Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.
KYIV — Fifty-eight-year-old Viktor Kyrylov told the Shevchenkivskyi District Court in Kyiv he didn’t see himself as a collaborator, and that’s why he remained in Kherson when Russian forces retreated from the Ukrainian city last year. The judge, however, thought differently, and last month, Kyrylov was handed a 12-year prison term for working as a police driver for Russian occupation authorities.
“I worked as a driver; drove an investigation team, repaired cars. The situation was difficult. There was no work. There was banditry and marauding. I thought I was helping the people of Kherson to protect public order,” Kyrylov told the court. “It’s not like I was fighting against Ukraine,” he added, explaining that the Russian-appointed investigators he drove handled “family scandals, robberies, marauding” and weren’t “chasing guerrillas.”
Kyrylov’s is just one of the many collaboration — and treason — cases that have been cramming Ukraine’s courts. And while many of them appear to be clear-cut, others aren’t.
It’s difficult to obtain definitive figures on exactly how many collaboration cases have been concluded and how many more are due to be heard. A year ago, the head of Ukraine’s Security Council Oleksiy Danilov had announced that a “registry of collaborators” was being compiled and would be made public. However, a comprehensive register hasn’t been maintained.
According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, about 5,000 criminal collaboration cases have been opened, but defense lawyers believe that to be an incomplete tally, as many cases are under wraps for security reasons. Meanwhile, more cases are being opened daily, and when Ukraine manages to reclaim more of its territory from Russia, there will be a surge.
Many of these cases seem to be open and shut: They include fifth columnists who identified military bases and positions, as well as energy infrastructure, for Russia to target — like a Dnipropetrovsk man who was sentenced to 15 years in jail last month for disclosing Ukrainian military positions to Russian artillery.
Then, there are the Russian sympathizers — or those who wanted to curry favor with occupation authorities. They picked out neighbors who were Ukrainian patriots and might join partisans, while others who’ve been sentenced, or are now before the courts, identified locals who’d once served in the Ukrainian military and might pose a threat.
There are also some who acted as online propagandists, praising Russia and its war on Ukraine. In fact, one of the very first collaboration cases to be prosecuted was that of a 34-year-old resident of Kramatorsk, who published a video on TikTok urging people to support Russia.
In most of these concluded cases, the defendants pled guilty, expressed remorse and have been receiving lenient sentences — a suspended prison term and exclusion from holding public office or working in a government job for at least 10 years or longer.
But not all cases will be so black-and-white, and they will further raise tough questions about how to define collaboration and what exactly requires punishment.
For example, is it always wrong to cooperate with occupiers? And when does cooperation become collaboration, or shift into treason? Should local officials be labeled collaborators when they offer some cooperation in order to try and lessen the occupation’s impact on locals by maintaining public services or securing provisions and medicines — like Kherson Mayor Ihor Kolykhaiev who’s now believed to be in Russian captivity?
Ukrainian officials have emphasized that those in some professions won’t be accused of collaboration — such as doctors, nurses and pharmacists. But they’re now wrestling with the same awkward questions others have confronted before them, most notably in countries liberated from the Nazis during World War II.
These questions — as well as the complex, morally torturous day-to-day decisions that the French faced while living under German occupation — are brilliantly explored in the long-running television drama “Un village français,” as it focuses on what the series’ chief adviser, and occupation historian, Jean-Pierre Azéma called the “gray zone.”
At the time, many in France felt there was no gray zone. It’s a sentiment that partly contributed to rough justice being meted in 1944, when over 10,000 alleged collaborators were put to death in extra-judicial killings — that’s 4,000 more than were executed under orders by official courts.
“Many men and women were unfairly singled out and punished. Many more escaped retribution altogether. There were multiple procedural irregularities and ironies, and the motives of governments, prosecutors and juries were far from unsullied — by self-interest, political calculation or emotion. This was an imperfect outcome. But . . . in the circumstances of 1945 it is remarkable that the rule of law was re-established at all,” noted British historian Tony Judt.
