How should Ukraine respond to forced and willing acts of collaboration?

5 June, 10:29 AM
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A Russian mobile propaganda truck in Mariupol, Ukraine, on May 30, 2022. The city is entirely cut off from outside communications. (Photo:REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko)

A Russian mobile propaganda truck in Mariupol, Ukraine, on May 30, 2022. The city is entirely cut off from outside communications. (Photo:REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko)

Ukraine should develop the concept of transitional justice, because during the reintegration of previously occupied territories, the motives and degree of collaboration should be assessed in each individual case, political scientist Oleh Sahakyan told Radio NV on June 3.

NV: The Kremlin doesn’t know how to integrate the occupied territories during this phase of the war. Organizing a referendum so they can call a captured territory a "people's republic" in order to occupy it is impossible right now. We also heard statements from the Russians that they will annex Kherson Oblast even without holding any sham referendums. What does it all mean to us? Does the Kremlin not actually know what it wants, and is making it up as it goes along?

It's always been like this: Russia always has a plan A, and never bothers creating a plan B or C. First they attack with an attempt to capture as much territory as possible, and only after that do they start to think how to deal with it and what should be done next. The same goes here. All three blitzkriegs that Russia organized have failed. The first one, the attempt to capture all of Ukraine, was a fiasco. The second one was the attempt to capture Kyiv, which also failed. After that, the Russians switched to the third blitzkrieg – an attempt to capture Donbas, the region in eastern Ukrainian, before the 9th of May. After failing yet again, they have now switched to a prolonged war. Now Russia's main goal is to secure the administrative borders of the regions they control and start threatening Ukraine with the annexation of those territories. That way, they can try to push Ukraine into a ceasefire deal of some sort, or Russia will annex these territories and call any counter-offensive acts an attack on its sovereignty.

The problem is, in order for Russia to adopt this scenario they need to capture and secure the administrative borders of an oblast. But they failed to do so in both southern and eastern parts of Ukraine. Whenever they are trying to push their forces in the east to capture places like Popasna, Severodonetsk, Lyman or Slavyansk, our army counter attacks in the south of Ukraine. You can say that the fist of the Ukrainian army is already looming over Kherson. Because now, the Ukrainian army has a chance to attack and cut off Russian troops on the Kryvyi Rih axis (north-east of Kherson), and have Kherson within firing range. With all this in mind, if Russia declares annexation of their currently controlled territories they are basically shooting themselves in the foot. And that wound will hurt more than any potential benefits Russia may get from a declared victory.

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NV: Why are some administrative borders so important here? We know that Russia doesn’t care about any international laws or rules. They have violated every rule possible. Why are administrative borders of an oblast important to them? Can’t they annex a part of the Kherson oblast they currently control? Wouldn't that be a victory for them?

It won’t, because Russia won’t be able to keep it. Inside Russia it will be perceived as a weakness. They already tried to start a referendum in a single village near Zaporizhzhya, but that decision was strongly mocked even inside Russia. They need buffer zones and the ability to speak of Kherson Oblast as a singular entity in their rhetoric. And if the integrity of this is broken, that means that Ukraine can counter attack at any moment. The problem isn't really in borders themselves, but that Russia can't guarantee that they control these territories. The louder they shout "Victory!" today, the more humiliating it will be for them to lose it later.

NV: So if Russia announces that a random Frunze Street in Ivanovka village is now annexed by the Russian Federation, that will make everyone laugh, right?

Of course! And once Ukraine liberates that street, it will be followed by whining from Russians over confusion if that street belongs to them or not. That's why Russia is doing all it can to speed up the annexation and create visibility that Russia will be here forever. But they aren't making any politically symbolic decisions for that, only administrative ones.


NV: We know that the civilized world does not recognize any annexations, no accessions. Nevertheless, a big problem for Ukraine is that the Russian Federation distributes its passports to Ukrainian citizens and deports them to their territory. What should Ukraine do about it? People are often forcibly removed or they choose to move to Russia out of desperation. How can we stop this flow?

I'm afraid there is no effective way to prevent this. One thing we can do is continue diplomatic work to raise awareness of this on the world stage. We must make it the basis of our accusations against Russia as we try to receive military aid to liberate our territories. The second thing would be creating future programs that will help us return our citizens. That’s the two directions I see Ukraine can go with. I’m excluding the special forces of course, as they should prevent this deportation via sabotage, diversion, and other ways.


NV: Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine Iryna Vereshchuk released a statement addressing, I assume, the teachers who were left on occupied territories. The statement tells them not to cooperate with occupational forces under any circumstances, or will never work in education again after the liberation. Famous activist and a member of the Ukrainian Army Lesya Litvinova responded to the statement saying that the best thing a teacher can do is to stay with their students. Even if they have to teach them using Russian books. What political acts do you think Ukraine should take in order to address this difficult issue?

It’s a difficult, but an important question that people have been asking for a while. That is why me, my colleagues, many other analysts and the public sector as a whole, politically demanded that the government develop a system of transitional justice. It should include elements that are necessary to draw a line between a forceful collaboration and willful collaboration.

The classics teaches us that for a human, survival comes first. In that regard I agree with Litvinova. A teacher shouldn’t cooperate with the enemy, but needs to make sure they, and their children survive this. After the liberation of our territories, we will individually investigate whether the person deliberately helped the enemy by spreading propaganda and doing agitation, or whether this person was simply doing their job with a completely different motivation. Same goes for other professions. If a person works in a mine and receives a salary from the occupational administration for pumping the water out of an underground tunnel, what should we do about him? What if he only does this job because he is the only specialist left in the city? Is he a collaborator or a person preventing an ecological disaster? The same goes for doctors and the others.

These are the questions that should be answered already. This is where I disagree with Ms. Vereshchuk completely, as she takes one specific example and is being unfairly tough about it. There should be a systemic explanation of this issue that will provide some understanding to the people. Because when the day comes, Vereshchuk might not be in office anymore. But when the court, local government or other institution decides how to handle cases of collaboration, they will be using legal frameworks and policies that are adopted now.

NV: When people are facing such threats of injustice, without any clear help from politicians, what would you call it? Incompetence?

No, it is an attempt to show responsibility. To take a stand on the issue. But it’s unsystematic and comes from misunderstanding all challenges of the situation. Perhaps Vereshchuk didn’t mean exactly that, when she said it, I’m afraid I don’t remember the exact context of the situation when it was said.

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