Shattered Trust: The Collaborators for Russia
By Chris Sampson
A shattering of the bonds of society.
The Russian strategy of employing collaborators to undermine occupied territory is a well-documented and longstanding tactic. In various historical contexts, particularly during the Soviet era and more recently in Ukraine, Russia has leveraged local sympathizers and collaborators to advance its geopolitical objectives. These collaborators, often recruited from among the local population, are used to sow discord, facilitate Russia’s territorial claims, and exert influence over local governments. When the collaborators are opportunist politicians, the result can be even more damaging due to their access and interest in the larger picture of each village, town, or city.
By employing local proxies, Russia can uphold a certain level of deniability and frame its actions as being propelled by internal dissent rather than external interference. This strategy enables Russia to sow instability in regions, disrupt governance, and exert control while sidestepping overt military aggression.
Dear Reader, thank you for joining us this week. This is a part of a series from National Security Media on the collaborators in Ukraine and how their actions led to the death, captivity and torture of other Ukrainians. We will explore many aspects of this problem in a series so that we can examine many areas the public and history will judge this time. Note, we will refrain from reporting stories that have not been vetted, are at beginning phases of justice and thus murky to the observer. This is not to cast doubt upon the government or law enforcement any more than to avoid the judgement against a person without evidence and justice.We will be mindful of the listening audience and not insult your intelligence on the seriousness of the matter. Thank you for listening and thank you for your support.
In wartime, loyalties are tested, and opportunities are seized by the ambitious and the greedy. However, as time passes, it’s crucial to remember the prolonged occupation that has persisted for over nine years in Luhansk and Donetsk. Furthermore, it has been nearly two years since the full-scale invasion on February 24th, 2022, in Ukraine. We’ve witnessed the consequences of actions taken in just days, weeks, or months. Yet, over the span of years, we can gain deeper insights into “The Collaborators” – those individuals who erode the trust of the Ukrainian nation in the face of relentless Russian aggression emanating from the east.
We’ve witnessed the consequences of actions taken in just days, weeks, or months. Yet, over the span of years, we can gain deeper insights into “The Collaborators” – those individuals who erode the trust of the Ukrainian nation in the face of relentless Russian aggression emanating from the east.
This was the grimace I witnessed on Anatoliy Harahaty’s face during our interview back in May. We refrained from discussing the torment inflicted upon him by the Russians, as this torture had already been documented in other reports. Nevertheless, we couldn’t conceal the anguish he experienced, which was vividly evident as we recorded his recollections of his town in Eastern Ukraine.
“Can you believe it? Even after they tortured them, they still wanted to side with them?” Anatoliy’s anguish lives through the words of many Ukrainians who experienced the deep and lingering betrayal of some of their country’s citizens. “How could anyone help the enemy?”
In Harahaty’s case, the neighbors who were aware he was the long time documentarian of the communities between Balakliya and Izyum, He was known for his camera work and was uploading recent documents of the 30 years of footage of the local community when the neighbors reported him to the Russian forces. He had posted videos of their troops and vehicles entering Savintsy, and now, he was going to be forced by the Russian’s to make videos in favor of Russia and against Ukraine. He refused. They interrogated him eight times, and yet, he refused.
However, it would be more appropriate to examine the overt actions further to the south and the previously mentioned incident regarding the abduction of the mayor of Hola Prystan. In this case, we can establish a clear example of a blatant attempt to seize control of a position of authority in broad daylight by an exceptionally ambitious individual who had already achieved more success than many other Ukrainians.
The Sabotage of Oleksandr Babych and Hola Prystan
In the southern Kherson Oblast, just opposite of Kherson on the east side of the Dnipro river, often referred to as the ‘left bank’, sits a small town of Hola Prystan. With several centuries of history, it is a place with deep history. It’s name translating as “barren pier” in English. At the time of the full scale invasion on February 24, 2022, the mayor was Oleksandr Babych.
In the previous article, The Disappeared, Russia’s Abducted Authority, I reported that the mayor of Hola Prystan, Oleksandr Babych was in Kyiv on the day of the full scale invasion, February 24, 2022. He was there with his deputy Svitlana Lynnyk, to answer a complaint against them filed by Oleksii Kovalov, a member of the Verkhovna Rada for the 183rd district. Lynnyk testified to the investigative team of the Media Initiative for Human Rights that Kovalov had done this many times before as a form of harassment.
