This past September 11, the jingoistic Russian pop star Oleg Gazmanov was scheduled to give a concert titled “Russia Is Here Forever!” in the bombed-out Ukrainian city of Izium, in the northeastern Kharkiv region, which Russia had occupied in early March. But just before Gazmanov was supposed to appear onstage, the Ukrainian military launched a smashing counteroffensive in the region, liberating Izium and driving underequipped Russian forces out of 6,000 square kilometers of territory.

The concert was not the only thing ruined by the Ukrainian assault. After the Russian army’s humiliating rout, Russian President Vladimir Putin conducted a sham referendum in the Ukrainian regions it still occupies, namely parts of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia. The falsified results showed huge majorities in favor of secession from Ukraine, and days later Putin announced the official takeover of these territories. As he did, however, the Ukrainian army continued its successful advance in the east, capturing many cities and towns that Putin had just declared Russian territory. Ukrainian forces are now poised to overtake some areas that have been under Russian control since the outbreak of the war.

This is excellent news for Ukraine, and for Western allies. But it also poses a problem for Kyiv. In October, Zelensky declared that residents of occupied areas who had been loyal to Ukraine had nothing to fear. “Our approach has always been and remains clear and fair: if a person did not serve the occupiers and did not betray Ukraine, then there is no reason to consider such a person a collaborator,” he announced. But determining who is a collaborator may be more complex than Zelensky has acknowledged. There is a spectrum of culpability, from outright treason to passive participation. Zelensky will need to consider what balance of punitive and reintegrationist measures are appropriate in regions such as the Donbas, where a significant proportion of public servants remained on the job during the occupation. These are the same regions that the Ukrainian government has been working the hardest to more fully integrate since Russia’s first invasion in 2014, with some notable success. A well-calibrated approach to the collaborator question will be crucial to that process going forward.

Putin’s Obsession

In the early stages of the war, Russia occupied areas close to Kyiv and other parts of northern Ukraine, such as Chernihiv and Sumy, where the local population was overwhelmingly hostile. Since retreating in March, Russia has focused on occupying the southeast, the region where historically its soft power has been strongest. Putin refers to this region—a vast expanse of steppe and the coastline that the tsars wrested from the Ottoman sultans in the eighteenth century—by the name Novorossiya, or New Russia. Despite the fact that ethnic Ukrainians have always made up a majority in the region, Putin is obsessed with the idea that it is a lost Russian province.

Determining who is a collaborator may be more complex than Zelensky has acknowledged.

In fact, national identity in the southeast is highly complex, a lesson that Putin should have learned in 2014, the last time Russia invaded its western neighbor. Russia hoped to portray its incursion as a local Novorossiya uprising that extended from Kharkiv in the north to Odessa in the south. But only in the eastern area called the Donbas, which includes the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, did the Kremlin find a critical mass of locals willing to support Russian rule, and even there Putin’s military was able to seize only about half the territory. The ensuing eight years reinforced the division. Russian propaganda and the lingering trauma of war helped generate intensely anti-Ukrainian sentiment in the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics.” Meanwhile, pro-Ukrainian feeling surged in southeast Ukraine as well, fueled in part by Kyiv’s investments in infrastructure and government services in the region.

But Putin’s intelligence services missed this dynamic altogether. The Russian president was apparently convinced that residents of the southeast would welcome his invaders. Instead, Russian troops were met with raucous anti-occupation protests across the entire region, especially in the coastal cities of Berdyansk, Kherson, and Melitopol.

This reaction disoriented the Russian invaders. According to Mykhailo Minakov, a senior adviser at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, the Russian government attempted to counter this resistance by employing the approach it used against the recalcitrant population of Chechnya, the Russian Caucasus province that tried to break away in the 1990s and in the first decade of this century. Russian forces used tear gas and live ammunition against protesters and abducted pro-Ukrainian activists, army veterans, and their families. Some were indefinitely detained; others were killed and buried in mass graves now being uncovered in liberated cities such as Izium. During this period of intense violence, Russia left open escape routes to allow other pro-Ukrainian residents to “self-deport” from the occupied territories. The exodus was enormous, and some occupied communities lost half their residents. Meanwhile, the most sympathetic locals were rewarded with multiple Russian holidays and public events. A Soviet cargo cult brought back the symbols of alleged former glory. Moscow sought to convince the remaining residents that this was their new normal. Billboards proclaiming “Russia is here forever!” made the point explicit.

