Kyiv, Ukraine – Volodymyr Saldo claimed that in 2016, he was handcuffed to a metal bed for 59 days in the Dominican Republic, almost 10,000 kilometres (6,200 miles) away from home.
He alleged that the kidnapper, Igor Pashchenko, his former business partner from the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, electrocuted him so he would read certain phrases into a dictaphone.
Saldo claimed Pashchenko used those phrases to demand a hefty ransom from his family – and to edit together an audio recording of Saldo’s “confession” to collaborating with Russia.
When Saldo, a construction tycoon and Kherson’s former mayor, was released and returned home, he maintained that he had never worked for Russians.
“I have interesting plans about Kherson and its future,” he told the Interfax news agency in March 2017.
A year later, Pashchenko was killed contract-style, with two shots to the head in Kherson; his relatives alleged that Saldo ordered the murder.
And this March, Moscow occupied Kherson and the surrounding region – and made Saldo its governor.
Some 480 people – from Kherson to Kharkiv in Ukraine’s northeast – are being investigated for collaboration with the Russian invaders, Ukrainian prosecutors said on June 10.
The turncoats surrender cities, towns and districts, snitch on pro-Kyiv activists, tell Russians the location of Ukrainian forces, arms depots and minefields, and even coordinate Russian artillery fire, prosecutors said.
Enough is known about the collaborators to identify their key traits, a political pundit says.
“A collaborator’s set: a mandatory government job in the past, local connections, interests in local businesses, beef with the [central] government,” Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.
“A pro-Russian stance or games in this political field, criminal connections, love for money and power that hasn’t been satisfied in the existing system of coordinates,” he added.
The overwhelming majority of collaborators, including Saldo, were members of pro-Russian parties that have been disbanded and outlawed during the war.
Most of them were the political offspring of the largest pro-Kremlin political behemoth, the Party of Regions, whose head, President Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Russia in 2014 after months-long protests in Kyiv.
But some collaborators hail from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s political camp.
One is Aleksey Kovalyev, a 33-year-old top agriculture official in occupied Kherson, Ukraine’s bread and fruit basket.
He was a member of Servant of the People, a party hastily put together by Zelenskyy, a comedian turned politician, after his out-of-the-blue victory in the 2019 presidential elections.
The turncoats of this war have plenty of predecessors.
In 2014, Ukrainian officials and law enforcement officers switched sides in Crimea – or sided with Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk.
But their number had dwindled by this year, testing Moscow’s true clout in Ukraine.
In Crimea, thousands of officials and officers chose to stay in their jobs after the annexation.
“That’s why for Russia, the annexation was painless from the viewpoint of forming local administrations,” Kyiv-based analyst Ihar Tyshkevich told Al Jazeera.
Those who refused faced threats and jail.
Among them was Ihor Voronchenko, deputy head of Crimea’s coastal defence, who was briefly held in a Moscow pre-trial detention centre.
“There was a solitary cell, without a window, when you lose the sense of time, space. It affects one psychologically,” Admiral Voronchenko told Al Jazeera in 2018, when he was head of Ukraine’s navy.
Weeks after the annexation of Crimea, officials and officers in Donetsk and Luhansk saw collaboration with Moscow as a way of showing off their regional patriotism – and showing it to Kyiv’s new, pro-Western government.
But there were fewer of them than in Crimea, and as a result, “there was a deficit of qualified servants, and Russia has to bring in Russian nationals every year, with every rotation of officials,” Tyshkevich said.
The separatist halls of power were filled with grotesque characters.
The current head of the so-called “people’s republic” of Donetsk is Denis Pushilin, a bearded 41-year-old – and former employee of a confectionery company who once ran a Ponzi scheme in the region.
His predecessor, Pavel Gubarev, was a boxing enthusiast who proudly reminisced about his membership in Russian National Unity, an openly neo-Nazi movement whose members committed hundreds of hate crimes.
Some collaborators try to convince their relatives to switch sides.
Mykola Akhbash, a police officer in the Ukraine-controlled part of Donetsk, recalled how his cousin joined the rebels – and wanted him to follow suit.
“But I told him where to go,” Akhbash told Al Jazeera.
He fled his home village of Yalta outside Mariupol on February 25, and said that the colleagues who stayed were tortured as the occupiers tried to “convince” them to switch sides.
This year, the number of turncoats is said to be so small that they can aim for the top jobs they are barely qualified for.
“Russia has a problem here, it can’t form full-fledged civilian administrations on occupied territories,” Tyshkevich said.
While Kherson “governor” Saldo is exceptionally experienced, others are a motley crew of rookies.
Saldo’s deputy is Kirill Stremousov, a communist blogger with a penchant for esoteric conspiracy theories.
Yevgeny Balitsky, a leading “official” in the Russia-occupied part of the Zaporizhia region, was a member of a pro-Moscow party, but never held any significant posts.
“He can’t steal, he can’t stand guard,” political analyst Alexander Kochetkov, who knew Balitsky, wrote in an op-ed citing a proverb that characterises useless people.
And Russia does not always shower collaborators with praise and money.
Mayor Hennadiy Matsehora surrendered his town of Kupiansk in the Kharkiv region on February 27, becoming the first known collaborator.
On Thursday, Russians detained him.
“For the occupants, this is systemic. First, they use the traitors and their resources, and then they remove them,” Kharkiv governor Oleh Synehubov said in televised remarks, adding that the Russians had not explained why Matsehora was held.
This pattern of “removal” began after the separatist revolts in 2014.
Gennady Tsyplakov, a deposed “prime minister” of the so-called “People’s Republic” of Luhansk, allegedly “committed suicide” in a pre-trial detention centre in September 2016 after being accused of a coup.
Three weeks later, outspoken Russian warlord Arsen Pavlov, nicknamed Motorola, died in an explosion in the elevator of his apartment building in Donetsk.
A fugitive separatist claimed Pavlov was killed by fellow rebels, who accused Ukrainian intelligence of organising the murder.
Ukraine targets Russia-backed officials
Kyiv does not just charge the turncoats with treason in absentia; Russia-backed officials are also being attacked.
At least five collaborators have been killed – blown up in their cars or apartments, or shot dead – and three more wounded, according to Ukrainian officials and media.
These days, “governor” Saldo moves around “armed, with bodyguards”, a Kherson resident told Al Jazeera.
In mid-June, he said in a video that a news report about his death in a car bomb was a “lie”.
While Saldo survived that bomb blast, another Russia-appointed official in Kherson, Dmitry Savluchenko, head of the families, youth, and sports department, was killed.
On March 20, two unidentified men in black shot dead his assistant Vladimir Slobodchikov in his white Mercedes right next to Saldo’s house.
A month later, Valerii Kuleshov, who was putting together a pro-Russian police force in Kherson, was gunned down near a garbage dump.
And similar incidents have taken place in other areas of Ukraine taken over by Russia.
“He collaborated with orcs,” Anton Herashchenko, an aide to Ukraine’s interior minister, said on Telegram regarding Kuleshov, using a derogatory term to describe Russian invaders.
On Monday, Kherson’s Russia-appointed administration claimed that a makeshift explosive device was removed from a road Saldo’s car was supposed to drive on.
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