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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Getting in and out of Ukraine

In war, the first victim is truth; the second victim is freedom of thought; the third victim is reason.

14 OCTOBER 2022

In this the latest phase of the war in Ukraine, since Ukraine has been advancing against Russian military positions in Ukrainian occupied territory, the authorities in Ukraine have become increasingly paranoid and nervous about spies and other persons they deem undesirable, including journalists who do not toe the official Ukrainian government line. Crossing Ukrainian borders both in and out has become increasingly unpleasant, difficult and dangerous. We warn all prospective visitors to Ukraine at this time of the following.

1. The borders of Ukraine are currently exclusively manned by SBU officials (the SBU is the Ukrainian version of Russia's FSB or state security service), wearing military fatigues and fairly heavily armed (with assault rifles and similar).

2. For any person not travelling on a Ukrainian passport, a high level of scrutiny of both one's entrance and exit can be expected, including a delay of several hours and an interrogation procedure, just for that person, unless they are carrying documentation issued by the free Ukrainian official authorities authorising their entrance.

3. The typical SBU procedure will be to detain the person travelling on a foreign passport for several hours, pull up their intelligence file (or create one for them by Googling their and in particular searching for their Twitter account and seeing what entries if any relate to Ukraine), and asking them a series of aggressive questions.

4. While the intelligence file is created, there may be a wait of several hours.

4a. A male person of fighting age with an athletic or military physique can expected particularly concentrated attention; in the Ukrainian mindset they might be going to fight for the Russians. No passport immunises one from attention; some, such as Serbian or Armenian, may guarantee highly elevated levels of unpleasantness. The Ukrainians are particularly obsessed at the current time that foreigners are coming to Ukraine to join the Wagner Group.

5. Any Tweets about Ukraine will provoke a reaction. Any Tweets  about Ukraine that say anything other than the official Ukrainian government line (roughly, "death to the Russian scum occupiers") will be treated as negative and the person will be suspected to be a spy.

6. Any Tweets sympathetic to Russia may result in a person being arrested and detained in a military prison. The same is true of any other material the SBU find on the internet that suggests sympathy for Russia, the Russian government or the Russian people.

7. A Russian visa, entrance or exit stamps in one's passport, even if old, may incline the SBU authorities to conclude that one is a Russian spy and that one should be arrested for espionage.

8. An interviewee will be invited to agree with a series of extreme racist assertions, e.g. "the Russians are bastards and we will kill them, do you agree?" as well as a series of territorial assertions, e.g. "Crimea is part of Ukraine and always will be, do you agree?".

9. Assertions such as "the Ukrainian Armed Forces are pushing back the Russian forces" may be treated with hostility, e.g. with replies such as "we know what the fuck we are doing; do you think we are the moral victors?". Obviously every question asked should be replied to in disparaging terms about Russian people or the Russian army, describing them as terrible people and/or terrorists (the SBU seem to like that in particular). You need to be ready with a quick-fire series of responses about how dreadful Russia and her people are. 

10. The phrase "Vladimir Putin is a Nazi" also seems to go down well. Any remotely neutral or positive expression of opinion about Vladimir Putin will probably get you arrested and you will end up in that military prison.

10a. It's no good arguing with such people. They're crazy. They are not susceptible to reason. Try instead appealing to emotions: your love for Ukrainian people, your Ukrainian girlfriend (they are probably missing their wives and lovers), or some emotional or interpersonal connection with the interrogator.

11. You can be 100 per cent certain that whoever you are going to visit in Ukraine will be telephoned in front of you and they will be interrogated over the telephone as to why you are entering the country. That person may later find that they have problems of their own, if you have not given a good impression.

12. You may wish to delete your Twitter account and all online materials you have published about anything before you cross a Ukrainian border, as it is likely that all of it will be read.

13. Your interview / interrogation (call it what you will) will be recorded and added to your SBU file.

14. It may be demanded that you provide access to your mobile telephone to be checked for anti-Ukrainian or pro-Russian sentiments; or simply insufficiently pro-Ukrainian sentiments. You should provide such access unflinchingly. If you try to deny access, or to delete materials on the spot, you are likely to be arrested. A prudent course is to delete all materials on your mobile telephone before approaching the border.

15. Your interview may consist of four to five large men in military fatigues standing up and surrounding you while you sit on a small plastic chair and questions are shouted at you in pseudo-English. Other more senior people may be video-conferenced into the interrogation.

16. If you are a journalist writing about Ukraine, come with Ukrainian government accreditation and the SBU will already have a file on you. Your treatment will depend upon the extent to which your journalism is considered consistent with the Ukrainian government's current extreme line.

17. Try to stay calm in the face of people shouting at you and threats of imprisonment in military prison; such things are we understand routine and the idea is to see how you react to them.

18. Saying that you have Ukrainian relatives will cause substantial enquiries to be made as to their affiliation; it appears that the entire population of Ukraine is currently being vetted for their political bias, patriotism, or nationalism, for want of a better word. If your stated relatives are leaning the wrong way, then your interview is likely to go badly.

18a. If you are deemed to be a male Ukrainian national of fighting age (18-60 is the stipulated age range), you are likely to be conscripted into the Ukrainian Armed Forces on the spot. This may apply even if you do not have a Ukrainian passport but you have for example a Ukrainian surname.

19. Most people are ultimately let through if they want to be so. However all apart from highly pro-Ukrainian journalists and people like NGO's bringing a lot of money are strongly discouraged not to enter the country by the SBU border guards.

20. Any evidence that one has entered "Novorossiya" (by which we mean Russian-occupied Ukraine, including Crimea) makes it highly likely that a person will be subject to arrest at the border by the SBU, as will any recent entries to Russia (e.g. in the last twelve months).

21. If you stay in hotels in Ukraine and the hotel staff decide they have reason to be suspicious about you, then this procedure will be recreated in-country as hotel staff are under instructions to call the SBU if any suspicious people are staying in their establishments. Believe us, it is highly likely that you will be considered a suspicious person if you are not carrying either Ukrainian government authorised journalism papers; or Ukraine government authorised NGO papers. People travelling in groups of one or two are particularly likely to be detained and questioned by the SBU both at the border and in-country.

22. All this makes independent travel across Ukraine more or less impossible at this juncture. Accredited journalists are being driven out of cities where events are taking place that the Ukrainian government does not wish to be reported. Being a western journalist is not a 100 per cent defence mechanism against SBU intimidation and unpleasantness. Sitting in an overpriced Kyiv hotel reporting Ukrainian government press releases is tolerable; anything more adventurous will cause you to be on the receiving end of problems with the SBU.

23. Particularly if you are a journalist, you should expect the SBU to be monitoring your electronic communications. They have become reasonably sophisticated at doing this. As a journalist not saying what the Ukrainian government wants, the intimidation and unpleasantness may be reserved for you until you reach the border, as encouragement for you not to return.

In conclusion, you need to think extremely carefully at the current time before travelling to Ukraine in an independent capacity. Even the support of your own government may not be enough (if you have it); the Ukrainian authorities are not offering consular access to detained persons, as far as we can tell; and embassies in Kyiv are offering scant consular services even where Ukrainian authorities are giving them the opportunity to do so by informing them of a foreign national's detention.

What you need is Ukrainian government support papers plus the telephone number of a senior Ukrainian government (or preferably SBU) official that you invite the border guards or other security forces agents to telephone, immediately when it appears that you may detained.

As a final moral observation about all of this, this is the sort of unpleasantness one expects from the Russian FSB (and this author has been on the receiving end of parallel Russian FSB unpleasantness). It is extremely similar. It is rather depressing but perhaps not entirely surprising, given the historical connections between the two institutions, that the Ukrainian SBU is now using much the same methods as the Russian FSB. One priority once the war in Ukraine is over is for the EU to require as conditionality for accession funding total restructuring, and possibly even abolition, of the SBU. The SBU has the structure of a Soviet era internal security force. Such institutions have no place in modern Europe.

The criticisms contained in this article of the SBU do not imply that The PALADINS Organisation does not support Ukraine in the ongoing war. Of course we do. Russia is an aggressor state that invaded a neighbour that was not acting in a militarily aggressive way towards it, and thereby breached both the United Nations Charter and international law more generally. Moreover the way in which Russia has conducted the war in her invasion of Ukraine has fallen far below international legal standards for the protection of civilians. Nevertheless it is depressing to see some aspects of the Ukrainian authorities also acting in ways that disappoint western standards of civility.

In the words of General Sherman, "war is hell". That is born out in the contents of this artice.


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