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Occupation authorities in eastern Ukraine on the prowl for supposed Ukrainian military ‘spotters’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. (The Presidential Office of Ukraine)
September 12, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Lyudmyla, who retired from law enforcement in the city of Luhansk in 2014, received an unexpected phone call from her former colleagues earlier this month. The caller asked if she was receiving her pension and if she needed any assistance. He also asked, as if in passing, whether she had accepted a Russian passport.

“At first I thought an election must be coming up and suddenly everyone is paying attention to their constituents,” she told RFE/RL. The names of all those interviewed for this story who are living in Ukrainian territory under Russian occupation have been changed for their safety.

But later, in private conversations with other former colleagues, Lyudmyla learned that the occupation authorities in the Russian-held parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions had launched an active campaign to ferret out civilians who might be helping the Ukrainian military to locate targets behind the front lines.

The phone call to Lyudmyla came the day after Ukrainian shelling hit the Luhanskteplovod locomotive factory, which has been used as a military base since 2014.

Locals from Luhansk, Donetsk, Sorokyne, and elsewhere confirmed to RFE/RL’s Donbas.Realities that such searches have begun, with one person calling them “witch hunts.” The campaign comes as Ukraine accelerates the crucial counteroffensive it launched in early June.

Mykola, a retired military veteran living under the Russian occupation, said the searches have targeted specific categories of people, including military retirees like himself and disabled veterans.

Others in the crosshairs include people whose children live in government-held parts of Ukraine, particularly if they have not accepted Russian citizenship, and people working for the occupation administration but who they feel have not demonstrated sufficient loyalty on social media.

In addition, former law enforcement employees like Lyudmyla, particularly veterans of the Berkut riot police, are under the microscope.

“After all,” Mykola said, “they think if these people betrayed Ukraine, they might betray them too.”

Sowing Fear

Media controlled by the occupation authorities have reported Ukrainian strikes targeting the Luhansk mine and the Luhansktsentrokuz ironworks this month. Explosions were also reported on July 25 in the center of Donetsk near a factory that has been used as a Russian staging area.

Mykola said the “witch hunt” is a sign that the occupation authorities are concerned about the counteroffensive, in which Ukraine has reported small territorial gains both in eastern Ukraine, which includes the Donbas, and in the south. The progress is making them “nervous,” Mykola said.

The authorities routinely blame Ukrainian rocket strikes on so-called “waiters,” or civilians who are waiting for Kyiv to restore control over its territories. Yelena, a woman from Luhansk, noted that after each successful strike the occupation authorities report the arrest of a supposed “spotter.”

“But the attacks continue,” Yelena said. “As if in occupied Luhansk there is some sort of factory stamping out one spotter after another. Of course, everyone understands they merely arrested some random person.”

Mykola said the arrests are an attempt by the occupation authorities to prove to Moscow that they are vigilant and have control over their regions. In addition, the high-profile well-publicized arrests sow fear among locals who might be quietly cheering on the Ukrainian counteroffensive.

In addition, he said, the detainees become an additional bargaining tool in exchange negotiations with Kyiv.

Other locals who spoke with RFE/RL said it is easy to get arrested in the occupied territories, even if one has never expressed pro-Ukrainian sentiments. Sometimes all it takes is a house or car or business that attracts the attention of some de facto official or militia figure. Denunciations also play a role.

“If you have a conflict with a neighbor and he has a contact in the [de facto police], you might find yourself locked in a basement,” Yelena said. “An estranged wife or husband might decide to take revenge.… If you argue with the babushka next door about the state of the fence, she might write a denunciation that she heard you speaking Ukrainian.”

People arrested in such cases can easily be portrayed as “spotters,” she added.

Such arbitrary arrests might be counterproductive for the authorities, said Artem, a former resident of the Luhansk region who did provide intelligence assistance to the Ukrainian armed forces before he left for Kyiv-controlled territory. Now, as an army volunteer, he coordinates information coming from various sources in the occupied parts of eastern Ukraine.

It is difficult to intimidate people with possible arrest when they know they might end up “in a basement” without actually doing anything, Artem said.