Lynnyk told MIHR that Kovalov contacted her via voice call on WhatsApp on February 24th, 2022 when they were she was returning with the mayor from Kyiv and said, “Tell your boss that sleepless days and nights will begin for him.” A month later Oleksandr Babych was arrested by the Russians and Kovalov, anointed by the Russian Federation with a deputy title, was about to ascend to being what he wanted anyway, powerful and influential in his hometown of Hola Prystan.
THE STORY OF OLEKSII KOVALOV: THE CONSPIRATOR OF HOLA PRYSTAN.
Oleksiy Kovalov’s story indeed predates the February 24th invasion. The crucial point to understand is that he was elected to the Verkhovna Rada in 2019 as a member of the Servant of the People party. In December 2021, he acquired the Channel 4 television channel, reportedly with financial support from his parents. Channel 4 had approximately 200 employees. Their family made the decision to purchase a TV channel and enhance its quality.
Kovalov had previously supported political opponents of Babych in this small town. In 2020, he notably backed Anatolii Nehra, the former mayor. However, his methods in this endeavor warrant closer examination, including allegations that he facilitated the candidacy of another individual named Oleksandr Babych.
As Babych and Lynnyk were returning to Hola Prystan, Kovalov was in Kyiv, but he also eventually returned to the Kherson region, making a stop in Mykoliav. Notably, he arrived before the Russians had seized Hola Prystan but chose to wait two weeks before deliberately entering the occupied territory. In contrast, individuals like Babych had been in the area before the invasion and were left undisturbed by the Russians for most of March. Kovalov, as a Member of the Ukrainian Parliament, was now entering the occupied territory, although he referred to it as “temporarily occupied” in an April 2022 interview, emphasizing a distinction between “occupied” and “temporarily occupied” territories, without elaborating on this difference. Nevertheless, it was evident that the Russians were in control of his town.
To reach his destination, he traveled to the southern tip of Mykoliav Oblast and passed through Oleksandrivka and Stanislav on the road leading to the city of Kherson. During this journey, he encountered both Ukrainian and Russian checkpoints. On each occasion, he presented his Member of Parliament (MP) identification and Ukrainian passport, providing evidence of his residency in Hola Prystan, Kherson Oblast. It’s worth noting that the Ukrainian checkpoint guards did not prevent him from entering; instead, they cautioned him about the potential dangers of his journey.
In interviews at the time, he suggested that perhaps, leaning on his status as an official, the checkpoint guards were likely more concerned with more significant issues or potential agents entering the country than a lone Rada member who simply wanted to return to his home, despite the dangers. After a brief inspection on either side, he continued to Kherson, where he owned a residence, and then traveled on to Hola Prystan.
ANNOUNCES HE IS STAYING
Interviews and Facebook posts from that time seem to indicate that he dedicated himself to “humanitarian” relief. However, what the posts do not reveal is that he was implicated as a key individual who helped remove his political adversary, Oleksandr Babych, who would be abducted by Russian forces at the end of March.
The presentation Kovalov made sure was on his Facebook page showed a man deeply involved in helping the community receive necessary supplies. He posted about food and medicine being delivered, but there were also other messages that contradicted his earlier posts. These posts, showing himself not only as a deeply patriotic Ukrainian but also as a member of President Zelenskyy’s party, Servant of the People, hardly made him seem like an opposition figure or someone who would be friendly to the Russians.
In one interview with Oksana Kovalenko and Dmytro Rayevskyi of Babel, Kovalov stated clearly that the people “want to live in Ukraine,” and he claimed that he had not heard of any pro-Russian advocates. However, in that same interview, just a moment later, he flippantly said Russians take people away, sometimes for 20 days, sometimes for 3 to 5 days. After noting that they didn’t take him, he made a very interesting conclusion, suggesting that the decision to detain someone “may depend in part on the person’s initial behavior.” This essentially places some blame on the victim for the actions of the Russian forces.
