Hybrid Logistics: Donbas

Dasha Getmanova

June 2017. The first thing the taxi driver asks when he finds out that I am going home from the center of Mariupol to Kamensk — a village 15 km from the city — is whether I have a passport. After 21.00 there are no buses to the village and I can get there only by taxi. The passport is needed to get past the roadblock on Topolyna Street — it is the shortest way to the village. This roadblock is one of those that appeared in 2014 during the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) in eastern Ukraine, which lasted for four years in сertain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions 1. A Decree on the beginning of the operation was signed on April 14, 2014 by the acting President of Ukraine Oleksandr Turchynov in response to the seizure of administrative buildings by pro-Russian separatists in Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk regions. On the same day, militants from the so-called People's Militia of Donbas and, in particular, the self-proclaimed mayor of Sloviansk, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, recorded a video message to President Putin asking him to pay attention to the situation in the city and “help as much as possible”2. Seven days later, at the roadblock near the village of Bylbasovka at the Western entrance to Sloviansk, a firefight took place, involving pro-Russian militants and, presumably, a volunteer battalion Right Sector. After that, a story appeared on the Russian TV channel LifeNews, which claimed that "Yarosh's business card” 3 and a German World war II MG42 machine gun were found at the site of the collision. These “findings” were to prove that in reality there is a real “civil war" in eastern Ukraine4. As the researcher of politics of memory Osipyan adds, the story was supposed to make the threat of capture of Sloviansk by “Nazis” more real, legitimizing in the eyes of the audience the capture of the city by pro-Russian separatists,“5 since Pravyi sektor fighters were now at large in the Donbass” 6. This story was designed to show viewers in both Russia and Ukraine that the war had begun in earnest7.



I start writing this text in June 2019, exactly 2 years after that trip. At the moment, the length of the border of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions with the Russian Federation is about 930 km, 430 km of which is not under control of the Ukrainian government8. In order to get to the uncontrolled area, you must pass the checkpoint 9 near the contact line: in total, there are about 5 checkpoints in Donetsk region and only one in Luhansk region.

In the spring of 2014, when the first seizures of local government bodies by pro-Russian separatists began, I studied at the Lyceum in the very center of Mariupol: the windows of my classrooms looked out onto the building of the Mariupol City Council. On April 13, 2014, the City Council building was seized by pro-Russian separatists, and on the night of May 10, a fire broke out inside it, engulfing the entire building. The barricades built by the separatists around it also burned down. The source of the fire is still unknown. I spent the next fall, my senior year, traveling: I remember how carefully we thought out logistics to other Ukrainian cities that remained unaffected by war and argued about how many roadblocks we would meet along the way.       

Now I want to think about logistics again, but from a different perspective. I want to address a notion that first appears in the article by Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Spencer Louis Potiker - the logistics of occupation. They introduce it to describe “the systematic Israeli assault on the Palestinian logistical supply chain”10. But in the case of the invasion of Russian proxy groups into Ukraine, we are dealing with a different logistics, and to describe it, we need to find traces of this new type, which would, on the one hand, continue the logistics of the occupation, but at the same time take into account their differences. If the very technology of war that Russia uses can be described as “war without war, occupation without occupation”11, then the logistics should be the same: shadow and irregular. To detect the organization of this new logistics system, we need to track the circulation of anthracite and hard coal from the mines in eastern Ukrainian mines (1) and the operation of humanitarian logistics centers near the contact line in the Donetsk region (2). The concept of logistics itself traces its genealogy to military science and, in particular, to the work of military theorists Antoine-Henri Jomini and Carl von Clausewitz. Initially working primarily in the context of the war, it was only after world War II that logistics became part of business and management practices. In this sense, we can consider the logistics of occupation as a natural continuation of the process of merging military and corporate logics 12, when the neoliberal type of management manifests itself in military campaigns.


It all started with anthracite 13. The energy economy of Ukraine is closely linked to anthracite — more than half of Ukrainian thermal power plants operate on anthracite, which is extracted in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Mines with this type of coal are located mainly in CADLR (certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions - ed. author), while in the areas controlled by Ukraine there are only mines with gas coal. With the start of the war, power generation companies purchasing coal in eastern Ukraine found themselves in a difficult situation: many logistics hubs in the Donetsk direction became inaccessible, and only two railway lines could be used to transport coal. This logistics chain was sometimes cut off due to damage to the railway track from explosions. In their research on the analysis of existing and development of new logistics schemes for the export and import of Ukrainian coal, Nina Rizun and Halina Ryzhkova sum up this period: “totally during 6 month (2014-2015) logistic chains of energy sources in Ukraine, which seemed to be quite stable, have changed dramatically. Being the exporter of energy coal Ukraine has become its importer” 14. During this period, new questions related to the organization of transportation of anthracite coal group: how to import anthracite from one’s own, but currently uncontrolled territory? And who will be the ultimate beneficiary of these supplies, if the coal-mining enterprises in “DPR” and “LPR” are under Ukrainian jurisdiction only formally?

