Questions and answers about the war in Ukraine
6 MAY 2022
We have been asked a number of questions about the logistics of travelling around Ukraine (particularly the south in which we are specialists), by journalists and others, and we thought it might be useful to provide answers to commonly asked questions.
Which is the easiest border by which to enter and exit Ukraine?
All borders are becoming increasingly difficult, but on balance we prefer the two borders from Moldova at the Palanca Tri-Point (east and west). Both are extremely quiet and are used by daily commuters.
It remains possible to travel from Palanca to cities north and west in free Ukraine - for now.
Can I carry a firearm into or out of Ukraine?
Only if you use an informal (i.e. unguarded) border, of which Ukraine has many. However informal borders have their own distinct disadvantages, as described in earlier posts. If a checkpoint guard from either the Ukrainian Armed Forces or the Russian Armed Forces decides to look for an entry stamp in your passport and cannot find one, then you may find that you have very serious problems.
All luggage is searched, often twice, using official entry points to Ukraine. If you are found carrying a firearm, then at the very least you will be arrested. You may be shot or conscripted.
If you consider that you need a firearm in Ukraine, arrange with local contacts in advance.
Another method is to enter Ukraine lawfully, unarmed; leave unlawfully; collect your contraband and then re-enter unlawfully. But if anything goes wrong, you will have serious problems.
Ukraine is awash with firearms. Obtain them locally. It is basically lawful in much of free Ukraine to carry a firearm right now. Let someone else do the smuggling.
Can I cross Russian checkpoints and/or enter Russian held territory?
Yes, as long as you have a good story. It helps if you carry a Russian visa (if needed). Russian checkpoints are in fact more orderly than Ukrainian checkpoints. You may be asked for a bribe. Carry small bills and/or gifts like packets of cigarettes or food.
Do not attempt to enter the Donetsk or Luhansk People's Republics (that includes Mariupol) or Crimea without a Russian visa if you need one to enter the Russian Federation. The Russian government has officially informed us of this requirement.
What money should I take?
In 'rublised' territories (that includes Zaporizhzhiya and Kherson oblasts) carry Russian Rubles cash. Convert your money into Rubles at informal exchange offices before you enter rublised territory.
Insist on paying in Rubles and do not accept change in Gryvnas, or you may be arrested.
Bring low denomination Ruble bills, to avoid this kind of problem.
Do not assume that western bank cards work in rublised territories.
Is entering Russian-held territory safe?
Not really but the risks are tolerable if you are careful. The cities and towns are safe and calm but transport between cities may be difficult and dangerous due to numerous checkpoints, craters in the road, unreliable public transport, etcetera.
Food and water is available throughout, with the exception of Mariupol (see below). Food shortages have been reported in Kherson (empty supermarket shelves, etcetera) but we have heard conflicting reports about this.
A number of non-essential businesses are closed.
What means of transport should I use to travel around Russian occupied Ukraine?
Where they are available, use trains or public buses. Otherwise use taxis. They are not too expensive.
Are Odessa and Nikolaev occupied by Russian forces?
The city centres have heavy FSB presences but the formal institutions are still Ukrainian, albeit being watched by FSB surveillance. The roads around those cities are mostly occupied by Russian forces. Levels of paranoia are high.
Nikolaev appears to have been cut off on all sides, as we have previously reported.
It is not obvious whether one can still travel between Nikolaev and Odessa using public transport. We are receiving unreliable information about this. To the best of our understanding the train service is cut but it may be possible to undertake the journey using a series of buses via Yuzhne.
What proportion of Ukraine is now occupied by Russian forces?
Our estimate is 30 per cent, if Crimea is taken into account. This estimate is made on a geographical not population basis. We have not attempted the same estimate on a population basis, because it is unclear to us how we should treat major population centres under quasi-Russian control such as Odessa or Nikolaev, particularly given that the Ukrainian authorities would probably disagree with us about our assertions of tacit Russian control of those cities.
Also there are too many smaller settlements control of which we simply do not have data about.
Is Nikopol occupied by Russian forces?
We don't know. We have not been able to find anyone who knows the answer to this question or is willing to share the information with us. According to the BBC, a British citizen was present in Nikopol on 2 March 2022 when the city was 'surrounded' by Russian forces with no prospect of departure.
Nikopol is important, because the road northeast from the town leads fairly directly to Dnipropetrovsk and also to the west bank of Zaporizhzhiya, where lies Zaporizhzhiya's hydroelectric power facility. Hence Nikopol will be used as a key plank for the Russian assault on both those cities.
We rather suspect that the town of Nikopol has fallen quietly to the Russians; but we really don't know. It is certainly not obvious how to travel there without hindrance.
One possibility - and we put it no higher than that - is that Nikopol has been evacuated because it falls within the Enerhodar exclusion zone (see below). It is barely 7km as the crow flies from Nikopol to Enerhodar nuclear power station, even though they are on opposite sides of the Kakhovka reservoir (see below).
UPDATE 7 MAY 2022
We have tried calling many Nikopol landlines all of which begin +3805662. There is a telephone directory on the internet. None of them at all picked up. Given that nobody, even at senior levels in the Ukrainian government, can tell us who controls Nikopol, we tentatively conclude that the answer may be nobody and that the town may be empty. Google Earth shows images not inconsistent with this hypothesis.
From Nikopol old town to the Enerhodar nuclear power station is about 7km. The following photo of the power station appears to have been taken from the Old Town in Nikopol.
We therefore tentatively conclude that Nikopol may have been evacuated because it lies in a nuclear accident exclusion zone (see below for the entry on Enerhodar). Where everybody has gone (it was a town of some 100,000 people), we do not know.
Can Serbs travel to Ukraine?
Yes but stay away from Donbass where there are numerous Serbian mercenaries. If you are caught in Donbass with a Serbian passport, things could become very bad for you.
If you attempt to enter Serbia on a Serbian passport with a Ukrainian stamp in your passport, you may be arrested by Serbian border guards and imprisoned for a period of years.
Can Americans travel to Russian-occupied Ukraine?
As a practical matter the answer is no. Due to a substantial Agencies presence in South Ukraine, you are likely to be arrested for espionage if you are caught by Russian forces there with a US passport.
Should I carry body armour?
Not unless you are a member of the press and you want to look the part. Body armour is heavy, mostly useless and makes people suspect you are a mercenary.
You must avoid looking like a mercenary if you are travelling in southern Ukraine.
On the other hand, the media are banned in Russian-occupied Ukraine, so if you present press credentials you are likely to be turned back at the first Russian checkpoint - possibly after being strip-searched and your belongings robbed, or something similarly inconvenient.
What language should I speak?
Russian, then English. Do not speak Ukrainian.
Does the Russian occupation appear permanent?
Yes. Where Russian armed forces have occupied towns and cities, no efforts are being made to dislodge them. Ukrainian government officials are being removed and replaced with Russian ones, and civil resistance is nugatory at best.
Ukraine's armed forces seem to have reached capacity fighting in Donbass, and foreign weapon contributions are being destroyed while they remain in ammunition dumps by hypersonic Russian cruise missiles, before they ever reach Ukrainian troops.
Does Mariupol remain dangerous to visit?
Yes, unless you are the UN Secretary General. There remain high levels of lawlessness, and lack of food and water.
I am a foreign volunteer with the Ukrainian armed forces. What should I do?
Exit theatre immediately after burning your military uniform. You are probably experiencing a failure in the Ukrainian Armed Forces logistics supply chain, and the situation will only get worse.
Palanca is probably the best exit point for fleeing volunteers. You will not be asked too many questions. The Moldovan police may harass you but you simply tell them you are going directly to Chisinau airport and then flying home. They will let you on your way.
You may be detained at your home destination on suspicion of committing offences relating to fighting for a country other than your own. (Several countries have such laws.) You must decide with domestic lawyers how to answer such charges. Contact lawyers before you fly in case you are arrested at the airport. Do not give interviews to law enforcement authorities without first obtaining legal advice.
Are there hotels and other accommodation available in the Russian occupied territories?
Yes. They can be booked on the internet. Even Nikopol has such accommodation options.
Is it safe to travel to Enerhodar?
We don't know. Europe's largest nuclear reactor had a fire in early March after Russian forces fired multiple shoulder-launched tactical ballistic missiles at it in the course of their occupation of the town. Here is a video of the event. The big white flashes are Russian tactical ballistic missiles hitting the reactors (there are six.)