He then lied to the interviewer, claiming that the Russian forces do not take valuable items from the people and that individuals are not taken away unless they are “nervous” or “come into conflict” with the occupying Russians. Furthermore, he was directly asked about the abduction of Oleksandr Babych, the legitimate mayor of the town. He responded, “I had a political conflict with him. I admit that there is a mayor of Hola Prystan who was legally elected on the territory of Ukraine. That’s it. I am not interested in his fate. I know that he took his family, and that’s all.”
In contrast, Babych was in custody, and over a year and a half later, he has not been heard from and remains within the Russian political prisoners system, possibly in Crimea.
As the occupation continued, Kovalov tried to normalize this work. And while Kovalov was down basking in his new leadership role, back in Kyiv, the questions were growing about where this Rada member was, and what was he doing.[i] The chairman of the Rada, Ruslan Stefanchuk commented on April 25, 2022, about the absence of Kovalev.[ii]
Stefanchuk said, “- Probably, this question is better to ask the faction. From what I know, the question of suspending his activities within the “Servant of the People” faction is being initiated, because no one can understand where he is, what he does, what activities he conducts, what comments he makes, and whether he really uses his by means of mobile communication and social networks.
We do not have such information. But as far as I know, there is such an initiative within the faction to stop his activity. “
Days later, the news came that Kovalov was suspended from the Servant of the People faction and he fired back, “This statement did not provide any evidence that I cooperated, am cooperating, or will cooperate with the occupying authorities. That is, it is an absolutely empty statement that is not supported by any facts.”
However, he began facing pushback for collaborating with Russian occupiers. He often utilized his Facebook account to portray himself as a virtuous worker, serving his newly captured constituency. Nevertheless, word was spreading throughout the country about his cooperation with the occupiers, and the feedback was far from positive. Consequently, he was expelled from the Servant of the People faction. Moreover, investigations were initiated to uncover the extent of his collaboration with the occupiers. Tensions escalated as summer approached. Deputy Ковальов, newly appointed, continued to post about his humanitarian efforts, all the while concealing his involvement in salt and grain deals.
The reaction against him for cooperating with the Russians was notably strong. For example, on a Facebook post dated June 7, 2022, Kovalov faced harsh criticism in the comments, with people labeling him as a Judas and a traitor. Some suggested that he should rely on the occupiers he seemed to support to address the issues. Many questioned the price of his soul, while others expressed a desire for violent retribution against him due to his perceived betrayal of the community.[iii]
ANNOUNCES RUSSIA HERE FOREVER
On June 8th, 2022, as if he couldn’t resist any longer, Kovalov’s pretense that he was not submitting his ambitions to the very Russian occupiers who had deputized him, he finally dropped that pretense and wrote a post on Facebook.
Kovalov posted that:
“Yesterday I attended a very important event for me, and for all farmers in our region – the First Deputy Head of the Administration of the President of the Russian Federation Sergey Kyryenko met with farmers of the Kherson region
First, it was declared that Russia is here seriously and forever!
Secondly, at the meeting we voiced all our questions and wishes
Everything that worries any agricultural producer of the Kherson region:
– what to do with the implementation of grain and technical crops for the 2021 harvest
– What about the 2022 crop?
– to whom and how to sell, what market, state and other mechanisms will be used?
All issues were discussed in maximum detail.
Full-scale integration of Kherson region farmers into the economic model of Russia is planned.
All instruments of support for producers of agricultural production that are effective in the territory of the Russian Federation will be applied.
I think that I will say not only about myself, but also about the other participants of the meeting – people left with the realization that Russia hears and understands us.
In addition to agrarian issues, the status of the Kherson region was also discussed – I will repeat, Russia is forever and closer integration with Russia is already underway
And there you have it, the admission and resignation of the region to the occupiers. Kovalov stating clearly, ‘the status of the Херсон region was also discussed’ and then unconditionally writing in bold propaganda terms as if straight from Vladimir Putin’s mouth, “Russia is forever and closer integration with Russia is already underway.”
And, as you could expect….
The reaction was set in motion to deal with the professed collaborator. Immediately, the General Prosecutor announced criminal investigation would begin into Kovalov.
