In Ukraine, Russian collaborators flee or face justice

Dominique Soguel
Volodymyr Rybalkin, head of the Sviatohirsk military administration, gives instructions to soldiers as they survey the town, Sviatohirsk, Ukraine, Oct. 27, 2022.
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Where Ukrainian troops have recaptured territory from the Russians, the first order of business has been to clear the area of mines. Then come state security agents, looking for collaborators.

Most of them will have fled with retreating Russian soldiers, but that does not mean they won’t be investigated. So far the authorities have registered over 2,000 cases of alleged collaboration and launched legal proceedings against 456 suspects.

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Liberating Ukrainian territory from Russian troops is more than a matter of military victory. It means tracking down Russian collaborators too.

In Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, sympathy for Moscow is not uncommon, and that in itself is not a criminal offense. But some Ukrainian policemen switched sides, and other people joined Russian-led local administrations.

“The range of motivations [to collaborate] is quite wide,” says the SBU, the Ukrainian domestic security agency, in an email. But “the most important drivers are ideology and money.”

The hunt for collaborators has spread across the liberated territories in eastern Ukraine. Sometimes it is just a matter of talking to residents about who did what during the occupation; sometimes suspects are subjected to interrogation and lie detector tests.

The police have to be careful. Izium police Chief Dmytro Griuchak says he receives dozens of allegations a day. “We are trying to separate real cases of collaboration from those of neighbors trying to settle personal scores,” he explains.

Volodymyr Rybalkin, dressed in black and escorted by young soldiers, stands among the rubble of this battle-scarred town chatting with residents as they queue for bread. Appointed head of the Sviatohirsk military administration when Ukrainian troops liberated the area in September, he is overseeing the distribution of food parcels to local residents.

And he is using the opportunity to take the pulse of the community, trying to establish just who did what in Sviatohirsk during the Russian occupation. “We are undertaking stabilization measures,” he says. “Establishing incidents of collaboration is part of that process.”

About 650 people stayed in the town when it fell to the Russian army. Some of them were sympathetic to Moscow – not unusual in this part of eastern Ukraine – but did not necessarily break the law. Others, Mr. Rybalkin is discovering, did cross the line.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Liberating Ukrainian territory from Russian troops is more than a matter of military victory. It means tracking down Russian collaborators too.

Determining who collaborated with Russia has been a top priority for the Ukrainian intelligence services whenever territory is restored to Ukrainian control. The task of identifying and punishing collaborators is complicated by the fact that many of the most important suspects have fled to Russia; others left the region and have melted into the general population elsewhere in Ukraine.

But the authorities have registered 2,319 cases of alleged collaboration in recently liberated areas of Ukraine, according to police figures, and legal proceedings have been launched against 456 suspects.

Ukraine broadened its criminal code in the wake of Russia’s invasion to punish acts of collaboration including fighting alongside enemy troops, assuming positions of authority in occupied territory, or spreading Russian propaganda in classrooms.

In this predominantly Russian-speaking region, close to Moscow-backed separatist republics that emerged from fighting in 2014, “the range of motivations [to collaborate] is quite wide,” says a spokesperson for the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), the domestic security agency, in an email interview.

Dominique Soguel
A collapsed bridge in Sviatohirsk, Ukraine, Oct. 27, 2022. The bridge was destroyed during fighting between Ukrainian and Russian troops.

Family ties and friendships can come into play: “Some people just wanted to survive and saw no other way out for themselves. Some were scared. But such cases are few,” the SBU says. “The most important drivers are ideology and money.”

In the nearby town of Lyman, also freed from Russian occupation in Ukraine’s fall offensive, police Chief Igor Ugnyvenko sees nostalgia as a key motivation. “Maybe they were expecting another Soviet Union and sausages for three cents,” he jokes.

“It needs to be done”

Most collaborators took positions in Russia’s occupation administration, such as the law enforcement officers who switched sides, according to the SBU. Last July, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy fired the SBU chief, citing dozens of cases of collaboration with Russia by officials in the agency.

The security service has set up a telephone hotline and two chatbots, inviting citizens to denounce collaborators and to report Russian war crimes.

Fieldwork is also essential. SBU counterintelligence units are among the first to move into newly liberated towns and villages, asking questions, and local police officers also play a major role gathering intelligence and conducting searches. 

“It needs to be done,” says Olga, a woman working at a charity point in Sviatohirsk who turned down an offer to be evacuated to Russia. While she supports the police work, she is also critical of the town’s “low-life alcoholics” who inform on collaborators hoping to profit no matter who is in charge, and did not want to give her family name.

In high-profile cases, tipoffs are unnecessary. “Most of the enemy’s major supporters are public figures,” the SBU says. “Usually, they are quite active in expressing their support for the enemy.”

In Sviatohirsk, about 10 people tried to build a local administration, according to Mr. Rybalkin, a native of the town who served in the territorial defense forces before being appointed mayor. “Everyone who could be held criminally liable for their collaboration left for Russia,” he says.

Dominique Soguel
Volodymyr Rybalkin, head of the Sviatohirsk military administration, stands in front of property destroyed during the fight to expel Russian forces from the Ukrainian town, Oct. 27, 2022.

Among them was his predecessor, Volodymyr Bandura. “I knew him personally,” says Mr. Rybalkin. “At some point he decided to betray Ukraine. He was very young, and he belonged to a pro-Russian political party. He decided that with Russia he could be more important.”

Mr. Bandura appeared last June in a video posted by the Russian Defense Ministry, promoting Ukraine’s inclusion in a so-called “Russian world.” He has been declared a suspect in a case of high treason.

A focal point for suspicions in Sviatohirsk is the forest-framed Monastery of the Caves, a whitewashed complex with turquoise roofs and golden cupolas embedded into chalk hills that has been a spiritual center for Orthodox Christians since the 16th century.

Its monks are loyal to the Moscow Orthodox Patriarchy, viewed as an agent of Russian influence in Ukraine, and during the fighting with Russian-backed separatists in 2014, they were accused of allowing separatist snipers to shoot from the monastery.

Senior monk Archimandrite Feofan insists, however, that the reports were untrue and that since the invasion the monastery has had no contact with the Russian side, while remaining in constant touch with Ukrainian authorities. Those authorities do not appear to regard the monastery as a threat.

Dominique Soguel
The Sviatohirsk Monastery of the Caves sits on the Siverskyi Donets River, on the edge of Sviatohirsk, Ukraine, Oct. 27, 2022. The monastery carries the scars of artillery duels between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

Protecting the innocent

The hunt for collaborators has spread across the liberated territories in eastern Ukraine. In Lyman, for example, an important railway junction that was a battleground in 2014 and again in 2022, anyone aspiring to return to work for the municipality is subject to a security check.

Volodymyr, an older man with a solid set of gold teeth who did not give his family name for security reasons, pedaled his bike to the police station on a recent rainy day to answer questions. “It took only about 30 minutes,” he reports. “Of course I was treated well; I am Ukrainian. It’s right that they do these checks.”

Most of those who collaborated were older people, says police Chief Igor Ugnyvenko, simply because almost all the younger people had fled Lyman before the Russians arrived. And all those accused of serious collaboration fled the town when the Ukrainian army arrived.

In Izium, where the first priority was to identify those complicit in Russian torture, efforts to identify collaborators are now part of routine police work. “We talk to the locals,” says Izium police Chief Dmytro Griuchak. “They tell us who was pro-Russian, who pro-Ukrainian.”

Relatively new to the post, he says he receives dozens of allegations of collaboration each day. Such tipoffs led to the recent detention of two people who had worked for the “People’s Police,” a Russian-backed entity that did police work in occupied Izium. But not all accusations are serious.

“We are trying to separate real cases of collaboration from those of neighbors trying to settle personal scores,” says Mr. Griuchak. “We need to approach this very carefully in order not to accuse someone who is not at fault and is really innocent. We only want to charge those who are guilty.”

Oleksandr Naselenko supported reporting for this article.

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