We have been told there is no nuclear risk there but that appears to be a Ukrainian media narrative. A tactical ballistic missile might well crack the concrete lining that sits over a nuclear reactor core - hence the reported reactor fire. If a crack were not properly sealed then it might emit radioactive isotopes from the reactor core that might eventually give way to total compromise of the concrete lining, causing a reactor to explode, and possibly to take with it some or all the adjacent reactors.
The only way to find out if this is what has happened would be to go to Enerhodar with a Geiger Counter and test radiation levels in proximity to each reactor.
We note that all hotels in central Enerhodar are closed. The nearest available accommodation is about 8km away.
UPDATE 7 MAY 2022
We understand that all businesses, restaurants and hotels are closed within an 8km radius of Enerhodar. Russian forces have occupied positions at the perimeter of the 8km radius, leaving Ukrainian civilians to manage day-to-day operation of the Enerhodar nuclear reactor.
This makes us concerned that there is an exclusion zone round Enerhodar. In other words, the facility is leaking toxic isotopes that themselves emit Gamma radiation. (Alpha and Beta radiation would not require so wide an exclusion zone.)
The IAEA needs to inspect the facility immediately and form recommendations, not just for stabilisation of the nuclear facility but also the welfare of the residents and workers remaining in the exclusion zone.
I am an IAEA inspector. How do I travel to Enerhodar to inspect the nuclear facilities?
This is not straightforward. At the present time private taxis are offering their services from Palanca East (Ukraine side) to Kherson, the going rate for which is about 150EUR. From Kherson it is approximately 3.5 hours' drive to Enerhodar, another trip you can undertake by taxi available from Kherson. Whether the Russian guards around Enerhodar will let you in is another issue, of course. Probably they will not without prior Kremlin authority. There is no conceivable reason you could be going there, save to check up on a potential nuclear catastrophe.
If the situation in and around Nikolaev deteriorates, the taxis from Palanca to Kherson may evaporate. We will endeavour to keep this page updated with the latest information.
A more painful way to reach Kherson is a 30-hour train ride from Moskva Kazansky Vakhzal to Krasnodar; then another longish train ride to Simferopol; then a taxi across the Crimean frontier to Kherson. This is now possible given relaxation of the regime on the Crimean frontier, but of course you need a Russian visa.
From free Ukraine, you take a taxi to Dnipropetrovsk and then another taxi to Nikopol (whatever status that settlement has), and then you loop around the western end of the Khakovka reservoir to reach its south bank. It seems very few people are using this route, so it may be unpredictable. It is not even clear how far along the reservoir's north bank the Russian army has progressed. We have not seen any accurate maps of the matter.
If you were feeling really adventurous you could take a boat from Nikopol to Enerhodar; they are only seven kilometres apart as the crow flies. We have no idea whether anyone would take you, or what the prospects of the boat being sunk by the Russian Navy are. We have read reports that Nikopol beach is now full of barricades, but again we do not know whether this is true as nobody seems to know anything about Nikopol.
What happens if one or more of the six Enerhodar nuclear reactors blows up?
This would be a major regional catastrophe. A crack in the concrete sleeve widens, eventually failing to withhold the pressure in the reactor and toxic radioactive derivative isotopes of plutonium are blown over a radius of several tens of kilometres, depending on the wind and the amount of time the resulting fire continues. In Chernobyl, the ultimate exclusion zone was 30km. This larger exclusion zone is rendered permanently uninhabitable. The fire might spread to some or all of the other five nuclear reactors, compounding the effect.
The water in the reservoir will be rendered toxic for a significant period, cutting water supplies to Kherson. Likely the entire Enerhodar complex would have to be shut down, causing a loss of perhaps 20 per cent of Ukraine's entire electricity output. Zaporizhzhiya and Dnipropetrovsk would suffer acute shortages of electricity.
Can the Enerhodar reactors be turned off pending the war's end?
Yes; but it involves great skill and planning to turn off a nuclear reactor in circumstances such that you can later start it again. And there are six of them - six Chernobyls on a single site.
The loss of power would potentially affect the entire Ukrainian national grid. When one reactor was shut down for a period in 2014, the entire country suffered from blackouts.
Experts must be sent to study this issue immediately. It may have been overlooked because the area is so remote. Nevertheless it is an acute priority.
Is it safe to visit Zaporizhzhiya?
It is borderline. The city remains under Ukrainian control but Russian forces are advancing on at least two sides and at some point they will cut electricity and water to Zaporizhzhiya and start shelling the city. In the meantime the city is awash with refugees.
