Oleksandr Malish, the patrol police chief for the cities of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk in the Donetsk region, is reluctant to call people suspected of collaborating with Russia Ukrainians.
“I can not even call these people Ukrainians, even though they have Ukrainian passports and were born here and lived here all their lives,” said Malish. “These are not professional spies who were trained in Moscow and sent here.”
The two cities he oversees are in the pocket of the Donetsk region still controlled by Ukraine but surrounded by Russian forces on three sides. Part of his team’s job is rooting out and detaining suspected collaborators. Pro-Russian feeling still exists, he said, especially among marginalized sections of the population.
Malish said there were pro-Russia Telegram groups with the “Z” branding that were targeting residents. The administrator of the Telegram group would put out a notice asking for coordinates or photos of a certain place in exchange for money. When a person sent the “goods” to the administrator, they received up to £ 500 on their bank card, Malish said.
He said his team had found evidence of such Telegram exchanges and bank transfers on the phones of “numerous” suspected collaborators they had detained. He said declined to say exactly how many.
The Guardian was not able to find the Telegram groups Malish described. But it did find public Telegram groups for Kramatorsk and Slovyansk with “Z” branding that carry pro-Russia messaging about the war.
The groups have about 15,000 subscribers. The Guardian was not able to confirm that they were all genuine residents of the two cities and neighboring villages, though some appeared to be.
Malish said police were asked by residents to inspect a man on Saturday. When they searched his phone, he said, they saw he had received about £ 400 from a Russian bank account on 8 April. As the man was not able to explain the transfer, and the Kramatorsk railway station was hit the same day, they decided to detain him as a suspect.
More than half the cities’ populations have left. According to one lieutenant patrol officer on duty, Ihor Yunusov, this makes it easier for the police to identify suspicious behavior. “If before there could be 500 people on the main square in the evening, now there are around 10,” Yunusov said.
Driving around Kramatorsk, the police struggled to find cars or people to inspect in the deserted city. Instead, they took the Guardian to see the damage from a double rocket attack apparently intended for the Kramatorsk regional security services headquarters.
One of the rockets was caught by Ukrainian anti-aircraft systems and exploded between the security services building and an apartment block. The second rocket, which hit in succession, landed in a children’s nursery empty because of the war.
One of the three officers on patrol that day, Volodymyr Filonenko, lived in one of the 40 buildings that were damaged in the two attacks. Filonenko had just evacuated his wife and two children from the building.