In mid-December 2016, veterans from the volunteer battalions “Aidar” and “Donbas” demanded from the authorities of the self-proclaimed republics the return of Ukrainian prisoners of war under the threat of a railway blockade of the “DPR” and “LPR”. In response, the pro-Russian militants threatened to “nationalize” Ukrainian enterprises, which at that time were still under Ukrainian jurisdiction.  At the end of January, the railway blockade of the “DPR” and “LPR” initiated by activists and criticized by the official authorities began. The reaction to the civil blockade on the part of the militants was the introduction on March 1 of “external control” at the Ukrainian enterprises located  the non-government controlled areas in eastern Ukraine. The term “external management” means delegating administration to an outsource. According to journalistic investigations, the firm Vneshtorgservis registered in South Ossetia (one of the few countries that recognized the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People's Republic” and “Luhansk People's Republic”) is such a temporary administrator 15. The civil blockade was followed by a trade blockade initiated at the time by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Since then, anthracite, which has become an important marker of Ukraine's constantly changing internal relations with the self-proclaimed republics, as well as Ukraine's relations with Russia, has been embedded in a new logistics chain. In September 2019, journalists Tomás Forró, Michal Potocki and Karolina Baca-Pogorzelska published an investigation into coal supply schemes from occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland 16. This scheme appeared after Ukrainian enterprises had been “nationalized”. The authors of the investigation note that Belarus, which does not have a single coal mine within its territory, became one of the largest coal exporters to Europe in 2018 17. At the same time, the share of Ukraine's purchases of coal from Belarus also increased dramatically 18. This logistics chain is structured as follows: Belarus buys coal from Russia, presumably of Ukrainian origin, and then resells it to Europe and Ukraine below the market value of coal from Russian deposits 19. Journalists attribute this to the fact that coal from Donbass is cheaper than Russian coal and its transportation and production are cheaper than in Russia 20. At the same time, Belarus hardly spends money on coal logistics, since this is done by a Russian logistics company which is presumably subsidized by the state 21. Meanwhile, the authors of the investigation could not find any  references showing coal imports from Belarus in the Ukrainian statistics, and representatives of Ukrstat did not respond to a request on this issue from Radio Svoboda.

On 27 October, almost 2 months after the release of the investigation,  at the meeting of President Volodymyr Zelensky with the members of Azov Regiment and National Сorps, Zelensky actually confirmed the words of the journalists, responding to a remark about smuggling from the uncontrolled areas of Ukraine: “You and I eventually buy Ukrainian coal. <...> We and through Belarus, and previously through Russia,  but you and I, in the end, buy Ukrainian coal” 22. This is the first statement from the Ukrainian official authorities that  Belarus has actually become a transit zone between the self-proclaimed “People's Republics” and Ukraine, re-exporting coal extracted in mines in non-government controlled areas in eastern Ukraine back to the territories controlled by the government.

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On August 28, 2015, the first humanitarian logistics center (HLC) “Mayorske” was officially opened on the territory between the “Zaytsevo” checkpoint and the contact line, close to the Ukrainian government-controlled city of Bakhmut, Donetsk region. According to a press release on the government portal, “such centers are designed to allow entrepreneurs and humanitarian organizations to import goods and sell or distribute them to civilians living in temporarily occupied territories” 23. If earlier it was assumed that residents of non-controlled territories had to leave their locality and get to the territory controlled by Ukraine in order to buy food and medicine at a better price or use ATMs and receive social benefits, now all this could be done in humanitarian logistics centers without crossing the contact line. On the one hand, this would significantly reduce queues at the checkpoint and speculation on the cost of goods imported to the “DPR”, on the other —  would allow residents of uncontrolled territories to receive humanitarian aid. In total, it was planned to open several centers in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, but in the end, only two started working: one near Bakhmut,  the other one near the village of Novotroitske near the route “Mariupol — Donetsk”. In order to simplify travel for those who only get to the HLC it was decided to launch special buses that were following only to the HLC and went through a special “green corridor”. Bus passengers did not need to get special entry permits from the SSU (Security Service of Ukraine),  just a special ticket that gave them the right to travel only to the HLC. However, soon the buses were canceled, as well as a separate queue for  those who wanted to go only to the HLC, so only people who had private transport  could get to the center.

Buses, that ran from non-government controlled cities to the checkpoint, did not stop near the zero roadblock, next to which the logistics center was located, so most of the residents simply could not reach them — for this, they would have to walk back from the checkpoint to the roadblock, that did not make any sense, since in this case, it is easier to get to shops on the government-controlled area24.