Taking Sides

In the first days of the occupation, the pro-Russian locals willing to embrace occupying troops were mostly pensioners nostalgic for the Soviet Union. But as the false normality of occupation took hold, a more demographically diverse pro-Russian population began to appear on the streets and in the squares of their towns, waving miniature flags at Russia Day celebrations and plastering Zs (a symbol of support for Russian occupation) on their cars. In Kupiansk, in the Kharkiv region, a group of teenagers gathered to chip the Ukrainian trident crest off the local cultural center with hammers and then gave interviews to a nearby Russian TV crew about their contempt for Ukraine.

That said, the prevalence of those who welcomed Russian occupation varies across the occupied territories of the southeast, in a manner that generally reflects the differences that emerged in 2014. In Kherson, open support of Russia is rare, perhaps because of the partisan attacks that have taken the lives of many local collaborators. In the Kharkiv region, early reports suggest that allegiances were evenly split, although this is after a major outflow of pro-Ukrainian residents. In the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, pro-Russian locals feel a strength in numbers and dominate public spaces now that patriotic neighbors have been banished or detained. Certain patterns have emerged there: in cities and regions that were well integrated with the national economy, pro-Ukrainian feeling is strong. Russian sympathy is highest in remote villages and depressed coal towns, where economic optimism is scarce.

Locals who supported Russia fled Kharkiv Province and the Donbas in the wake of the Ukrainian military counteroffensive, clogging border crossings into Russia. This outmigration included turncoat elite bureaucrats driving expensive imported cars but also people in battered vehicles of Soviet vintage, suggesting that Russian sympathizers of modest means were also fleeing. Some explained to Western journalists that they feared persecution and worried for their collaborationist peers in the Kherson region, who might also find themselves suddenly abandoned if the Ukrainian army advances.

Death Comes for the Executioner

That is not an idle fear. Many Ukrainians are demanding that those who collaborated with the Russians be punished. They point out that Ukraine was relatively easy on the organizers of Russia’s first illegitimate referendum, in 2014, to justify its occupation of half the Donbas, and that in 2022 many of these same figures emerged as collaborators once again. A law that parliament passed in March criminalizes cooperation with an aggressor state; the only workers exempted were doctors and emergency service and utility workers. Other public servants who remained on the job can be prosecuted. Notably, this includes teachers and social workers.

The challenge lies in ascertaining the intent and agency of such individuals. Relatively few elected officials chose to collaborate with the Russians, but over time many local bureaucrats returned to their posts. Some did so with apparent relish, cursing the Ukrainian state, whereas others did so passively. Regardless of their level of enthusiasm, Russian and separatist media regularly published photos and videos of these public servants beneath the Russian flag, and within hours screenshots would appear on pro-Ukrainian Telegram channels that monitor collaborators and sympathizers and pass their personal information to the Ukrainian security services. In this way, Russia burned the bridges behind those who accepted the occupation as their new reality.

That may trap some individuals whose motivation to stay on the job was not ideological. Almut Rochowanski is an international peace-building activist who has worked since 2014 with women activists in eastern Ukraine who support civilians in occupied territories. Several of her contacts claim that some teachers and social workers remained on the job because they feared that no one else could serve victims of domestic violence and rape, two crimes that are prevalent in the war zone. In the words of one activist they view such public servants as “part of their team” and not agents of the enemy. They advise against othering everyone who remained in the occupied territories.

That said, these women are advocating for the punishment of the local administrators who have collaborated with Russian occupiers and the organizers of the latest referendum. Calls for accountability will only grow in the aftermath of reports about torture chambers and mass graves found after the liberation of Izium and other cities. Ukrainians will not tolerate a return to the status quo.

At the same time, the search for collaborators will be most intense in the regions facing infrastructure, housing, and energy collapse; mass depopulation; and psychological trauma as a result of the war. The Ukrainian government’s identification and punishment of collaborators must be done in a transparent and accountable way, lest it become another source of trauma for overwhelmed populations. Ukraine should avoid rapid blanket punishments of whole categories of alleged collaborators, preserving the right of appeal and considering extenuating circumstances. Administered fairly, such a process can reinforce accountability, fairness, and rule of law in regions emerging from Russia’s nihilistic occupation.

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  • BRIAN MILAKOVSKY is a consultant specializing in economic development and resilience in Ukraine. Until January 2022, he lived in Severodonetsk, Ukraine.
  • More By Brian Milakovsky