Be extremely cautious in venturing out from your hotel. Eat in the hotel. Do not venture out looking for sights to photograph or nightlife to enjoy. Ukrainian officials are undertaking strict controls of what journalists can see / do and the information with which they are provided. We have noted several reputable media agencies making factual assertions about the war that are obviously incorrect. Be sceptical of all journalism, no matter its origin.
Should I be careful what I say in Russian occupied Ukraine?
Yes. Do not discuss the war or its consequences with anyone, either in person or in electronic form. If someone presses you, provide a neutral reply, e.g. 'this situation is quite something'.
Russian law should be assumed to apply throughout Russian occupied Ukraine. Russian law prohibits discussion of the war. Southern Ukraine is not a place for idle chitchat. You may endanger yourself or your interlocutor. Just do your business, whatever it is, and otherwise keep your mouth shut.
What should I do if I am arrested by Russian forces?
Be prepared for a long wait. Do not resist. Be prepared for a short interview in front of the TV camera. Be compliant. Do not make a fuss. Ask that the Moscow consular affairs office of your Embassy be informed. Use money on you to buy privileges in the prison in which you are incarcerated. At the current time Embassies are not doing much for their citizens incarcerated anywhere in Ukraine. Proposals to negotiate the release of foreign citizens in Russian occupied Ukraine are being dismissed out of hand by Western governments. You may have to wait several months. Prison visits are unlikely; consulates are not sending people. Bring a few good books.
It is wise to establish a method of communication at least once every 24 hours with friends, family or professional relations, informing them of where you are, your condition, and where / what you intend to go / do next, so that those in whom you place your trust know you have been arrested if you do not report within a 24-hour cycle and can raise the alarm.
I have a diplomatic passport. Should I use it in Russia occupied Ukraine?
Unless your diplomatic passport is issued by a country with friendly relations with Russia, definitely not. The consequences are unimaginable. The matter would probably be referred to the Kremlin for decision (however long that might take), and in the meantime you might be detained and interrogated in potentially unpleasant conditions. You would probably end up being expelled somehow by the Russians, who knows where to. Or you might end up on an espionage charge. There is no guarantee that Russian occupying forces will respect assertions of diplomatic immunity
Even if it is the diplomatic passport of a country friendly with Russia, you will arouse great suspicions.
If you have quasi-diplomatic business in Russia controlled territory, announce it in advance to the FSB and wait for a decision on whether to let you in. Then obey it.
Is it safe to enter Pridnestrovia (Transniestr)?
For now yes, as long as you act sensibly and discreetly. Avoid all problems with the Police and the internal security forces. Be polite to everyone, and they will be polite to you.
Obey all regulations scrupulously. Avoid discussion of the war in Ukraine, no matter how harmless it may appear. Do not say anything critical about Pridnestrovia, her politicians or her people during your stay. Avoid public drunkenness or potentially compromising situations. Stay only in registered accommodation.
We do not recommend entering Pridnestrovia on a US passport at the current time.
Do not attempt to pay for anything in any currency except the Pridnestrovian ruble, which is fully convertible (in Pridnestrovia). You will only embarrass your counterpart if you try to pay in a hard currency, who will have to refuse you. Hence always ensure you have sufficient cash Pridnestrovian rubles for any transaction. There are lots of banks, they all change money, and they are open long hours.
Do not confuse Pridnestrovian rubles with Russian rubles. The Pridnestrovian ones are worth over four times more! Also their value is pegged, so there are no dramatic currency fluctuations.
How do I enter / exit Pridnestrovia?
Contact your registered accommodation provider and ask them to send a Pridnestrovian taxi to collect you from any location in Moldova. A going rate might be 400 Pridnestrovian rubles from Chisinau (about two hours).
Do not attempt any other method of entering or leaving Pridnestrovia at the current time.
Expect Russian border checks. While they search your luggage comprehensively, our experience of them is entirely as professional and correct. They do not ask for bribes and will not detain you unduly. Do not attempt to bribe anyone in Pridnestrovia. It is a scrupulously law-abiding place. Every last (Pridnestrovian) ruble in change will be counted out to you.
Do not attempt to enter / exit Pridnestrovia other than through an official border with Moldova. Do not attempt to cross directly from Pridnestrovia to Ukraine. This is not permitted and it will have bad, and unpredictable, consequences.