We’re hunting them down and shooting them like pigs

Published by The Daily Mail (6th October, 2022)

When Russian forces took over the city of Balakliya, eastern Ukraine, they turned the central police station into a base for brutality.

During the six months it spent under enemy occupation, scores of local residents were locked in overcrowded cells in the basement. Survivors told of being dragged to a torture chamber where they were beaten, electrocuted and forced to endure mock executions.

The interrogations were carried out by officials from Russia’s Federal Security Service, according to documents retrieved after the town’s recapture last month during Ukraine’s stunning counter-offensive.

Yet the interrogators were helped by local stooges – such as Oleg Kalaida, the jobless former head of security at a chicken farm who found himself elevated to chief of police after agreeing to serve as a Kremlin henchman.

The horror stories emerging in liberated towns such as Balakliya, a railway hub of 30,000 people, have become hideously familiar in recent months: of Russian atrocities, mass graves, torture and war crimes. Yet the uncomfortable truth is that some Ukrainians have been assisting Vladimir Putin’s war crimes and theft of their land.

Kyiv has already opened investigations into 1,309 suspected traitors and launched 450 prosecutions of collaborators accused of betraying their own nation and neighbours.

Others are being tracked down and slaughtered by resistance fighters. A list passed to this newspaper by a Kyiv government source identifies 29 such retribution killings, with 13 more assassination attempts that left some targets wounded.

‘A hunt has been declared on collaborators and their life is not protected by law,’ said Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the interior ministry. ‘Our intelligence services are eliminating them, shooting them like pigs.’

These loathed ‘losers’ – the term used by one Ukrainian government minister – saw Russia’s occupation as a chance to grab power, money and status. Among those handed key posts are a paedophile, a wedding toastmaster and a street cleaner fond of talking to stones.

In Vasylivka, a town in southern Ukraine, Natalia Romanychenko, a former actress who sells dumplings and sausages online, became Putin’s patsy mayor. A single mother, she posts pictures on social media of her two young sons in Soviet military uniform.

In another town, a crime boss – used as a Kremlin propagandist on state television – was being lined up as mayor.

Collaborators in the Kharkiv region abandoned their posts when Ukrainian forces advanced last month. ‘They tried to flee to Russia but the Russians did not let them in,’ said one prosecutor involved in hunting them down.

Typical of their sort was Kalaida, who strutted around Balakliya as police chief during Moscow’s occupation before he was caught by Ukrainian security forces attempting to escape back into Russian-held terrain.

The 48-year-old was a former police officer, yet he seems to have struggled to find work since his previous job heading security at a poultry farm ended three years ago, according to documents found after his capture.

Local officials told Ukrainian journalists he ‘collaborated on his own will’ and was rewarded by the Russians with the rank of general. Now he faces up to 15 years in prison for treason.

Kalaida’s wife, who worked on a fire service hotline, was also reportedly a collaborator, although she evaded capture.

Others told of torment endured during Kalaida’s reign as police chief, which included a man’s ear being sliced off and another dying after a vicious beating.

‘The tortures were all different,’ said Sergey Bolvinov, lead investigator for police in the Kharkiv region. ‘I won’t describe them all… but the lightest was being tortured with electricity.’

One man held in Balakliya’s police station told how guards switched off the noisy ventilation system so everyone could hear the screams of pain from people given electric shocks.

Little wonder there is deep anger and bitterness towards collaborators. Such atrocities have shattered any residual sympathy for Russia in the border regions of Ukraine.

Another alleged collaborator is Dmitry Chigrinov, 45, a gangster facing charges of kidnapping and beating up hostages in eastern Ukraine. He was released on bail after paying £120,000 just six days before the invasion.

He is accused of putting up the Russian flag when Putin’s troops arrived, then providing food for enemy forces, secretly passing on names of law enforcement officials and trying to oust the detained mayor so that he could replace him.

The crime boss even appeared on Russian television – labelled as a community activist – praising the occupiers. Now he is back behind bars, facing a long prison term for betrayal of his country as well as the earlier kidnap and violence charges.

Others are even sleazier. The stooge mayor of Berdyansk, a major port, had been convicted of child sex offences, according to one presidential adviser. He was reportedly fired and rumoured to have been replaced by a Russian. It is not clear if his deputy – a 29-year-old street cleaner who admitted talking to stones and plants in an interview – retained his job.

Collaboration, of course, features in all conflicts. During the Second World War, the complicity of some leaders and citizens was crucial to ensuring German dominance over much of Europe and assisting the Holocaust.

Fuelled by fear, opportunism and human weakness, it was seen in every Nazi-occupied nation. Yet as history shows, the legacy of such actions can leave divisions that last decades.

One woman I met near the city of Chernihiv, close to Belarus, wept after telling me about the murder of her two brothers, who were identified to Russian troops by a neighbour in her village. ‘Someone pointed out our house – I don’t know who,’ said Iryna Kulichenko. ‘How do you live after this?’

Another woman, detained in Balakliya’s basement cells, was left shocked by the behaviour of some neighbours. ‘I have known many people for more than 40 years and in many cases, as it turned out, I was wrong about them,’ she said.

She has now left the newly liberated town with no desire to return. ‘It is difficult to live with people if you know that they are involved in denunciations,’ she said.

Last week, alarmed by Ukrainian advances, Putin annexed four occupied regions following hastily held sham referendums. The signing ceremony in the Kremlin featured a bizarre rant from the Russian dictator against the West, touching on topics ranging from 17th century history to gender-reassignment surgery.

Those representing the four stolen regions included Volodymyr Saldo, a former mayor of the key city of Kherson, who was among a handful of Moscow sympathisers plucked from the political margins, handed Russian passports and placed into positions of power.

Three weeks after the full-scale invasion started in February, Saldo posted on social media that ‘Kherson is my soul, and Kherson is Ukraine’ – yet a few months later stood in the Kremlin to sign over his war-torn home region into Putin’s bloodstained hands.

Saldo survived a poisoning attempt two months ago after being rushed into hospital for treatment in Crimea. Russian sources said ‘his mind began to cloud and his fingers went numb’ after reportedly eating food made by a new chef.

Other collaborators have been less fortunate. There have been at least 29 suspicious deaths, starting in March with the mayor of a town in Luhansk who suffered a ‘gunshot wound to the heart’ after being ‘abducted from his home’, according to his wife.

One former Ukrainian MP, previously accused of child abuse, died in a targeted missile strike. He had fled to Russia in 2014 after Putin’s initial incursions, before returning to Kherson and proclaiming joy at being back in his ‘motherland’.

Such killings are presumed to be the work of the resistance movement. Orchestrated by Ukraine’s special forces, it has become increasingly well organised. Recent fatalities include Ivan Sushko, a wedding toastmaster appointed mayor of a town in the Zaporizhzhia region, who died in August after his car was blown up.

The partisans seek to spread fear through such killings while destroying arms dumps, devastating infrastructure for supply lines and threatening residents working with the enemy.

In one town, activists posted pictures online of a local graveyard with names of collaborators pasted on headstones. Their birth dates are correct, but dates of deaths have been left blank.

The message from Ukraine’s leaders as their troops continue advancing along the battlefront is similarly stark. As deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said this week: ‘I have personal advice for collaborators: run away.’

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