Viktor appeared nervous as masked Ukrainian security guards in full riot gear, camouflage and weapons were pushed into his cluttered apartment in the northern city of Kharkiv. His hands were shaking and he tried to cover his face.
The middle-aged man came to the attention of Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, after what authorities said were his social media posts praising Russian President Vladimir Putin for “fighting with the Nazis”, calling on regions to secede and labeling the national flag “a symbol of death.”
“Yes, I supported [the Russian invasion of Ukraine] a lot. I’m sorry…I’ve already changed my mind,” Viktor said, his voice shaky showing clear signs of coercion in the presence of the Ukrainian security guards.
“Grab your things and get dressed,” an officer said before escorting him out of the apartment. The SBU did not release Viktor’s last name, citing their investigation.
Viktor was one of nearly 400 people in the Kharkiv region alone who were detained under anti-collaboration laws swiftly enacted by Ukraine’s parliament and signed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky after the February 24 Russian invasion.
Harsh penalties for employees
Violators face up to 15 years in prison for collaborating with Russian forces, publicly denying Russian aggression or supporting Moscow. Anyone whose actions result in death could be sentenced to life in prison.
“The responsibility for collaboration is inevitable, and whether it will happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow is another question,” Zelensky said. “The most important thing is that justice is inevitably served.”
Although the Zelensky government enjoys wide support – even among many Russian speakers – not all Ukrainians oppose the Russian invasion.
Support for Moscow is more common among some Russian-speaking residents of Donbass, an industrial region to the east. An eight-year conflict there between Moscow-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces had killed more than 14,000 people even before this year’s invasion.
Some businessmen, municipal and state officials and members of the military are among those who crossed over to the Russian side, and Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigations said more than 200 criminal cases for collaboration had been opened. Zelensky even stripped two SBU generals of their rank, accusing them of treason.
A “register of collaborators” is being compiled and will be made public, said Oleksiy Danilov, head of Ukraine’s Security Council. He declined to say how many people were targeted across the country.
Pro-Russian political parties banned
With martial law in place, authorities banned 11 pro-Russian political parties, including the largest which had 25 seats in the 450-member parliament – the opposition Platform for Life, which was founded by Viktor Medvedchuk , an imprisoned oligarch with close ties to Putin.
Authorities say pro-Russian militants in southeastern Ukraine, the site of active fighting, are helping the invaders by acting as observers to direct the shelling.
“One of our main goals is that no one stabs our armed forces in the back,” Roman Dudin, head of the SBU’s Kharkiv branch, said in an interview with The Associated Press. He spoke in a dark basement where the SBU had to move its operations after its building in central Kharkiv was bombed.
The Kharkiv branch has detained people who support the invasion, call for secession and claim that Ukrainian forces are bombing their own towns.
A word with a loaded history
Allegations of collaboration with the enemy have strong historical resonance in Ukraine.
During World War II, some locals welcomed and even cooperated with Nazi Germany’s invading forces after years of Stalinist repression, including the “Holodomor” – a man-made famine that would have killed more than three million Ukrainians.
For years thereafter, Soviet authorities cited the cooperation of some Ukrainian nationalists with the Nazis as a reason to demonize today’s democratically elected leaders in Ukraine.
Rights advocates know of ‘dozens’ of detentions of pro-Russian activists in Kyiv alone since the new laws were passed, but the number of people targeted across the country is unclear said Volodymyr Yavorsky, coordinator of the Center for Civil Liberties, one of Ukraine’s largest human rights groups.
“There is no complete data on [entire] country, because everything is classified by the SBU,” Yavorsky told AP.
“Ukrainian authorities are actively using the practice of Western countries, in particular the United Kingdom, which has imposed severe restrictions on civil liberties in war-torn Northern Ireland. Some of these restrictions have been deemed unjustified by human rights advocates. man, but others were justified, when people’s lives were in danger,” he said.
A person in Ukraine can be detained for up to 30 days without a court order, he said, and anti-terrorism legislation under martial law allows authorities not to tell defense lawyers that their clients are in pre-trial detention.
The holding strategy involves risks
The Ukrainian government knows the implications of detaining people because of their opinions, including the risk of thwarting Moscow’s position that kyiv is cracking down on Russian speakers.
But in wartime, officials say, free speech is only part of the equation.
“The debate on the balance between national security and the guarantee of freedom of expression is endless,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told AP.
In the town of Bucha, which became a symbol of horrific violence during the war, Mayor Anatoly Fedoruk said aides gave invading troops the names and addresses of pro-Ukrainian activists and officials in the town outside kyiv, with hundreds of civilians. shot with their hands tied behind their backs or burned by Russian forces.
“I saw these execution lists, dictated by the traitors – the Russians knew in advance who they were going to, what address and who lived there,” said Fedoruk, who found his own name on one of the lists.
“Of course, the Ukrainian authorities will search for and punish these people.”