund and coordinate the Maidan Revolution, a western-leaning putsch to remove the Moscow-leaning Kyiv Presidency of Viktor Yanukovich, thereby disrupting the approximate compromise between East and West whereby the Presidency of Ukraine would alternate between pro-European and pro-Russian Presidents.
To punish these Ukrainian oligarchs, who were seeking to operate in cohort outside Moscow's writ, the Kremlin invaded the territories that these three oligarchs had been controlling as their industrial bases. Vladimir Putin took all of Crimea; he also occupied the industrial parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, leaving Akhmetov and Kolomoisky with the relatively unuseful agricultural parts of those oblasts.
Pinchuk, seeing his Crimean territory as irreversibly annexed by Russia, has fled to Los Angeles.
In 2019, Akhmetov and Kolomoisky sought to fight back against the Kremlin, again installing in Kyiv a pro-western regime against the Kremlin.
The Kremlin therefore prepared a massive military build-up over Ukraine's borders in 2021, when it became clear that the Ukrainian oligarchs' installed President, Volodimir Zelenskiy, would not step down or withdraw his demands to join NATO and the EU (particularly unusual demands: the former because no country can join NATO with disputed borders; the latter because Ukraine's chronic institutional corruption means that it is nowhere near passing anywhere of the EU's accession tests). At this point, the Russian Armed Forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022. This author makes no assertion about the ethics of what happened; we are simply describing the political dynamic that drove military events.
One of the routes of Russian armour and soldiers to Ukraine was through the DPR and the LPR.
In February 2022 Russia recognised the declarations of independence of the DPR and LPR; they are not generally recognised as independent states.
In April 2022 Russian Armed Forces overran the port city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, part of Donetsk oblast, and started integrating Mariupol's administrative and security structures into those of the Donetsk People's Republic.
The Russian-held territory of the DPR thereby connected, via the Ukrainian cities of Kherson and Melitopol, that had already been seized by Russian armed forces without significant resistance, the Russian-annexed territory of Crimea, with an unbroken road artery.
Also in April 2022, Russian armed forces engaged in combat with Ukrainian militias funded by Akhmetov and Kolomoisky to defend the balance of the rump Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.
Akhmetov promptly indicated his political surrender to the Kremlin, by undertaking to rebuild Mariupol using his own funds with the Kremlin as his joint venture partner. Akhmetov appears to have withdrawn the balance of the Ukrainian militia forces he had been funding, leaving only a handful of brigades loyal to Kyiv the most prominent of which is approximately 1,000 radicals trapped in Mariupol's principal steel factory, surrounded by Kremlin forces, refusing to surrender. Current Russian military policy appears to be to starve them out rather than engage in street fighting in a massive steel industrial complex.
Kolomoisky's private army has dug in in the rump of Luhansk oblast, preparing for a long war; but at the time of writing Russian forces are taking the towns in the Luhansk oblast rump one by one.
As each town falls, it appears to be being assimilated into the administrative structures of the respective People's Republic.
The administrative futures of Melitopol, Kherson, Nikolaev (a city currently encircled by Russian armour and being administered by Russian internal security forces in an ad hoc fashion) and Odessa (a city of one million in Ukraine's southwest, being the capital of the region historically known as Bessarabia; currently encircled by Russian armour and bound to fall to the Russians eventually), are not yet clear. It seems unlikely that they will be joined into one long Donetsk People's Republic. Their political futures hang in the balance, as a result.
In the meantime, the DPR and LPR are to be treated as any other non-recognised Republic. You can travel to them from both Ukraine and from Russia (in the latter case you need a Russian visa to have entered Russia and a double entry visa to return to Russia - don't get stuck there having travelled on a single-entry Russian visa!). Nobody needs visas per se to enter either Republic in theory, although they must satisfy the immigration requirements of the country from which they are travelling overland (there are no flights).
As is usual, if you enter either Republic from Russia then Ukraine will not later let you in (in fact it is rumoured that they will give you a lifetime ban from Ukraine). If you enter from Ukraine and leave via Russia, you cannot return to Ukraine using the same passport. Both Republics have their own border guards, who check documents but are really focused on your luggage: anything in your luggage that might suggest you are a mercenary or military person may result in your arrest, with unforeseeable consequences.
Do not try to enter either Republic if you are a journalist, international official, government employee or foreign NGO employee. Even if you have no material on you that suggests you are a journalist or a member of the other proscribed categories, Russian internal security forces keep lists of people who are in these groups. The consequences of trying to enter either Republic if you are in one of these categories, whether on a Russian list or otherwise, are unpredictable but certainly bad.
At the time of writing we understand that it is inadvisable, potentially very much so, to seek to enter either People's Republic without a Russian visa (if you are a citizen of a state that needs a visa to enter Russia). You may be turned back or arrested for immigration offences or on espionage charges. It is not clear whether this policy will be temporary or permanent.
If you enter either People's Republic with the intention to spend money and enjoy yourself, you are going to have a pleasant stay. If you come with some disruptive purpose, then you are going to have a very unpleasant stay.
Your consular assistance if you run into difficulties in either Republic is with your Embassy in Moscow, not your Embassy in Ukraine (whose jurisdiction the Republics will not recognise).
Because these territories are currently in military theatre, Ukrainian border guards have apparently evaporated in some places. However this is subject to change.
The Ukrainian authorities used to force-sell third country nationals spurious health insurance policies when they entered either Republic. However it is not clear whether this policy is still applied upon entrance.
Each Republic has its own constitution and legal system, although as a practical matter you should assume that Russian law applies throughout.
On 4 March 2022 the Russian Duma published a law criminalising many types of publication about the war in Ukraine. The maximum sentence is 15 years' imprisonment.
