Analysis

Ukraine’s Long and Sordid History of Treason

For money or out of conviction, some Ukrainians are helping Russia kill their compatriots.

By , a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the founder of Myrmidon Group.
A man suspected to be a Russian collaborator is seen facing away through a slightly open doorway with his hands cuffed behind his back during an operation in Ukraine. He is inside a home with ornate wallpaper and wall hangings, including a calendar with a pinup girl and a framed image of Jesus.
A man suspected to be a Russian collaborator is seen facing away through a slightly open doorway with his hands cuffed behind his back during an operation in Ukraine. He is inside a home with ornate wallpaper and wall hangings, including a calendar with a pinup girl and a framed image of Jesus.
A man suspected to be a Russian collaborator is detained during an operation in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on April 18, 2022. Felipe Dana/AP

Russia’s War in Ukraine

Benedict Arnold, Vidkun Quisling, Philippe Pétain: The names of famous traitors and enemy collaborators resonate through history. Now their ranks are being replenished amid the Russia-Ukraine war, even if few names have yet become infamous outside Ukraine.

Benedict Arnold, Vidkun Quisling, Philippe Pétain: The names of famous traitors and enemy collaborators resonate through history. Now their ranks are being replenished amid the Russia-Ukraine war, even if few names have yet become infamous outside Ukraine.

Since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s history as an independent nation has seen plenty of betrayal and treason. From the start, Russian leaders who resented Ukraine’s break with Moscow found willing helpers in their efforts to subvert the Ukrainian state and infiltrate its national security institutions.

But who were the Ukrainians who turned against their country? Some believed in the unity of the Russian and Ukrainian people, the Kremlin’s centuries-old imperial narrative that found willing adherents among the colonized, just as powerful past empires found new adherents among their conquered peoples. Other Ukrainians admired Russian President Vladimir Putin, his authoritarian policies, and Russia’s economic successes in the first decade of his rule. Ukraine’s first two decades of post-Soviet existence were often so dysfunctional that some Ukrainians yearned for a heavy hand and believed in the benefit of a political and economic alliance with Moscow.

From these unpatriotic but not illegal beliefs, some Ukrainians crossed the line to actively support Russian attempts to destroy Ukraine. Some went onto the Kremlin’s payroll as spies, spymasters, informants, or agents of influence. Many of today’s collaborators in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine are former politicians from Ukraine’s pro-Russian Party of Regions, which rapidly lost support after the first Russian invasion in 2014 and was finally banned by Kyiv in February. Other Ukrainians supporting Russia’s destruction of their country have been linked to Putin’s closest Ukrainian ally, the U.S.-sanctioned oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, who now lives in Russia but has been on the front-line of Kremlin influence operations in Ukraine since the early 2000s.

Some of Russia’s supporters are Ukrainian journalists who found well-paying jobs at pro-Russian media, which were often better financed by the Russian state and Kremlin-linked oligarchs than the struggling Ukrainian outlets where the journalists previously worked. That road took some of them to prominent positions as propagandists in Russia, where they now spew genocidal hate against their own people.

Still others are local and regional administrators in the occupied areas who have redirected their skills to the new regime. Finally, a more complicated issue of treason revolves around those Ukrainians in the occupied areas who have been conscripted—often coercively—into Russian and Russian-controlled military units to fight against their fellow citizens.

Defining treason can be treacherous—after all, the word “traitor” is often used as a cudgel against political opponents or anyone deemed unpatriotic. But the notion should be obvious in a country fighting a total war for its very existence: Someone who intentionally harms their own country’s security, especially in times of war, by aiding or collaborating with the enemy. Ukrainian law—last modified shortly after the start of Russia’s 2022 invasion—defines “state treason” expansively as “intentional actions … by a citizen to the detriment of Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and inviolability, defense capability, and state, economic, or information security.” It further defines it as “joining the side of the enemy at a time of armed conflict” and includes “espionage” as well as assistance to “subversive activities.” Prescribed sentences for treason start at 12 years—and more during wartime.

