Collaborators or compatriots? How Ukraine should treat residents of territory it takes back from Russia

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On September 11, jingoist Russian pop star Oleg Gazmanov was scheduled to give a concert entitled “Russia is here forever!” in the bombed Ukrainian town of Izium, in the northeast region of Kharkiv, which Russia had occupied in early March. But just before Gazmanov was supposed to appear on stage, the Ukrainian military launched a smashing counter-offensive in the region, liberating Izium and driving under-equipped Russian forces from 6,000 square kilometers of territory.

The concert wasn’t the only thing ruined by the Ukrainian onslaught. After the humiliating rout of the Russian military, Russian President Vladimir Putin held a sham referendum in the Ukrainian regions he still occupies, namely parts of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia. The falsified results showed huge majorities in favor of secession from Ukraine, and a few days later Putin announced the official takeover of these territories. As he did, however, the Ukrainian army continued its successful advance in the east, capturing many towns and villages that Putin had just declared Russian territory. Ukrainian forces are now ready to overtake certain areas under Russian control since the start of the war.

This is great news for Ukraine and for Western allies. But this is also a problem in Kyiv. In October, Zelensky said residents of occupied areas who had been loyal to Ukraine had nothing to fear. “Our approach has always been and remains clear and fair: if a person has not served the occupiers and has not betrayed Ukraine, then there is no reason to consider such a person a collaborator,” he announced. But determining who a collaborator is may be more complex than Zelensky acknowledged. There is a spectrum of guilt, from outright betrayal to passive participation. Zelensky will have to consider what balance between punitive and reintegrationist measures is appropriate in regions such as the Donbass, where a significant proportion of civil servants remained in post during the occupation. These are the same areas that the Ukrainian government has worked the hardest to better integrate since the first Russian invasion in 2014, with notable success. A well-calibrated approach to the question of the collaborator will be crucial for this process in the future.

Putin’s Obsession

At the start of the war, Russia occupied areas near Kyiv and other parts of northern Ukraine, such as Chernihiv and Sumy, where the local population was extremely hostile. Since its withdrawal in March, Russia has focused on occupying the southeast, the region where historically its soft power has been strongest. Putin refers to this region – a vast expanse of steppe and the coastline that the czars wrested from the Ottoman sultans in the 18th century – as Novorossiya, or New Russia. Despite the fact that ethnic Ukrainians have always been a majority in the region, Putin is obsessed with the idea that this is a lost Russian province.

Determining who a collaborator is may be more complex than Zelensky acknowledged.

In fact, national identity in the southeast is very complex, a lesson Putin should have learned in 2014, the last time Russia invaded its western neighbor. Russia hoped to portray its incursion as a local Novorossiya uprising that stretched from Kharkiv in the north to Odessa in the south. But it was only in the eastern area called the Donbass, which includes the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, that the Kremlin found a critical mass of inhabitants ready to support Russian rule, and even there the army of Putin was only able to take about half of the territory. The next eight years strengthened the division. Russian propaganda and the lingering trauma of the war helped generate intense anti-Ukrainian sentiment in the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. Meanwhile, pro-Ukrainian sentiment has also grown in southeastern Ukraine, fueled in part by Kyiv’s investments in the region’s infrastructure and government services.

But Putin’s intelligence services completely missed this dynamic. The Russian president was apparently confident that people in the southeast would welcome his invaders. Instead, Russian troops encountered loud protests against the occupation throughout the region, especially in the coastal cities of Berdyansk, Kherson and Melitopol.

This reaction confused the Russian invaders. According to Mykhailo Minakov, a senior adviser to Wilson Center Kennan Institutethe Russian government tried to counter this resistance by employing the approach it used against the recalcitrant population of Chechnya, the Russian Caucasus province that tried to break away in the 1990s and in the first decade of this century. Russian forces used tear gas and live ammunition against kidnapped pro-Ukrainian protesters and activists, army veterans and their families. Some have been detained indefinitely; others were killed and buried in mass graves now uncovered in liberated cities such as Izium. During this period of intense violence, Russia left evacuation routes open to allow other pro-Ukrainian residents to “self-evict” from the occupied territories. The exodus is enormous and certain occupied communes lose half of their inhabitants. Meanwhile, the friendliest locals have been rewarded with multiple Russian parties and public events. A Soviet cargo cult has brought back the symbols of so-called past glory. Moscow sought to convince remaining residents that this was their new normal. Billboards proclaiming “Russia is here forever!” made the point explicit.