The law is broadly drafted. You should assume that it applies to you when in the Republics. It may well cover the sending of emails or the having of oral conversations about the war.
Do not send emails mentioning the war or have any other communications or conversations mentioning the war while in the Republics. If someone else raises the subject with you, just remain silent and listen; or change the subject.
Be careful what you photograph or write down. If the Police, security services or immigration officials find materials on you about the war, you may have extremely serious problems.
Russian surveillance capacities, both electronic and human, are sophisticated. Only a fool would imagine that they can enter either of the People's Republics and outwit them. Behave.
Homosexual acts and the consumption of any recreational narcotics aside from alcohol and cigarettes are illegal and carry long prison sentences in both Republics.
Avoid transactions with the Police. Most problems in the Republics involved unwanted interactions with drunks, who can be violent, rob you, or offer you sexual services that end up with you in a bad situation. Stay away from drunks. Be extremely careful walking anywhere at night.
All that having been said, both Republics are extremely safe as a rule. Unless you go looking for trouble, you are unlikely to find it.
The currency of both countries is the Russian ruble.
You should take EUR or USD cash in small bills with you to pay for the entirety of your expected stay. Do not assume that there is any access to money while you are in the Republics except for the cash money you physically carry with you.
The Paladins have full information upon the use of credit cards, debit cards, money transfers and other ways of paying for things and movement of money in and out of the Republics. However this information is not being published.
If you seek further information on these subjects, please contact us on email@example.com and we will decide whether to help you.
The Republics do have some tourist attractions.
The best place to start hunting them out is the website Wikivoyage. Although a lot of the information on the following pages is out of date, hotels, transport and tourist information all remain broadly accurate.
You will find people who speak enough English to arrange tourist excursions in Donetsk. In Luhansk you are more likely to need some Russian.
Wartorn buildings are not obviously in the centre of Donetsk. You have to go looking for them in the suburbs, in particular around the airport. It is strongly recommended that you do not do this, or you may be arrested for espionage.
You may see a lot of Russian armour. Obviously you just walk straight by it without looking at it and definitely without taking photographs or videos or pointing a mobile telephone at it. Otherwise you may be arrested for espionage.
Most hotels are open, as are virtually all restaurants and shops save close to the front line, subject to the provisos in the next section of this article.
The international dialling code for both Republics is +7, the same as Russia. Presumably as Russian armed forces continue to take the balance of the two rump oblasts, they will start to use +7 numbers as well. The process by which +380 (Ukraine) numbers are transformed into +7 (Russia) numbers is not currently clear to us.
At the time of writing, there is a total electronic communications blackout for both Republics. This means that emails cannot be sent in and out; domestic business website addressees cannot be accessed; it is impossible to telephone in or out; this applies also to instant messages and social media; etcetera.
The blackout includes mainland Russia. You cannot contact either of the Republics using electronic means from Moscow, for example.
This author has not found a way around this. If anyone does, please let us know.
The blackout applies as far west as Mariupol.
This means it is impossible to make hotel reservations before entering the region; or to call out to let family / colleagues know you are okay, for example. You just have to turn up at the front door of the hotel and ask them for a room. It should not be too problematic; there are few guests at this time.
There is no information about for how long this communications blackout will last. It is not clear whether this is the Russians cutting off information that may be prejudicial to them about the war; or the Ukrainian authorities, cutting off the infrastructure of their breakaway regions through some centralised method. We simply do not know which of these two hypotheses is the right one.
Informal 'pigeon post' methods of paper communication transported in vehicles do exist, but they are extremely difficult to use unless you have exceptional connections.
If you want The Paladins to relay a communication into either of the Republics, please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org. We do not promise that we will try to help you. You will need a very good reason to persuade us to do so; and we may not be successful. We will probably charge a fee, depending upon circumstances.
The basic rule on transport in and out of the Republics is that transport between them or to and from Russia is pretty much the same as before 2014, or better; whereas transport between the Republics and Ukraine has been substantially diminished.
There are no flights.
There is a series of buses from across Ukraine (including from Kyiv and Kharkiv) to Donetsk and Luhansk, notwithstanding the wartime conditions. You just have to find them. We have information as to how to use some of them but not all of them. It is a matter of hunting them out.
Our recommendation is to travel intercity in theatre by taxi. The best taxi drivers know all the good and bad checkpoints. Expect to pay about EUR 50 for each intercity 2-3 hour drive. Take time, and use caution, to find the right taxi driver. Do not rush it. The longer the journey, the less likely your taxi driver knows the route intimately. Plan a journey using shorter EUR 50 hops. Then pause and gather information.
There are no trains from either Republic to the rest of Ukraine.
There is an express train several times daily between Donetsk and Luhansk. It takes two hours.
There is at least one train a day from Donetsk to Rostov. There is a weekly train from Donetsk to Almaty via Volgograd. It takes 30 hours to Volgograd, and four days to Almaty, if you are lucky! Buy enough food for these epic Russian rail journeys, as on board catering facilities and opportunities to disembark at stations to purchase provisions are totally unpredictable.
To find complete timetables, and to book Russian trains, go to the Russian Railways website using a Russian VPN. It cannot be accessed otherwise. Allegedly you can buy tickets on that website using a western credit card, although we have not tried this.
It appears that it would be a mistake to use any public transport option to cross between the Luhansk People's Republic and Russia, absent extremis. The Wikivoyage entry for the Luhansk People's Republic suggests a most inauspicious route that we have not tried and would not seek to use absent extremis in theatre.
Given wartime conditions, plan entrance and exit with great care and foresight. Anything could change at any time.