A mannequin portraying Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk in a winter earflap hat and jacket stuffed with Russian rubles sits under a sign in Cyrillic for the prosecutor general's office in Kyiv, Ukraine.
A mannequin portraying Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk in a winter earflap hat and jacket stuffed with Russian rubles sits under a sign in Cyrillic for the prosecutor general's office in Kyiv, Ukraine.

A mannequin portraying Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk in a jacket stuffed with Russian rubles sits outside the prosecutor general’s office during a rally to demand his punishment for alleged treason in central Kyiv on March 25, 2021. Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

Numbers are hard to come by. In July 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that more than 650 Ukrainian security officials were under investigation for suspected treason, including 60 collaborators working for the Russians in the occupied territories. Another source is the Ukrainian nongovernmental organization Chesno, which cooperates with Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau to compile a list of alleged traitors. As of now, Chesno’s list contains more than 1,200 names of Ukrainians, but the organization doesn’t always apply a legal standard. The list includes people who have loudly condemned Russia’s 2022 invasion but equivocated about its 2014 invasion of Crimea and the Donbas. Where does political opinion end and punishable treason start? Not only Ukrainians are grappling with that question.

In truth, many of Ukraine’s traitors gradually and imperceptibly drifted to the other side of barricade. Some were, in fact, the product of the failure of Ukraine’s first leaders, mainly former Communist Party apparatchiks and so-called “red directors,” to create a compelling national narrative, let alone a well-governed state on the Central European or Baltic model.

Others started on their path to treason under the influence of pervasive Russian imperial propaganda in Ukraine, communicated through influential television programs and news shows, the proliferation of Russian press and books, and visiting Russian musicians and artists, whose influence was allowed to seep into the country unchecked.

Still others were alienated from their newly independent homeland through the siren song of Soviet nostalgia, which was exploited by the Kremlin and its allies in Ukraine to stymie the emergence of a unified and consolidated Ukrainian nation.

Because their work is so public, journalists are instructive examples of how these gradual shifts took place. Diana Panchenko used to work for the Ukrainian nationalist newspaper Gazeta po Ukrainske and TRK Kyiv, a television channel. But in 2015, Panchenko joined NewsOne, a new TV channel later owned by Medvedchuk. She then gradually drifted toward apologia for the Russian annexation of Crimea and amplified the alleged grievances of the Russian-directed so-called separatists in eastern Ukraine.

When Zelensky shut down Russia-linked broadcasters in 2021, including NewsOne, Panchenko waged a fervent campaign to accuse the government of censorship and defend Medvedchuk. After Russia’s 2022 invasion, Panchehnko became a YouTube star reporting from the Russian-occupied territories. From there, she has regularly produced manipulative documentaries justifying Russia’s war as an effort to supposedly protect the “beleaguered” residents of Ukraine’s Donbas region. Now based in Moscow, she claims that it was not Russia that obliterated the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, but the Ukrainian government and Mariupol’s defenders. She has become a modern version of Mildred Gillars—an American also known as Axis Sally who disseminated Nazi propaganda to English-language audiences by radio from Berlin and was later convicted of treason in the United States.

A Security Service of Ukraine serviceman, wearing full military gear and helmet and carrying a gun, points upward as he climbs a stairway during an operation to arrest suspected Russian collaborators in Kharkiv, Ukraine. He nears a stair landing with a window behind him. The walls are cracked with peeling paint.
A Security Service of Ukraine serviceman, wearing full military gear and helmet and carrying a gun, points upward as he climbs a stairway during an operation to arrest suspected Russian collaborators in Kharkiv, Ukraine. He nears a stair landing with a window behind him. The walls are cracked with peeling paint.

