How to punish collaborators in times of war? Ukraine is on a painful journey

Stories of betrayal spread weekly, if not daily: a villager briefs an occupying Russian military unit on the identity and activities of the volunteer defenders. A resident of a besieged town secretly calls the coordinates of a Ukrainian troop camp. The mayor of a small town tells his neighbors that the encroachment of Russian troops means no harm.

Since humans go to war, they fear the enemy within. Collaboration and betrayal run like dark threads through the tapestry of almost every war story, no matter how triumphant: in ancient Greece, in revolutionary-era America, in Nazi-occupied France.

For memory :

8:37 p.m. July 28, 2022An earlier version of this story reported that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s first name was Vladimir.

And in Ukraine, which is fighting an existential struggle battle to defend oneself against the army of Vladimir Putin.

Those who study the phenomenon of collaboration say that the choice to betray one’s country and compatriots can be motivated by a host of factors: divided loyalties, a grudge or personal gain, or an attempt to buy security for one’s own family or community.

“There are many reasons,” said Ukrainian military historian Roman Ponomarenko. “It can be based on a person’s feelings towards the so-called Russian world, or their instinct for survival, or be driven by profit. Or they just don’t care about the country.”

In addition to five months of fighting Russian onslaught, Ukraine showed a remarkable degree of national solidarity. Collaboration, when it exists, is often a source of burning shame, a largely taboo subject even among those who have been victimized.

However, the subject came to light this month, when President Volodymyr Zelensky very publicly deleted two senior security and law enforcement officials – the country’s head of domestic intelligence and attorney general – said their departments were filled with hundreds of Russian sympathizers or saboteurs.

Neither official was personally implicated, but the episode marked the most serious government reshuffle since February 1. 24 invasion.

“Crimes against the foundations of the national security of the state, and the detected links between the employees of the security forces of Ukraine and the special services of Russia, raise very serious questions,” the president said in announcing the dismissal of the two senior officials. responsible, Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova and Ivan Bakanov, a childhood friend of the president who headed the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU.

More than 650 criminal investigations involving alleged collaboration or treason have been opened against security and law enforcement officials, Zelensky said — a troubling phenomenon in agencies tasked with policing such matters.

Across the country, at least 1,300 people, including private individuals, are being investigated for collaboration, National Police Chief Ihor Klymenko told Ukrainian media in June.

At the provincial and national levels, many prosecutors routinely evade questions about such cases within their jurisdiction. But especially in areas where Russian forces initially dominated and then withdraw – including a swathe of suburban towns and suburbs close to the capital, Kyiv – allegations of collaboration continue to emerge as investigators work to document a wide range of alleged war crimes by the occupying troops.

Part of this developing picture is figuring out who might have helped the Russian forces.

“There were such people among us,” said Mykhailyna Skoryk-Shkarivska, the deputy mayor of Bucha, a once quiet Kyiv suburb. The town’s name has become synonymous with horrific atrocities committed against civilians – some of those likely facilitated, the deputy mayor said, by local residents who passed on information after Bucha fell under Russian control early in the war.

About 40 cases of alleged collaboration are under investigation in the capital region, said Andriy Nebytov, police chief of the oblast or Kyiv province. The consequences of such betrayals were sometimes horrific, he said.

In the village of Motyzhyn, Olha Sukhenko, the village chief, was tortured and killed along with her husband and 25-year-old son in March, at the start of the war. Ukrainian authorities say she and her family were targeted because of her alleged knowledge of those active in the Territorial Defense Forces or resisting the occupation.

“Collaborators reported it to the Russians,” Nebytov said.

Human rights officials, both Ukrainian and international, have expressed concern about whether, in the midst of a brutal war, accused or suspected collaborators will receive due process. At the same time, there are free speech issues: when does publicly expressing sympathy for the invaders turn into helping?

In some communities, there is little doubt that brutal justice has sometimes been meted out. In a desolate village graveyard outside the capital, a local man giving a tour recently pointed to the grave of a man believed to have aided the occupiers.

“He’s been taken care of,” he said grimly, refusing to say more.

Often, however, those who sided with the Russians – and feared neighbors would know – fled when Moscow troops withdrew from areas around the capital, finding refuge in Russian-controlled areas. or hiding elsewhere, according to police. This puts them beyond the reach of the Ukrainian authorities, at least for now.

In some areas occupied or threatened by Russian forces, some Ukrainian officials are trying to reverse the situation in the face of Russian efforts to induce local populations to cooperate with them.

In the southern city of Mykolaiv – which is considered a key Ukrainian bulwark on the Black Sea coast and which has suffered repeated Russian strikes in recent weeks – the governor, Vitaliy Kim, this month offered a bounty of 100 dollars to those who report someone who is acting on behalf of Russia.

Kim told a press conference that nearly 100 tips had been passed on in a single day, with most people not looking to collect a bounty but simply wanting to help. But the governor acknowledged it was important to prevent a “witch hunt”, in which people might try to settle personal scores by making a hard-to-reprove accusation of collaboration.

In the southern port city of Mariupol, which fell to Russian forces in May after a bloody and protracted fight, exiled mayor Vadym Boychenko later said that while the battle unfolded Russia had “watchers “Ukrainians in the city who provided precise coordinates to bomb critical infrastructure, and who passed on detailed information about when buses full of evacuees would try to get out of the city.

Even in fighting-torn parts of the country, some Ukrainians — particularly those who came of age before 1991, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union — have traditionally felt culturally aligned with Russia. Along the eastern battlefront, where Russian bombardment reduced many towns and villages to smoking ruins, Ukrainian defenders have publicly stated that they were sometimes taken back by encounters with local people who refused to believe that Russia was attacking.

Some senior Ukrainian officials now say the sense of kinship has always been misplaced.

“Thirty years of our so-called great friendship with the Russian Federation has now culminated in a great aggression, a great war,” National Security Advisor Oleksiy Dnilov told Ukrainian state television recently. “These are the consequences of our reckless positions for the entire 30 years of our country’s existence.”

Shortly after the outbreak of war, Ukrainian lawmakers toughened collaboration laws, allowing for sentences of up to 15 years and confiscation of property. In cases that result in one or more deaths, the penalty may be life imprisonment.

But often, collaboration is not an open and closed affair. Ponomarenko, an expert on WWII Europe, noted that in areas occupied by Russian troops since the early days of the war, such as the southern city of Kherson, teachers are ordered to teach a curriculum pro-Russian. The new law could technically open the door to lawsuits, which he said would be a mistake.

“It’s very complicated to say,” Ponomarenko said.

Even the most fervent Ukrainian patriots are tacitly resigned to the fact that the murky nature and sheer number of instances of collaboration – combined with the urgency of waging a war whose outcome is far from certain – will likely mean a reckoning. countdown of several years.

If Ukrainian forces are able to regain control of areas like Kherson, which fell in the early days of the war, officials say the immediate concern may be to rebuild communities shattered by the violence of the war. But if the Russians are pushed back, new evidence against the local people who helped them will inevitably emerge.

“The responsibility of collaboration is inevitable,” Zelensky said in a speech earlier this year. “Whether that happens tomorrow or the day after tomorrow is another question.”