Ukrainian security services are looking for Russian partisans and agents among them

“Open up, the SBU is here!” yelled the lead officer, dressed in a bulletproof vest, his face covered with a balaclava. “Open now, the SBU is working here,” he said, adding a few curses.

As the door lock turned, the team rushed forward. “Get down, get down now!” the commander shouted at Mr. Popov, 59. and moved him into the living room for questioning.

“You are a Soviet man, aren’t you?” You must believe the Soviet Union was for peace, right?” an interviewer asked as Mr. Popov lay on the carpet. “Yes,” he replied calmly.” So why are you supporting these people who are bombing our city?” asked the investigator.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Mr Popov said as officers from the SBU, Ukraine’s security service, examined a tablet belonging to Mr Popov. They were leafing through posts on his social media account praising Russian President Vladimir. Putin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and sported the letter Z, a symbol of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

The shelves in the hallways and living room were filled with a collection of Soviet and Russian army-themed novels. A two-volume biography of Stalin, “Generalissimo,” took pride of place. In the kitchen, a magnet on the fridge featured an image of Mr. Putin holding a puppy.

In Kharkiv and other predominantly Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine, a significant portion of the population, especially among older generations, has long felt closer to Moscow than to Kyiv. That sentiment has been eroded by Russia’s conduct in the Donbass region, parts of which it has controlled since 2014, and, even more, by the violence unleashed when Russian forces invaded in February.

But some Ukrainians continue to side with Moscow. And in a conflict that Ukraine sees as existential, the Ukrainian security services are on the lookout for citizens they see as accomplices of the enemy. This involves the active pursuit of collaborators in Russian-controlled territory, some of whom have been targeted in recent assassination attempts, and the detention of suspected Russian agents.

“We carry out these raids almost every day,” said one of the SBU officers in the apartment of Mr. Popov, who, like most of the other members of the team, was seconded to Kharkiv, the most major city in eastern Ukraine, from the capital Kyiv in April.

Many of those arrested post pro-Kremlin messages on social media, motivated by their loyalty to Russia and without any contact with the Moscow government, according to the SBU. Some take money from the Russians to do it. According to the SBU, a handful of them were actively transmitting military information, such as Ukrainian artillery positions, to the enemy.

According to the SBU, Mr Popov was a prodigious poster boy on social media, praising Russian war efforts and wishing a quick victory for Moscow. Mr Popov was arrested on suspicion of violating Article 436-2 of Ukraine’s criminal code, which punishes up to five years in prison for the production and distribution of material that publicly supports and glorifies the enemy in time of war.

He remains behind bars awaiting trial, according to the SBU, and could not be reached for comment.

Such Moscow supporters are relatively rare in Kyiv and parts of northern Ukraine that Russia tried to seize before pulling out in late March. In Kharkiv, street clashes erupted between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian groups in 2014, when pro-Russian elements briefly occupied the regional administration headquarters.

Russian proxies failed here at the time, but managed with the help of Moscow to capture the main cities of Donbass – Donetsk and Luhansk – and establish Russian-controlled “people’s republics” there.

Since the February 24 invasion, Russian forces have destroyed more than 2,000 skyscrapers in Kharkiv and months of bombardment that leveled entire residential neighborhoods. In the Donbass, several small towns, including Mariupol and Severodonetsk, were reduced to rubble by Russian artillery.

“Kharkiv is a Russian-speaking city and there was a very loyal attitude here towards the Russian Federation,” said Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov, himself a Russian speaker. “But now the situation has turned 180 degrees. Eastern Ukraine is more radical in its attitude towards the Russian Federation than the West, because we see all the horrors that are being perpetrated here. it’s one thing to watch it on television, and quite another to actually experience it.

Unlike the wars in the former Yugoslavia or the Caucasus, the conflict in Ukraine is not driven by religion, mother tongue or ethnicity, but by a sense of national belonging and, for many Ukrainians, the desire to live in a democracy. This means that for many, especially in the East, seeing themselves as Russian or Ukrainian – and supporting Moscow or Kyiv in the war – is a matter of choice rather than birth.

The result is that many families, especially in the Donbass, have been divided, with siblings ending up on opposite sides of the frontline. Many Ukrainian soldiers come from Russian-occupied Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea and say they are fighting to be able to return to their hometown one day.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, the Ukrainian governor of the Donetsk region, knows this firsthand. Her brother has been an intelligence official in the Russian-controlled Donetsk People’s Republic since 2014 and has appeared on Russian television several times. His parents also remained in Donetsk, under Russian control, and he says he has not spoken to them or his brother for years.

“Family ties cannot be a reason to maintain ties with people who support the other side,” Mr Kyrylenko said. “My beliefs, my love for my country, morally do not even allow me to communicate or try to convince someone there.”

In recent weeks, Mr. Kyrylenko has tried to persuade civilians in his area to leave. Between 80% and 90% of residents of Ukrainian-controlled towns on the frontlines of Donbass responded to these calls and fled to safer parts of Ukraine or abroad, unwilling to face the risk to be blocked under the Russian occupation.

Many of those who remain want to live under Moscow rule again, Ukrainian officials in Donbass acknowledge. Some older people rely on higher Russian pensions, which in some circumstances is possible without losing access to existing Ukrainian benefits.

A few remaining residents of Severodonetsk, interviewed last month before Russian forces arrived in the city, refused to provide their full names and were reluctant to talk about their allegiances. “We don’t care which flag flies over the city as long as there is peace,” said a young man. “We don’t follow politics, we just try to survive,” added a middle-aged woman.

After Russian forces entered parts of the city in recent days, some residents emerged from hiding in nearly empty residential towers, cheering Russian troops and greeting relatives in Russia as a Russian television crew passed.

“We’ve been waiting for you for so long,” said a middle-aged man in a small group, singing a Russian patriotic song. “We are so happy that you came to us,” a woman from the group said, according to a recording shown on Russian state television.

Despite these occasional displays of support, Russian efforts to build a powerful fifth column in Ukraine have largely failed, in part because much of the money the Kremlin had poured into the effort was stolen along the way. , Major General Kyrylo Budanov said. , the head of the Ukrainian military intelligence agency GUR.

“People were paid by Russia, but were their agents really there? Dead souls,” General Budanov said. “I have no doubt that Russia had and may still have an extensive network of agents and agents of influence in Ukraine. But as for their abilities, we can now see the result. , and that’s not very impressive.”

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Richard F. Gandhi