The structure of the humanitarian logistics center itself resembled an ordinary wholesale market, with only one difference: if everyone can become a seller in the market, then in the HLC sellers received their spots through the non-transparent selection system which eventually led to the fact that there were almost no ordinary sellers, as well as buyers from local residents: it was too inconvenient to get to the center.

The plan for neoliberalization of the “grey zones” failed: market mechanisms and state control over supplies were replaced by illegal smuggling. One of the alleged smuggling schemes looked like this: at some point,  only some trucks could get to the HLC “Mayorske” by prior arrangements which were supposed to deliver goods to the HLC and unload them. Then came a car with 8-12 people who seemed to buy goods and took them to the zero roadblock, and then they were transferred to another car 25.

In the summer of 2018, the humanitarian logistics centers were closed, and the project was considered a failure.


Deborah Cowen points out that “logistics has also always been centrally concerned with getting the fuel for men, animals, and machines to the front as well. In fact, the transformation in how war was fueled was definitive in the rise of logistics from a residual to a driving force in modern warfare”[26]. If the ongoing war in Ukraine is a hybrid war, we can talk about the emergence of a specific type of logistics of occupation — hybrid logistics. Such logistics combines not only managerial and militaristic approaches,  but also has the ability to wriggle: we can neither accurately track the logistics of the Donbass anthracite, because its key points are in the shadows, nor trace the exact way the smuggling of goods through the humanitarian logistics has happened

Dasha Getmanova is an independent researcher based in Kyiv. In her practice she develops feminist and queer approaches to art in Ukraine. Seeing labor as one of the key issues of feminist and queer agendas, she also interrogates the labor conditions in art. Her interest in the conditions of maintenance of the infrastructures of knowledge-production, allow her to apply a decolonial perspective on the “post-soviet” logistics.. She is currently obtaining her MA at the Gender Studies program in Kyiv.

[1] Since spring 2018, the Anti-Terrorist Operation was reformatted into a Joint Forces Operation.

[2] Обращение жителей Славянска к России и Владимиру Путину, YouTube video, 0:42, published by «RT на русском» April 14, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_XMsXVfEZ_o

[3] Dmytro Yarosh was the leader of the Right Sector at that time.

[4] I single out this concept in quotes, because it is a cliche used mainly by pro-Russian media to describe the war in eastern Ukraine.

[5] Osipan A. Historical Myths, Enemy Images and Regional Identity in the Donbass Insurgency (Spring 2014) // The Journal of Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society vol.1, no. 1 (2015)

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Fischer S. The Donbas Conflict. Opposing Interests and Narratives, Difficult Peace Process // SWP Research Paper 5 April 2019

[9] The checkpoints are used for entry and exit from the non-government controlled areas to the government-controlled areas and back.

[10] Alimahomed‐Wilson J., Potiker S. L., The Logistics of Occupation: Israel's Colonial Suppression of Palestine's Goods Movement Infrastructure  // Journal of Labor and Society vol.41, no. 3 (2017)

[11] Dunn Cullen E., Bobick S. M., The Empire Strikes Back: War Without War and Occupation Without Occupation in the Russian Sphere of Influence  // American Ethnologist  vol.20, no. 4 (2014)

[12] Cowen D., The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in the Global Trade. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2014

[13] Anthracite is a type of hard coal.

[14] Rizun N, Ryzhkova H. Export and import of coal in Ukraine: existing practice and new logistics schemes // Research in Logistics & Production Vol. 6, No. 1 (2016)

[15] See, e.g.,  Барабанов И., Еременко Е. // Коммерсантъ Власть, May 6, 2017.

[16] The original investigation was published in  Dziennik Gazeta Prawna and Denníku N. publications. The translation into Russian and Ukrainian of the second part of the investigation is publicly available: https://nv.ua/biz/markets/kontrabanda-uglya-i-antracita-iz-donbassa-v-polshu-slovakiyu-chehiyu-belarus-novosti-mira-50049769.html

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] ЗЕЛЕНСКИЙ В ЗОЛОТОМ (полное видео) Нацкорпус. Я не лох, YouTube video, 13:23, published by «НикВести HD» Octover 27, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5RRDnF7lKM&t=770s

[23] Понад тиждень поблизу Артемівська працює гуманітарно-логістичний центр для жителів окупованих територій Донбасу // Урядовий Портал, 7 вересня 2015, piblicly available https://www.kmu.gov.ua/ua/news/248461831

[24] Crossing the line: how the illegal trade with occupied Donbas has undermined defence integrity, 2017  // Transparency International Defence and Security and Transparency International Ukraine

[26] Ibid.

[26] Cowen, 2014.