To take part

In the early days of the occupation, pro-Russian locals eager to embrace the occupying troops were mostly pensioners nostalgic for the Soviet Union. But as the false normalcy of the occupation took hold, a more demographically diverse pro-Russian population began to appear in the streets and squares of their cities, waving miniature flags during celebrations of Russia Day and sticking Z’s (a symbol of support for the Russian occupation). ) on their cars. In Kupyansk, Kharkiv region, a group of teenagers gathered to chip the Ukrainian trident crest of the local cultural center with hammers, then gave interviews to a nearby Russian TV crew about their disregard for the ‘Ukraine.

That said, the prevalence of those who welcomed the Russian occupation varies across the occupied southeastern territories, in a way that generally mirrors the differences that emerged in 2014. In Kherson, open support for Russia is rare, perhaps because of the partisan attacks which claimed the lives of many local collaborators. In the Kharkiv region, early reports suggest that allegiances were also divided, although this was after a major exodus of pro-Ukrainian residents. In the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, pro-Russian residents feel more numerous and dominate public spaces now that patriotic neighbors have been banished or detained. Certain patterns have emerged: in cities and regions that are well integrated into the national economy, pro-Ukrainian sentiment is strong. Russian sympathy is highest in remote villages and depressed coal towns, where economic optimism is rare.

Residents who supported Russia fled Kharkiv province and Donbass following the Ukrainian military counter-offensive, obstructing border crossings to Russia. This emigration included defector elite bureaucrats driving expensive imported cars, but also people in dented Soviet-era vehicles, suggesting that Russian sympathizers of modest means were also fleeing. Some told Western journalists that they feared persecution, and worried about their collaborationist peers in the Kherson region, who could also find themselves suddenly abandoned if the Ukrainian army advanced.

Death comes for the executioner

It is not a vain fear. Many Ukrainians demand that those who collaborated with the Russians be punished. They point out that Ukraine went relatively easy with the organizers of Russia’s first illegitimate referendum in 2014 to justify its occupation of half of Donbass, and that in 2022 many of those same figures have again become collaborators. . A law passed by parliament in March criminalizes cooperation with an aggressor state; the only workers exempted were doctors and emergency service and utility workers. Other civil servants who have remained in office can be prosecuted. This includes, in particular, teachers and social workers.

The challenge is to determine the intention and action of these people. Relatively few elected officials chose to collaborate with the Russians, but over time many local bureaucrats returned to their jobs. Some did it with apparent taste, cursing the Ukrainian state, while others did it passively. Regardless of their level of enthusiasm, Russian and separatist media regularly published photos and videos of these officials under the Russian flag, and within hours screenshots appeared on the pro-Ukrainian Telegram channels which monitor the collaborators and supporters and pass on their personal information to Ukrainians. Security services. In this way, Russia cut the bridges behind those who accepted the occupation as their new reality.

This can trap some people whose motivation to stay at work was not ideological. Almut Rochowanski is an international peacebuilding activist who has worked since 2014 with activists in eastern Ukraine supporting civilians in the occupied territories. Several of his contacts say some teachers and social workers stayed on because they feared no one else could serve victims of domestic violence and rape, two crimes that plague the war zone. In the words of one activist, they view these officials as “part of their team” and not agents of the enemy. They advise against tampering with anyone who has remained in the occupied territories.

That said, these women plead for the punishment of local administrators who collaborated with the Russian occupiers and the organizers of the last referendum. Calls for accountability will only grow following reports of torture chambers and mass graves discovered after the liberation of Izium and other cities. Ukrainians will not tolerate a return to the status quo.

At the same time, the search for collaborators will be most intense in regions facing the collapse of infrastructure, housing and energy; massive depopulation; and the psychological trauma of war. The identification and punishment of collaborators by the Ukrainian government must be done transparently and responsibly, lest it become another source of trauma for overstretched populations. Ukraine should avoid swift and blanket punishment of entire categories of alleged collaborators, preserving the right of appeal and taking into account mitigating circumstances. Administered fairly, such a process can enhance accountability, fairness and the rule of law in areas emerging from Russia’s nihilistic occupation.

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