How to punish wartime collaborators? Ukraine charts painful course

The betrayal tales leak out weekly or even daily: a villager tips an occupying Russian military unit on the identities and activities of volunteer defenders. A resident of a besieged town secretly calls the coordinates of a Ukrainian military camp. A mayor of a small town tells neighbors that the advance of Russian troops doesn’t mean anything bad.

For as long as men have waged war, they have feared the enemy within. Collaboration and betrayal run like dark threads through the tapestry of almost every war narrative, no matter how triumphant: in ancient Greece, in Revolutionary America, in Nazi-occupied France.

And in Ukraine, which is waging an existential struggle against Vladimir Putin’s armies.

Those who study the collaborative phenomenon say that the decision to betray one’s country and one’s compatriots can be motivated by a variety of factors: divided loyalties, personal rancor or gain, or an attempt to secure security for one’s family or to buy community.

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

In more than five months of repelling the Russian onslaught, Ukraine has shown a remarkable level of national solidarity. Collaboration, when it occurs, is often a source of burning shame, a largely taboo subject even among those who have been victims rather than perpetrators.

The issue came to the fore this month, however, when President Vladimir Zelensky very publicly ousted two senior security and law enforcement officials — the head of domestic intelligence and the country’s attorney general — stating that their departments were honeycombed with hundreds of Russian sympathizers or saboteurs.

Neither official was personally implicated, but the episode marked the most severe government upheaval since the February 24 invasion.

“Crimes against the foundations of national security of the state and the established links between the employees of the security forces of Ukraine and the special services of Russia constitute very serious issues,” the president said when announcing the dismissal of the two senior officials, Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova and Ivan Bakanov, a childhood friend of the President who headed the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU).

More than 650 criminal investigations into alleged collaboration or treason have been launched against security and law enforcement officials, Zelensky said — a disturbing phenomenon among agencies tasked with overseeing such matters.

At least 1,300 people, including private individuals, are under investigation nationwide for collaboration, national police chief Ihor Klymenko told Ukrainian media in June.

At both the provincial and national levels, many prosecutors routinely dodge questions on cases falling under their jurisdiction. But particularly in areas where Russian forces first had the upper hand and then fell behind — including a number of commuter towns and suburbs near the capital Kyiv — allegations of cooperation continue to surface as investigators struggle to unravel a multitude of alleged war crimes to document occupying forces.

Part of this developing picture is determining who may have aided the Russian Armed Forces.

“There were people like that among us,” confirmed Mykhailyna Skoryk-Shkarivska, the deputy mayor of Bucha, a once-quiet suburb of Kyiv. The city’s name has become synonymous with gruesome atrocities against civilians – some likely relieved, the deputy mayor said, by locals who passed information after Bucha fell under Russian control early in the war.

About 40 cases of alleged collaboration are being investigated in the capital area, said Andriy Nebytov, the police chief of the Kiev oblast or region. The consequences of such a betrayal are sometimes appalling, he said.

In the village of Motzhyn, Olha Sucheko, the village chief, was tortured and killed along with her husband and 25-year-old son in March, in the early days of the war. Ukrainian authorities say she and her family were targeted because of their alleged knowledge of those who were active in the Territorial Defense Forces or otherwise opposed the occupation.

“The collaborators alerted the Russians to them,” Nebytov said.

Both Ukrainian and international human rights advocates have raised concerns about due process of trial for accused or suspected collaborators amid a brutal war. At the same time, there are questions of free speech: when does public sympathy for the invaders turn to support?

In some communities there is little doubt that rough justice has occasionally been administered. At an abandoned village cemetery outside the capital, a local showing visitors around recently pointed out the grave of a man suspected of helping the occupiers.

“He was taken care of,” he said grimly, refusing to say more.

Often, however, those who sided with the Russians fled – fearing neighbors would take notice – as Moscow’s troops withdrew from areas around the capital, found refuge in Russian-controlled areas or hid elsewhere, police say . This puts them out of the reach of the Ukrainian authorities, at least for the moment.

In some areas either occupied or threatened by Russian forces, some Ukrainian officials are trying to turn the tables on Russian efforts to get local people to cooperate with them.

In the southern city of Mykolaiv — which is considered a key Ukrainian stronghold on the Black Sea coast and has been hit repeatedly by Russian strikes in recent weeks — governor Vitaliy Kim this month offered a $100 bounty on those who report anyone using it is acting on behalf of Russia.

Kim said at a press conference that nearly 100 tips were shared in a single day, with most people not trying to collect a bounty, just wanting to help. But the governor acknowledged that it was important to prevent a “witch hunt,” in which people could try to settle personal scores by making a hard-to-refute allegation of collaboration.

In the southern port city of Mariupol, which fell to Russian forces in May after a bloody and protracted battle, exiled mayor Vadym Boychenko said afterwards that Russia had Ukrainian “spotters” in the city during the battle who supplied them with precise coordinates for bombing critical infrastructure and who gave detailed information on when busloads of evacuees would attempt to make their way out of the city.

Even in parts of the country devastated by fighting, some Ukrainians — particularly those who came of age before 1991, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union — have traditionally felt culturally connected to Russia. Along the eastern front, where Russian bombardment has reduced many towns and villages to smoldering ruins, Ukrainian defenders have spoken openly about being sometimes baffled by encounters with locals who refuse to believe Russia is 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 led to a major aggression and a major war,” National Security Advisor Oleksiy Dnilov recently told Ukraine’s public broadcaster. “These are the consequences of our careless attitudes throughout our country’s 30-year existence.”

Shortly after the outbreak of war, Ukrainian lawmakers tightened cooperation laws, allowing for prison sentences of up to 15 years and confiscation of property. In cases resulting in one or more deaths, the penalty can be life imprisonment.

But often cooperation is not an open case. Ponomarenko, a scholar of World War II Europe, noted that in areas occupied by Moscow’s troops since the first days of the war, such as For example, in the southern city of Kherson, teachers are ordered to teach a pro-Russian curriculum. The new law could technically open the door to law enforcement, which he says would be wrong.

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

Even the most staunch Ukrainian patriots have tacitly accepted that both the grim nature and sheer number of cases of collaboration — combined with the urgency of fighting a war whose outcome is far from certain — will likely mean years of reckoning.

If Ukrainian forces manage to regain control of areas like Kherson that fell in the early days of the war, officials say the immediate concern could be rebuilding communities devastated by wartime violence. But as the Russians are pushed back, more evidence against locals who helped them will inevitably surface.

“Responsibility for cooperation is inevitable,” Zelenskyy said in a speech earlier this year. “Whether it happens tomorrow or the day after is another question.” How to punish wartime collaborators? Ukraine charts painful course

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