Today, some Ukrainian officials fear a repeat of the ugliness and brutality that went along with liberation in France in 1944 — and not only for moral reasons but because it could poison the country as it tries to recover after the war. Ukraine’s Deputy Justice Minister Valeriya Kolomiets recently touched on this dilemma facing the country when speaking on Radio Svoboda. “In my opinion, the main thing is not to stir up internal enmity regarding collaborationism, but to explain to people what it is, and how we determine who was a collaborator and who was not,” she said.
But that’s easier said than done.
Ukrainian authorities had been fearful of defining collaboration too broadly ever since Russia annexed Crimea and occupied a large part of the Donbas in 2014, as they worried about alienating residents in the occupied territories who had little choice but to cooperate with Russia’s puppet administrations to survive. However, those fears have been partly pushed aside since last year’s barbaric invasion.
On the day of Russia’s onslaught, Ukraine’s Verkhovna parliament quickly approved new collaboration laws. And while they’ve since tinkered with these laws to try and achieve greater precision, they’ve also added new offenses: Prosecutors no longer need to prove cooperation damaged the security of the state; offenders now face up to 15 years in prison for collaborating with Russia’s forces, making public denials about Russia’s aggression, or advocating for Moscow; and anyone whose actions resulted in deaths can face life in prison.
And while there are growing concerns that harsh actions could indeed “stir up internal enmity,” some Ukrainians see simply remaining in occupied territory as an act of collaboration. “It has been very conspicuous to me there is a very real division between the people who left occupied towns and came back when they were liberated, and the people who stayed,” said a member of an international human rights mission — he asked to remain unidentified due to the political sensitivities involving his mission.
“The people who left and then came back are very critical of the people who stayed, and accuse them of collaborating with the occupying forces. And we spoke to, for example, a bunch of teachers, both those who stayed and returnees. And there was a very high degree of animosity from the people who left and came back toward those who never left. It is going to be a monumental task to try to bridge those divisions,” he added.
Some of the returnees, he observed, too easily ignore the justifiable reasons and, in some cases, insurmountable difficulties that shaped decisions to remain living under occupation — including not wanting to abandon elderly or infirm relatives unable or unwilling to travel, the fear that their properties would be seized or ransacked, or the likelihood that some would be injured or killed during flight.
Ukrainian officials similarly appear at odds as to how to view those who remain in occupied territories — or at least they’re sending out mixed messages. For instance, in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decree requiring those in occupied territories to take up Russian citizenship or face property confiscation and deportation, officials in Kyiv failed to agree on a clear response.
Dmytro Lubinets, the human rights commissioner in the Verkhovna, has said that Ukrainians in the occupied territories should accept Russian passports if they fear for their lives. Meanwhile, Minister Mychajlo Podoljak said Ukrainians should “not cooperate with the occupiers, do not accept Russian passports, flee if possible or wait for our army.”
The issue of how to treat local officials who cooperated with Russia is likely to become even more pressing in the months ahead as well. While some mayors and local officials were pro-Russian and happily assisted the occupation, others only worked with them for what they believed were right reasons and were not given clear instructions by Kyiv on what they should do — despite pleading for them.
In the days before his city was overrun, Kherson Mayor Kolykhaiev made a series of heartfelt public and private pleas for guidance. “I ask as soon as possible to provide an explanation (recommendations) regarding the actions of the Kherson City Council . . . in the event of attempts to establish the aggressor’s rule on the territory of the community, regional center, or region by the military units of the Russian Federation,” an request from April 16, 2022 read.
And almost a month later, on May 6, 2022, he still had “no answer from the Office of the President” regarding “inquiries about how Kherson should live on, whether the government will consider us all as collaborators — local governments, doctors, teachers, heads of public utilities, who keep the city afloat and perform their functions to the limit of the possible and impossible.”