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Russia's "fifth column" is working in Ukraine - more lively than expected

2023-01-26T11:15:05.064Z


A year after the invasion, Ukraine is riddled with Russian collaborators and sympathizers. "It's difficult to trust someone," says one doctor.


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

"It's difficult to trust someone," says one doctor.

  • Ukraine is not only struggling with attacks at the front: the country fears Russian collaborators and informers.

  • A visit to Cherson shows that there is concern about traitors from the secret service to the doctor.

  • This article is available in German for the first time – it was first published in

    Foreign Policy

    magazine on January 17, 2023 .

Cherson - The noise of battle can be heard almost continuously.

An elderly woman near Kherson's main hospital pauses for a moment - next to her is a shopping trolley with several bottles of water she just filled up on the banks of the Dnipro.

"It was better when the Russians were here," she says.

And either way, "Crimea rightfully belongs to Russia."

She continues, praising Vladimir Putin, declining to give her name or have her photograph taken, and declaring that at 75 she is still "young at heart".

Several Ukrainian soldiers gather around them.

A missile hits nearby, loud and clear, and then another.

A few moments later the woman is on the road again in her two-wheeled vehicle.

The soldiers have since informed the police. 

"Anyone can be a Russian collaborator or a traitor - age, gender or origin doesn't matter," explains Major Serhiy Zehotsky of the 59th Motorized Brigade, adding that it's up to the police, not the army, "to find out where they lives, who she talks to and if she is involved in illegal activities”.

"The biggest collaborators left Kherson, but many stayed," he says. 

"Russia's agents are everywhere": Ukraine fears Putin's "fifth column"

Informers, traitors and collaborators have supported Russia in its Ukraine war from the start.

They have helped locate targets across the country and even managed to infiltrate the government.

Thousands of people have been arrested over the past year and hundreds of court cases have been launched. 

“Russian agents are everywhere: in the government, in the judiciary and in the church.

This includes members of parliament, judges, priests and, of course, civilians," says Irina Fedoriv, ​​editor-in-chief of Chesno, a Kyiv-based nonprofit that has operated in Ukraine for a decade and has exposed more than 1,000 collaborators since the full-scale invasion began. of whom 47 percent are politicians and 27 percent are judges. 

“Collaborators have infiltrated the entire system - the police, the courts, even the government.

Many people were arrested, but only a few cases ended up in court,” she explains.

“That's because the system is corrupt from within.

We urgently need to reform it.

We still have MPs from pro-Russian parties in parliament.

We have pro-Russian judges.

Why are we keeping them there?

We have to get rid of her.

Otherwise we will destroy our own country.”

Russia's influence in Ukraine runs deep - Russian was even spoken in Zelenskyj's sitcom

While there have been drastic changes since the invasion began, Russian influence remains ingrained in many parts of Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union for almost 70 years from 1922 to 1991.

In the Kremlin's ideology, Ukraine still largely belongs to the historical part of Russia.

Russian is traditionally spoken throughout eastern Ukraine - although many have now switched to Ukrainian - and there were many Russian propaganda TV channels, mostly seen by the elderly population.

Even in the famous TV show of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, "Servant of the People", most of the characters spoke Russian.

But since the Maidan revolution of 2013/14 – and especially since the start of the Russian invasion last year – the historical relationships between people, especially in eastern Ukraine and Russia, have been reassessed.

Ukraine intelligence warns of "moles and traitors" - "enemy agencies" in the highest authorities

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted during the revolution, has consistently promoted close ties with Russia during his tenure and now lives there in exile.

More than 15 pro-Russian political parties have been banned across Ukraine in recent years.

The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) must also be "cleansed of moles and traitors," admits spokesman Artem Dechtiarenko, explaining that the agency attached particular importance to this.

"Unfortunately, there are hostile agents at the highest level and among high-ranking officials," he says, pointing to some of the SBU's recent accomplishments. 

Since February 2022, SBU investigators have initiated around 2,500 criminal cases based on signs of collaborative activity, arrested 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 provided the Russians with information about critical infrastructure facilities in the Donetsk region and tried to locate Ukrainian rocket launchers has recently been sentenced to 12 and a half years in prison. 

Russia's spies: Arrests and harsh sentences in Ukraine

In two other cases, the head of a directorate of the Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the head of a department of the Secretariat of the Cabinet of Ministers were arrested in Kyiv.

Both had shared intelligence information about Ukraine's defense capabilities and personal data of Ukrainian law enforcement officials with Russia. 

“The search for collaborators, Russian spies and agents is an ongoing task and one of our top priorities.

We work together with the local population.

We are looking for witnesses to war crimes and listening to what local residents have to say about traitors and collaborators," said SBU spokesman Dechtiarenko.

Ukraine demands tips from citizens: "Do you know anything about collaborators?"

Across the country, and especially in recently liberated cities like Kherson, posters are calling on civilians to help.

“Do you know anything about collaborators or traitors?

Let us know," says a newly put up poster at the entrance to Cherson.

Most civilians know stories about collaborators close to them: a neighbor who spread Russian propaganda on social networks, or a colleague who was accused of espionage.

And while some instances of collaboration are obvious, many people's intentions are hidden. 

At the Kherson Regional Children's Hospital, Chief Physician Inna Holodnyak spoke of her "pain and disappointment" when she found out that one of her longtime trusted colleagues and respected doctor turned out to be a collaborator.

“He was the only doctor in the hospital who decided to work with the Russians.

He even gave them all our medical records,” she says, adding that he has since fled to Russian-occupied territory. 

At the beginning of the occupation of Kherson, Holodnyak had about 300 patients in the hospital.

Today, only a few children remain, including cancer patients who could not receive their treatment.

Most of the others were evacuated when the Russians arrived.

Today, electricity, water and medicines are still scarce. 

Ukraine and Putin's 'Fifth Column': 'It's Difficult to Trust Anyone'

Holodnyak refused to cooperate with the Russians - even though she knew that decision could cost her her life.

She spent several months in hiding after it became too dangerous to work at the clinic.

But she returned to her office once the city was liberated.

“In the meantime I had to admit to myself that there are Russian collaborators everywhere: in every workplace, in every city.

It's difficult to trust anyone," she says.

"There is still a lot to do," says Fedoriw from Chesno.

While your organization remains an independent surveillance organization, it has occasionally worked directly with the country's police and intelligence services since the start of the full-scale invasion.

“We remain critical of the government, but we must also work with them.

Times are different now.

We are at war and we must all fight together.”

By Stefanie Glinski

Stefanie Glinski

is a journalist and reports on conflicts and crises with a focus on Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Twitter: @stephglinski

This article was first published in English in the magazine "ForeignPolicy.com" on January 17, 2023 - as part of a cooperation, it is now also available in translation to the readers of the IPPEN.MEDIA portals.

*Merkur.de is an offer from IPPEN.MEDIA.

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