A service member from the Security Service of Ukraine enters a building during an operation to arrest suspected Russian collaborators in Kharkiv, Ukraine on April 14, 2022. Felipe Dana/AP

Another Ukrainian Axis Sally is Yulia Vityazeva, a prominent propagandist who has warned her fellow Ukrainians that the entire country awaits the same fate as that of Mariupol, where tens of thousands of civilians are estimated to have died under a hail of Russian bombs, rockets, and artillery. Vityazeva was a minor local reporter when she left her native Odesa for Russia in 2015, shortly after the first Russian invasion. She was quickly integrated into the Kremlin’s propaganda team by Vladimir Solovyov, one of Russia’s most notorious television propagandists, a supporter of Ukraine’s merciless destruction, and an advocate of Russian missile strikes against the West. While bashing Ukraine remains her bread and butter, Vityazeva  has recently focused attention on Kazakhstan, denouncing it for not supporting Moscow’s war.

Some Ukrainian journalists are now cheerleading the killing of their fellow citizens. Vladimir Kornilov, a longtime Russian agent of influence, is now an almost daily guest on Russia’s prime-time talk shows. From these podiums, he regularly calls for Russia to be more merciless against Ukraine. In an interview on July 20, he said about Ukraine: “As long as this nest of vipers exists and until we destroy it, it will generate wild ideas about acts of terrorism and sabotage.”

A substantial number of traitors come from the coterie of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was deposed in the 2013-14 Maidan Revolution and escaped to Russia. Several former members of parliament from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions stand out for the venom of their commentaries. Oleh Tsaryov and Ihor Markov, for example, are frequent guests on the most widely viewed Russian prime-time programs. Tsaryov advocates the total conquest and integration of Ukraine into Russia, while Markov is best known for his fawning appraisals of Putin, whose actions Markov attributes with an “epochal significance in the rebirth of the Russian Empire to its previous historical boundaries.”

But the largest cohort of traitors is made up of Ukrainian collaborators in Russian-occupied Ukraine. The first generation of these turncoats became officials in Crimea and eastern Donbas, seized by Russia in 2014. Many of these collaborators came from criminal groups or were active in martial arts clubs supported with Kremlin cash.

Among the post-2022 collaborators, few were open supporters of the Kremlin or likely anticipated they would become traitors. We can’t know their true motives, but it is likely that the majority of these collaborators probably concluded shortly after the invasion began that power had shifted and simply adapted to the new rulers. The best known of this fresh crop is probably Volodymyr Saldo, a former mayor of Kherson. When Russian troops occupied that city, Saldo backed the invaders, who made him acting governor of the Russian-occupied portions of the Kherson region. Recently, Saldo urged Ukrainian soldiers to surrender—speaking in his native Ukrainian even as the occupiers he now represents are implementing a policy to eliminate the Ukrainian language and identity.

Medvedchuk, whose Ukrainian business and media empire fueled the rise of several prominent Ukrainian turncoats, has descended into obscurity in his Russian exile. After he was exchanged for Ukrainian prisoners of war in April 2022, shortly after his initial arrest in Kyiv on charges of treason, Medvedchuk gave a handful of interviews. Today he is a media nonentity, disdained by much of the Russian establishment as a political failure for not delivering Ukraine to the Kremlin. For years, he was the beneficiary of hundreds of millions of dollars from sweetheart Russian energy contracts, but he failed to build a powerful pro-Kremlin party in Ukraine even as he fed Putin false narratives about Ukrainian’s supposedly pro-Russian inclinations.

"Death to the Russians" is stenciled in Cyrillic type onto a downtown billboard, above a poster printed with the portrait and name of a man branded a traitor, with the words "we will kill you" in Bakhmut, Ukraine. A target is over the man's face and a drawn smiley face is next to the image. A car drives down the littered street in the background with battered buildings in the distance.
"Death to the Russians" is stenciled in Cyrillic type onto a downtown billboard, above a poster printed with the portrait and name of a man branded a traitor, with the words "we will kill you" in Bakhmut, Ukraine. A target is over the man's face and a drawn smiley face is next to the image. A car drives down the littered street in the background with battered buildings in the distance.

