War takes a heavy toll upon vehicular traffic. Roads cease to be repaired during war, and Ukrainian roads were never particularly good even by the standards of the Soviet Union. Ukraine, an enormous country, is relatively sparsely populated outside the main cities and even the highways between the various towns are in a poor state. In many cases they are only two-line highways, stretching for hundreds of kilometres. In rural areas, the roads, typically straight in accordance with Soviet standards of central planning, may become as thin as a single track in places. The Ukrainian road network was never modernised, and the vast majority of roads, both in towns and between them, are unlit. They do not even have cats’ eyes: reflective strips along the centre or sides of the road to reflect the glare of headlamps. Therefore driving at night was always a vexing proposition, even in pre-war Ukraine. The risk of collisions is high, even on major highways, as heavy lorries come bounding down unlit roads and you suddenly find that you need to pull over into the gutter to avoid a collision or a close call.
In war-torn Ukraine the roads are in an even worse condition than they used to be. A number of the principal arteries between cities and other settlements have been the subject of bombing, in particular close to the front line. Therefore there are large craters or other holes in the roads, that need to be navigated around. The same is true in the front line cities; large holes in the road are not uncommon. Some Ukrainian villages do not even have paved roads, and driving to such places to deliver humanitarian aid presents a particular challenge for civilian vehicles. They may have cobbles, dating back up to a hundred years; or they may rely upon gravel or sand-based roads, that can become problematic to pass during the winter. Street lights, often barely existent even in larger Ukrainian cities, are generally now kept turned off during the hours of darkness, in particular near to the front line, to prevent the Russian military as using lights shining at night as targets for their artillery and other aerial weapons. So driving in the dark in Ukraine, in cities or between them, either near the front line or anywhere else, is out of the question. Even driving during the day requires great skill and care.
Typical problems that arise with vehicles travelling along damaged roads in wartime environments are well-known. They include problems with the brake pads, that wear out far more quickly due to the stop-start nature of defensive driving in a war zone and also due to the fact that loads carried in trucks and articulated lorries are often very heavy. You may be carrying food to serve hundreds or even thousands of meals; liquids; medical supplies; and a variety of other essential humanitarian products necessary to sustain the welfare of displaced or dislocated civilians who have no other sources of aid and are completely reliant upon you for their welfare. Through driving in and out of interminable potholes, tyres come under a lot of pressure; this problem is amplified by virtue of the fact that the most common tyres in Ukraine are of an inferior Chinese quality. Everyone is desperate for better quality tyres resourced from the West, but they are in short supply. All types of vehicles require constant maintenance, in particular in the winter months but not only.
The type of vehicle best used to travel around the front line is a balancing act depending upon your goals and your perception of different types of danger. As I have already discussed, there is a high danger associated with driving in a vehicle easily seen as associated with international civilian assistance, for example bearing international markings, if you are passing close to active Russian artillery positions. That is because the Russian Armed Forces front line personnel are apparently targeting international civilian assistance missions for their own sinister purposes. Driving such obviously identifiable vehicles, such as trucks or vans with red crosses on them, within 25 kilometres of Russian artillery positions, carries a high risk of death. The same is true if you are travelling in a vehicle that can obviously be identified as military in nature, which many vehicles close to the front line are.
If you do need to drive near to the front line, then the best sort of vehicle to travel in is typically what is colloquially known by people well versed in civil conflicts as a “banger”. This is a local car with local licence plates, purchased typically for cash and often in a reasonably poor condition. In such a vehicle you blend in with the local traffic and you do not stand out as a target for Russian artillery fire or other aerial bombardment. Such vehicles are not ideal, because they are more prone to break down frequently than more sturdy vehicles and you can spend quite a lot of time in mechanics’ garages having them fixed. Ultimately, as I have done in the past, if they conk out completely then you simply leave them by the side of the road or sell them for scrap to a local car mechanic and buy a new one. The going rate for such vehicles tends to be about 500 Euros+. While they are mechanically unsatisfactory, they have the supreme benefit of blending in and being virtually invisible to hostile enemy forces. They are ideal for covert missions, whatever your goal may be.
Finally, we must mention the most intractable problem in driving around any conflict zone: the existence of interminable military roadblocks and checkpoints. These tend to be spaced between 10km and 20km apart on every major highway and often on many minor ones. They also tend to be dotted around and on the edge of large cities. The ease with which you pass military checkpoints depends upon the type of vehicle you are driving and your nationality. If you are a national of a friendly foreign state, showing your passport and explaining that you are an aid worker will usually be more than enough to cause you to be sent upon your way. If you are in a vehicle obviously associated with foreign civilian assistance, you will not even be stopped; you will just be waived through. The same is true if you are driving in a military vehicle. By contrast if you are driving in a banger, then the level of scrutiny may be somewhat higher.
Ukrainians working with international teams of aid workers can be particularly nervous about military checkpoints. Male Ukrainian members of your team may be concerned that they are conscripted into the army on the spot if they do not hold with them at all times the relevant waiver documentation showing their right to be exempted from military service. But all Ukrainians are nervous about these checkpoints, particularly people whose identity documents show them to have Russian-sounding names. (This is very common in the regions of Ukraine in which Russian remains the dominant language, and these are generally the areas along which the front line runs.) They may be suspected as infiltrators, and hauled off for miscellaneous types of questioning the results of which can be most uncertain. It is therefore very important to protect your domestic civilian aid workers from problems they may encounter in interactions with the military authorities. It is best if the person doing the talking at such checkpoints is a foreigner who shares no language in common with the military officials. This is likely to minimise the duration of one’s detention.
For all these reasons, essential as it may be to deliver aid, travel by road in Ukraine, particularly around the front line, is tiring, time-consuming, difficult and on occasion dangerous. That is surely why, although their conditions are relatively primitive, the trains remain so popular in Ukraine. They are safe, reasonably fast, they work all night even during curfew hours, and it is a preferable way to avoid difficult encounters with military officials in a country in a state of war.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.