KHARKIV, Ukraine — Viktor appeared nervous as masked Ukrainian security officers in full riot gear, camouflage and weapons pushed into his cluttered apartment in the northern city of Kharkiv. He tried to hide his hands and shaking hands.
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 for 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. Viktor said, “I have changed my mind.” His trembling voice showed clear signs of desperation in front of security personnel from Ukraine.
“Get your things and get dressed,” an officer said before escorting him out of the apartment. According to their investigation, the SBU didn’t reveal Viktor’s last name.
Viktor was one of nearly 400 people in the Kharkiv region alone who have been detained under anti-collaboration laws enacted quickly by Ukraine’s parliament and signed by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion.
Offenders face up to 15 years in prison for collaborating with Russian forces, making public denials about Russian aggression or supporting Moscow. Any person whose actions cause death could be sentenced to life imprisonment.
“Accountability for collaboration is inevitable, and whether it will happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow is another question,” Zelenskyy said. “The most important thing is that justice will be served inevitably.”
Although the Zelenskyy government has broad support, even among many Russian speakers, not all Ukrainians oppose the invasion. Some Russian-speaking Donbas residents, an east industrial area, are more inclined to support Moscow than others. An eight-year conflict there between Moscow-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces had killed over 14,000 people even before this year’s invasion.
Some businessmen, civic and state officials and members of the military are among those who have gone over to the Russian side, and Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigations said more than 200 criminal cases on collaboration have been opened. Zelenskyy even deposed two SBU Generals, accusing them both of treason.
A “registry of collaborators” is being compiled and will be released to the public, said Oleksiy Danilov, head of Ukraine’s Security Council. He declined to give details about the number of people targeted in Ukraine.
Under martial law, authorities have banned 11 pro-Russian political parties, including the largest one that had 25 seats in the 450-member parliament – the Opposition Platform For Life, which was founded by Viktor Medvedchuk, a jailed oligarch with close ties to Putin.
Authorities say pro-Russian activists in southeastern Ukraine, the scene of active fighting, are acting as spotters to direct shelling.
“One of our key goals is to have no one stab our armed forces in the back,” said Roman Dudin, head of the Kharkiv branch of the SBU, in an interview with The Associated Press. After its central Kharkiv building was destroyed by shelling, Dudin spoke from a basement.
The Kharkiv branch has been detaining people who support the invasion, call for secession and claim that Ukrainian forces are shelling their own cities.
Allegations of collaborating with the enemy carry strong historic resonance in Ukraine. After years of Stalinist oppression that saw the destruction of the Soviet Union, many in the area welcomed the invading German forces during World War II. They even helped to create the “Holodomor”, a man-made famine estimated to have killed over 3 million Ukrainians. Soviet authorities used the fact that some Ukrainian nationalists had teamed up with Nazis for years to denounce today’s elected Ukrainian leaders as an excuse.
Human rights advocates know of “dozens” of detentions of pro-Russian activists in Kyiv alone since the new laws were passed, but how many have been targeted nationwide is unclear, said Volodymyr Yavorskyy, coordinator at the Center for Civil Liberties, one of Ukraine’s largest human rights groups.
“There is no complete data on the (entire) country, since it is all classified by the SBU,” Yavorskyy told AP.
“Ukrainian authorities are actively using the practice of Western countries, in particular the U.K., which imposed harsh restrictions on civic liberties in warring Northern Ireland. He said that while some of these restrictions are not justified by human rights activists, others were necessary when lives were at risk.
A person in Ukraine can be detained for up to 30 days without a court order, he said, and antiterrorism legislation under martial law allows authorities not to tell defense attorneys about their clients being remanded.
“In effect, these people disappear, and for 30 days there’s no access to them,” Yavorskyy said. “In reality, (law enforcement) has powers to take anyone.”
The government knows the implications of detaining people over their opinions, including that it risks playing into Moscow’s line that Kyiv is repressing Russian speakers. Officials say freedom of speech only matters in times of war.
“The debate about the balance of national security and ensuring freedom of speech is endless,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told AP.
Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the U.N. human rights office, said her agency has documented “cases of arrests and detention allegedly made by Ukrainian law enforcement authorities, which may involve elements of human rights violations” and is following up with the Ukrainian government.
She said her office is looking into eight cases that “appear to be disappearances of people considered as ‘pro-Russian,’ and we have documented two cases of unlawful killings of ‘pro-Russians,'” along with cases of vigilantism, in which law enforcement and others punish those suspected of being pro-Russian,
In the town of Bucha, now a symbol of horrific violence in the war, Mayor Anatoly Fedoruk said collaborators gave invading troops the names and addresses of pro-Ukrainian activists and officials in the city outside Kyiv, with hundreds of civilians shot to death with their hands tied behind their backs or their bodies burned by Russian forces.
“I saw these execution lists, dictated by the traitors — the Russians knew in advance who they’re going to, at what address, and who lives there,” said Fedoruk, who saw his own name on one list. “Of course, Ukrainian authorities will search for and punish these people.”
In the besieged port city of Mariupol, officials accused collaborators of helping the Russians cut off electricity, running water, gas and communications in much of the city.
“Now I understand perfectly why the Russians were carrying out such precise, coordinated strikes on objects of critical infrastructure, knew about all locations and even times when Ukrainian buses evacuating refugees were supposed to depart,” said Mayor Vadym Boychenko.
Political analysts say the invasion and the brutality by Russian troops against civilians have turned off many Moscow sympathizers. Yet, there are many of these supporters.
“Russian propaganda took deep roots and many residents of the east who watch Russian TV channels believe absurd claims that it’s Ukrainians who are shelling them and other myths,” Volodymyr Fesenko of the Penta Center think tank told AP. “Naturally, Ukrainian authorities in the southeast are afraid of getting stabbed in the back and are forced to tighten security measures.”
Unlike Viktor, whose Kharkiv apartment was raided, 86-year-old Volodymir Radnenko didn’t seem surprised when Ukrainian security arrived to search his flat Saturday after detaining his son, Ihor. The military said the son was suspected of helping the Russians in shelling of the city — some of which occurred in Radnenko’s neighborhood about 15 minutes before the officers showed up, with the smell of smoke lingering. At least two people were killed and 19 others wounded in the region.
“He is used to thinking that Russia is all there is,” Radnenko told AP after the officers left. After the officers left, Radnenko said that he had asked him “So who’s shelling us?” It’s not our (people), it’s your fascists.’ And he only gets angry at that.”
Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Vasilisa stepanenko, Kharkiv, and Jameykeaten, Geneva both contributed.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine