Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Russia’s Fifth Column in Ukraine Is Alive and Well

A year after the invasion, Ukraine is riddled with Russian collaborators and sympathizers.

By , a journalist covering conflicts and crises with a focus on Afghanistan and the wider Middle East.
A sign at the entrance to Kherson, Ukraine, reads: "Do you know about a collaborator or traitor? Inform us."
A sign at the entrance to Kherson, Ukraine, reads: "Do you know about a collaborator or traitor? Inform us."
A newly posted sign reads: “Do you know about a collaborator or traitor? Inform us," at the entrance to Kherson, Ukraine, on Nov. 21, 2022. Throughout the country—especially in recently liberated cities such as Kherson—posters encourage the civilian population to help. Stefanie Glinski photos for Foreign Policy

KHERSON, Ukraine—The sound of incoming and outgoing fire was almost constant as the older woman paused for a moment near Kherson’s main hospital, a shopping cart with several water bottles that she had just filled up at the riverbank of the Dnipro resting by her side.

“It was better when the Russians were here,” she said, and either way, “Crimea rightfully belongs to Russia.” She kept on, praising Putin, declining to share her name or to be photographed, and explaining that, at 75, she was still “young at heart” as several Ukrainian soldiers gathered around her. A missile hit nearby, loud and clear, and then another one. Moments later, the woman was off, pulling her two-wheeled cart along—and the soldiers had, in the meantime, already informed the police. 

“Anyone can be a Russian collaborator or traitor—age, gender, or background doesn’t matter,” explained Maj. Serhiy Tsehotsky of the 59th Motorized Brigade, adding that it’s the police’s job, not the army’s, to “find out where she lives, who she talks to, and whether she’s involved in illegal activities.” 

KHERSON, Ukraine—The sound of incoming and outgoing fire was almost constant as the older woman paused for a moment near Kherson’s main hospital, a shopping cart with several water bottles that she had just filled up at the riverbank of the Dnipro resting by her side.

“It was better when the Russians were here,” she said, and either way, “Crimea rightfully belongs to Russia.” She kept on, praising Putin, declining to share her name or to be photographed, and explaining that, at 75, she was still “young at heart” as several Ukrainian soldiers gathered around her. A missile hit nearby, loud and clear, and then another one. Moments later, the woman was off, pulling her two-wheeled cart along—and the soldiers had, in the meantime, already informed the police. 

“Anyone can be a Russian collaborator or traitor—age, gender, or background doesn’t matter,” explained Maj. Serhiy Tsehotsky of the 59th Motorized Brigade, adding that it’s the police’s job, not the army’s, to “find out where she lives, who she talks to, and whether she’s involved in illegal activities.” 

“The key collaborators have gotten out of Kherson, but many remain,” he said. 

Informants, traitors, and collaborators have supported Russia in fighting Ukraine from the start. They have helped geolocate targets throughout the country and even managed to infiltrate the government. Thousands have been detained in the past year; hundreds of court cases have been opened. 

“Russian agents are everywhere: in the government, the judicial system, the church. They are members of parliament, judges, priests, and of course civilians,” said Iryna Fedoriv, the editor in chief of Chesno, a Kyiv-based nonprofit that has operated in Ukraine for the past decade and has, since the start of the full-scale invasion, exposed more than 1,000 collaborators—of whom 47 percent are politicians and 27 percent judges. 

“Collaborators have infiltrated the entire system—the police, the courts, even the government—and while many people have been detained, many fewer cases have been sent to court,” she explained.

“That’s because the system is rotten and corrupt. We urgently need to reform it. We still have members of parliament from pro-Russian parties. We have pro-Russian judges. Why do we keep them there? We need to get rid of them. Otherwise, we’re destroying our own country.”

A wintry street scene in Kyiv, Ukraine. Residents say Russian collaborators can be found anywhere.
A wintry street scene in Kyiv, Ukraine. Residents say Russian collaborators can be found anywhere.

A street scene in Kyiv on Nov. 30, 2022. Residents say Russian collaborators can be found anywhere—in every city, the church, the courts.