“Death to the Russians” is stenciled onto a downtown billboard, above a poster printed with the portrait and name of a man branded as a traitor, with the words “we will kill you” beneath his photograph, in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Nov. 16, 2022. Laurent Van der Stockt for Le Monde/Getty Images

As the former Ukrainian president ousted by the Ukrainian parliament in the wake of the Maidan revolution, Yanukovych might have the greatest claim to be the voice of the Ukrainian opposition. Yet apart from the early days after his flight from Kyiv in 2014, Putin never deployed him as the leader of a Kremlin-aligned Ukrainian government-in-exile.

Similarly, after the 2022 invasion, Russia never sought to create anything resembling a so-called national liberation committee, a method familiar from Soviet times to prepare foreign countries for Kremlin control. Nor is there evidence of any Kremlin effort to lay the propaganda groundwork for installing a pro-Moscow government in Kyiv, despite Western intelligence reports that Russia was seeking such a scenario. All these actions indicate that Putin’s aim was never to control the Ukrainian state with his puppets but to destroy it altogether.

In Russia’s ongoing war, the traitors with the greatest impact are those infiltrating Kyiv’s security services. Of these spies and spymasters exposed so far, the most prominent are Andriy Klyuyev, Yanukovych’s former chief of staff, and Vladimir Sivkovich, a former deputy head of the Ukrainian National Security Council, both of whom fled to Russia in 2014.

Their network has allegedly had major successes in placing agents inside Ukraine’s security services, some of whom helped sabotage Ukraine’s defense in the early phases of Russia’s 2022 invasion. Ukraine has identified and arrested several of these agents, including some who are believed to have given Kyiv wrong information about Russian movements and shared intelligence with Moscow that allowed Russia to quickly capture large swaths of southern Ukraine.

Ukraine’s traitors have played a serious role in infiltrating state structures, assisting Russia in its administration of occupied territories, and serving in Russian and Russian-controlled military units. Another important impact of these turncoats is on Russians and gullible Westerners, who see Ukrainians mouthing Kremlin narratives about Ukrainians supposedly being ruled by a Nazi cabal and yearning to be united with Russia brethren in a unitary state.

The opposite, of course, is true: Since 2014 and especially 2022, Ukraine has seen the consolidation of near total support for a sovereign, independent Ukrainian state and national identity free from Russian domination. Today, traitors and pro-Russian propagandists evoke scorn and revulsion for becoming one of the enemy’s instruments of war. This revulsion also drives the Ukrainian government’s and civil society’s ongoing efforts to document acts of treason, even by Ukrainians who have escaped abroad, in the expectation that justice will eventually be served.

Adrian Karatnycky is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the founder of Myrmidon Group.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows the Statue of Liberty holding a torch with other hands alongside hers as she lifts the flame, also resembling laurel, into place on the edge of the United Nations laurel logo.
An illustration shows the Statue of Liberty holding a torch with other hands alongside hers as she lifts the flame, also resembling laurel, into place on the edge of the United Nations laurel logo.

A New Multilateralism

How the United States can rejuvenate the global institutions it created.

A view from the cockpit shows backlit control panels and two pilots inside a KC-130J aerial refueler en route from Williamtown to Darwin as the sun sets on the horizon.
A view from the cockpit shows backlit control panels and two pilots inside a KC-130J aerial refueler en route from Williamtown to Darwin as the sun sets on the horizon.

America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want

Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, seen in a suit and tie and in profile, walks outside the venue at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. Behind him is a sculptural tree in a larger planter that appears to be leaning away from him.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, seen in a suit and tie and in profile, walks outside the venue at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. Behind him is a sculptural tree in a larger planter that appears to be leaning away from him.

The Endless Frustration of Chinese Diplomacy

Beijing’s representatives are always scared they could be the next to vanish.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomes Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman during an official ceremony at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, on June 22, 2022.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomes Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman during an official ceremony at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, on June 22, 2022.

The End of America’s Middle East

The region’s four major countries have all forfeited Washington’s trust.