“The operatives of the Bureau established that the deputy cooperates with the occupation forces of the Russian Federation in the temporarily occupied territory of the Kherson region. Enterprises under his control supply food products to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea with further sale on the territory of the Russian Federation, and also import fuel and lubricants from occupied Crimea to Kherson Oblast.
The deputy ensures the placement of personnel of the occupation forces in the premises of the sanatorium under his control, located in the city of Hola Prystan, Kherson region.
Moreover, on his page in one of the social networks, the deputy himself says that he cooperates with the occupiers and believes that Russia is in Херсон Oblast for a long time.
According to the materials of the SBI, in April of this year, the Prosecutor General initiated criminal proceedings based on the elements of the crime provided for in the fourth part of part 4 of Article 111-1 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine (collaborative activity).
The investigation is ongoing.”[iv]
JUNE 22, 2022: Attempted Assassination
With in weeks, Kovalov’s car was blown up. It didn’t take long for blogger Yevghen Shevchenko to claim Kovalov was dead. It was also revealed at the time that prior to the post announcing work with Russia, there had been no criminal case against Kovalov.
Days later, Ukrainian Intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov confirmed at least knowledge of the activities in the Kherson region stating, “I can confirm that a certain action was taken. The car was definitely blown up. What condition this collaborator and traitor is in is still to be determined.”
However, Kremlin Propaganda outlet RIA Novosty aired video via Telegram with the caption, ‘Kherson politician and ex-member of the Ukrainian Rada Kovalev released a video from the hospital: I am alive and well, I will return to work on Monday’ and that this attempt to kill him was from local partisans who would not succeed.[v]
AUGUST 28, 2022
That evasion of destiny for this collaborator did not last long. Just two months later, the news came on August 28, 2022 through Russian official news account on Telegram:
Investigators of the Investigative Committee of Russia will record and investigate the circumstances of the commission of a crime against the deputy chairman of the Kherson CAA.
According to preliminary data, Alexei Kovalev, Deputy Chairman of the Military-Civil Administration of the Kherson Region for Agriculture, died as a result of a gunshot wound. The attack took place at his place of residence on August 28, 2022. A girl who lived with the deceased also became a victim of the attackers.
The Investigative Committee of Russia will take measures to identify those involved in the armed attack, and their actions will be given a criminal legal assessment.[vi]
Aug 29, 2022 at 17:21
AFTER KOVALOV’s Assassination
Later when the Russians had descended on Hola Prystan, the local Deputy Chair of the Херсон Regional Council, Yuriy Sobolevskyi, posted on Telegram:
“Є інформація, що сьогодні орки планують проводити фільтраційні заходи у Голій Пристані. Стягнули туди додаткові сили, проводитимуть перевірки та обшуки населення.”
“There is information that the orcs are planning to carry out filtering activities in the Hola Prystan today. Additional forces have been deployed there, checks and searches of the population will be carried out.”
By filtration activities, the Russians would capture more Ukrainians, search and seize more innocent citizens in their effort to stomp out any partisan resistance.
And while Kovalov is dead, the mayor he sabotaged and many others were detained or killed. Oleksandr Babych is still in captivity in the Russian “pretrial detention centers”.
Ultimately, the Ukrainian government seized the assets of Channel 4 in September 4, 2022 and Oleksiy Kovalov is going to be remembered in Ukraine as a collaborator, a traitor and a man who put ambition above his country. However, in Russia, Vladimir Putin honored Kovalov with “Order of Courage” issued October 7, 2022 to his mother and brother.
At this time of publication there are hundreds of cases already filed in the criminal courts in Ukraine. In future episodes we will look at other cases of accused collaborators and the laws the still evolve along this very complicated topic. We will explore how neighbors in formerly occupied territories are recovering after dealing with such betrayals and we will document the consequences of those who betrayed fellow Ukrainians in favor of the Russian Federation.
We thank with deep sincerity the hard work of the organizations working tirelessly on this matter including Zmina Group, The Media Initiative for Human Rights and the amazing crew at the Ukraine Media Center. We are able to learn more because of your tireless work.
We always thank the deep knowledge and support of Andriy Kononenko and Nareshti Dopamoha, who are currently always helping to bring supplies to the Kherson region.