While there have been drastic changes since the start of last year’s invasion, Russian influence remains deeply ingrained in many parts of Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union for nearly 70 years, from 1922 until 1991. The Kremlin’s ideology still largely regards Ukraine as a historical part of Russia. People throughout eastern Ukraine have traditionally spoken Russian—even though many have now switched to Ukrainian—and Russian propaganda television channels have largely been available, watched predominantly by the older population. Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s famous television show, Servant of the People, aired with the majority of characters speaking Russian. But historical ties between people in eastern Ukraine, particularly, and Russia have been reappraised since the 2013-14 Maidan Revolution—and especially since the start of Russia’s full-bore invasion last year.

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted during the revolution, consistently opted for close ties with Russia during his term and now lives there in exile. In recent years, more than 15 pro-Russian political parties have been prohibited throughout Ukraine.

Even the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) needs to be “cleansed of moles and traitors,” spokesperson Artem Dekhtiarenko admitted, saying the agency had given special importance to this. 

“There are enemy agents in the highest authorities and among high-ranking officials, unfortunately,” he said, pointing to some of the SBU’s recent successes. 

Since last February, the SBU’s investigators have initiated around 2,500 criminal proceedings based on signs of collaborative activity, detained 600 enemy agents and spies, and neutralized more than 4,500 cyberattacks and incidents on state institutions—three times more than in the previous year. A man who had provided the Russians with information about critical infrastructure facilities in the Donetsk region and who had tried to geolocate Ukrainian rocket launchers was recently sentenced to 12 and a half year in prison. 

In two other cases, the head of a directorate of the Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the head of a unit of the Secretariat of the Cabinet of Ministers were detained in Kyiv; both had passed intelligence to Russia regarding Ukraine’s defense capabilities as well as personal data of Ukrainian law enforcement officers. 

“Finding collaborators, Russian spies, and agents is constant work and one of our main priorities. We work with the local population. We find witnesses of war crimes and listen to people who tell us about traitors and collaborators from among local residents,” said Dekhtiarenko, the SBU spokesperson.

Throughout the country, and especially in recently liberated cities such as Kherson, posters encourage the civilian population to help. 

“Do you know about a collaborator or traitor? Inform us,” a newly placed ad reads at the entrance to Kherson. Most civilians have a story about a collaborator they have come across: a neighbor who was sharing Russian propaganda on social networks or a co-worker accused of spying. And while some cases of collaboration are obvious, many people’s agendas are hidden. 

A doctor at the Kherson Children's Hospital speaks about a trusted colleague in Ukraine who turned out to be a Russian collaborator.
A doctor at the Kherson Children's Hospital speaks about a trusted colleague in Ukraine who turned out to be a Russian collaborator.

Inna Holodnyak, the head doctor at Kherson Regional Children’s Hospital, speaks on Nov. 21 of her “pain and disappointment” when she discovered that a trusted colleague and well-regarded doctor turned out to be a Russian collaborator.

At Kherson Regional Children’s Hospital, head doctor Inna Holodnyak spoke of her “pain and disappointment” when she discovered that one of her longtime trusted colleagues and a well-regarded doctor turned out to be a collaborator. “He was the only doctor at the hospital who chose to work with the Russians. He even handed them all our health documents,” she said, adding that he has since escaped into Russian-occupied territory. 

At the start of Kherson’s occupation, Holodnyak had about 300 patients at the hospital. Today, only a few children remain—including cancer patients who haven’t been able to receive their treatment. Most others were evacuated when the Russians first arrived. Today, electricity, water, and medicine are still scarce. 

Holodnyak refused to collaborate when the Russians approached her, knowing that the decision could cost her life. She spent several months in hiding after it had become too dangerous to work at the clinic, but she was back in her office as soon as the city had been liberated. “I’ve since had to admit to myself that Russian collaborators are everywhere: in every workplace, every city. It’s difficult to trust anyone,” she said.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” said Fedoriv of Chesno. While her organization remains an independent watchdog, since the start of the full-scale invasion it has occasionally worked directly with the police and the country’s intelligence agency. 

“We remain critical of the government, but we also need to work with them. Times are different now. This is war—and we all need to fight together.”

Stefanie Glinski is a journalist covering conflicts and crises with a focus on Afghanistan and the wider Middle East. Twitter: @stephglinski

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