Of course “Novorussiya”, constituted by the Donetsk People’s Republic together with the Lugansk People’s Republic, is not (yet) recognized de-jure by the UN, or any other UN states (only by the largely unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia). Not even by any country collector clubs. As a politically and geographically interested Person, I wanted to visit this new de-facto “state entity” nevertheless. Despite two “peace agreements” in Minsk, the trip was more the witnessing of an active warzone than expected.
Since the Kiev-controlled army destroyed both airports in the region, Donetsk International and Lugansk International, the closest possible entry point nowadays is by land (Matveev Kurgan border point) …
… 140 km from Rostov-on-Don International Airport, where I landed by Aeroflot from Moscow (1h45m flight time).
A combination of 2 or 3 taxis for the total 220km drive from Rostov to Donetsk will cost you less than 100 €, or 5.000 Ruble. A pictoresque ride, initially along the Sea of Azov and the ruins of ancient Greek (and Gothic) Tanais, then turning inland near Taganrog, continuing along beautiful sunflower and wheat fields (“breadbasket of Europe”) to the ancient Scythian burial grounds at Matveev Kurgan, and into the fertile Donets River bassin.
Entry at the half-destroyed Matveev Kurgan border post (riddled with bullet and grenade hits) was without problems. Got the Russian exit stamp. No entry stamp on the other side. “Novorussian” border guards are however already wearing the new green uniform with the new coat of arms.
Shrapnel lying at the bottom of the customs house.
My driver proudly displayed the new coat of arms of the Donetsk People’s Republic in his taxi, just like many other local car owners on their number plates.
The road to Donetsk is rather narrow, amid lush trees, with occasional canopies …
… and several grenade holes in the asphalt (no foto taken).
Around the city of Ilovaisk there were many civilian houses destroyed by grenades …
… or pockmarked with bulletwounds, after the Battle of Ilovaisk (the first decisive cauldron against the pro-Western forces, before the Battle of Debalzewo).
There was also this bombed-out factory nearby.
And a Russian-Orthodox church. Surprisingly, even in this conflict there is a (small) religious element, with some of the Greek-Orthodox minority in the region fighting against the particularly Russian-Orthodox Novorussians. “Divide et impera” – business as usual.
Arrival in Donetsk. I wasn’t allowed to – and didn’t risk to – take fotos of the two heavily armed checkpoints of the local security forces, who protect the major entrance ways into town. Everybody is nervous here. No wonder, there are frequent commando attacks against them, with exchange of AK-47 fire, even inside the perimeter of Donetsk.
Accordingly, the advertising boards – and the streets in general – are rather empty. But the feeling of public order is ok, and public services like traffic police and trolley buses worked visibly normal. Of course, there was no regime change here!
Driving past the Ramada Hotel in the rain …
… and the inevitable Lenin statue on the main square in this rather proletarian worker and mining region …
… to the famous Donbass Palace Hotel (a Grande Dame, originally built in 1938) …
… where I was among the very few guests, except some UN staff who had parked their typical cars, one of them armoured, in front of it. Having been to many conflict zones, I know from experience what the prefix “un-” stands for.
The Donbass Palace is owned by Ukrainian-Tatar billionaire Rinat Akhmetov …
… who also owns top soccer club Shakhtyor Donetsk (trophy cabinet in the hotel lobby).
I received a 20% discount, maybe for staying on the more dangerous, grenade-prone side of the Donbass Palace (here the view from my room window). I couldn’t see any mortar hits, but they could be heard all day.
Especially from the nearby Ramada Hotel …
… where I spent most of the time …
…on the Atlas Restaurant & Bar terrace, because of the more lively atmosphere, with many “interesting characters”.
Guns were not so visible, and the behavior of those hotel guests who may have been Russian mercenary (chiefs) was unobtrusive. There were also some of the famously beautiful ladies, definitely local upper class, and some local big guys. (This was not the right time for taking pictures). A very special atmosphere, so typical for warzone hotels.
Again and again, the thunder could be heard from the mortar attacks against Donetsk. (Foto: hotel windows taped against blasts.) The strikes came as close as ca. 3 km, hitting right on the road to the airport, well within the huge city of Donetsk (1-2 mio inhabitants). The locals are all scared, and some seemed already scarred by the terror of this imported war, that so suddenly jumped from the Euro-Maidan into their neighbourhood, while everybody was distracted, watching the Olympics. Many have since fled their homeland, the majority to Russia, some to the Baltics. But for those who stayed, life must go on, somehow. Everyone was exceptionally friendly, although I was a foreigner, and even a Westerner, with an unclear agenda (to them). I hope that peace comes back soon, but I am not optimistic, given that the mainstream Western propaganda press already creates Orwellian new-speak like “a frozen conflict”. Now, in July 2015, this certainly isn’t a cold war revival, no, the Donbass is definitely a hot pot. Simmering, small flame, but deadly. And ready anytime, for higher stakes.
On the way home, the border procedure is much more difficult. It usually takes between 12 and 24 hours to make it to Russia for the unfortunate locals. The long queue reminds me of the new “sick man of Europe” standing in line for badly needed medicine. While Dr. Putin has successfully healed his patient (Russia) under very similar circumstances, the newly prescribed Western medicine (for Ukraine) is well known to create the diseases it claims to heal.
With my cool fixer Vyatcheslav, the right habitus and a certain routine with difficult transitions (I had my fotos with both Wladimir Klitschko and Ramzan Kadyrov :-)), I made it over the border in 1 hour. Spassiba !