While the invasion has tarnished Moscow’s appeal, some in eastern Ukraine still back the Kremlin as Russian forces bombard their hometowns

By Yaroslav Trofimov

June 2, 2022

The Wall Street Journal

KHARKIV, Ukraine—Six officers from Ukraine’s domestic intelligence agency, the SBU, ran up the stairs of a drab apartment block in a residential neighborhood of this city near the Russian border at 6:30 a.m. Hiding behind a shield that flashed disorienting lights, one of them banged on Igor Popov’s door. “Open up, SBU is here!” bellowed the lead officer, clad in body armor with his face covered by a balaclava. “Open up now, SBU is working here,” he said, adding a couple of expletives.

As the door lock turned, the squad rushed in. “On the floor, on the floor now!” the commander shouted at Mr. Popov, 59. “All clear,” yelled another after checking for weapons as the men tied the suspect’s hands and moved him to the living room for an interrogation. “You are a Soviet man, right? You must believe the Soviet Union stood for peace, right?” an investigator asked as Mr. Popov lay sprawled on the carpet. “Yes,” he replied quietly. “So why are you supporting those people who are shelling our city?” the investigator asked.  “I haven’t done anything wrong,” Mr. Popov said as agents of the SBU, the Security Service of Ukraine, examined a tablet belonging to Mr. Popov. They flicked through posts on his social-media account that praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and featured the letter Z, a symbol of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Shelves in the hallways and living room were packed with a collection of Soviet and Russian military-themed fiction. A two-volume biography of Stalin, “Generalissimo”, took pride of place. In the kitchen, a magnet on the refrigerator featured an image of Mr. Putin holding a puppy.

In Kharkiv and other predominantly Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine, a sizable share of the population, especially among older generations, long felt more affinity with Moscow than Kyiv. That sentiment has been eroded by Russia’s conduct in the Donbas 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, Ukrainian security services are hunting for citizens that they view as abetting the enemy. That involves active pursuit of collaborators in Russian-held territory, some of whom have been targeted in recent assassination attempts, and detentions of suspected Russian agents.  “We do these raids almost every day,” said one of the SBU officers in Mr. Popov’s apartment, who like most others in the team was seconded to Kharkiv, the largest city in eastern Ukraine, from the capital Kyiv in April.

Many of those arrested are posting pro-Kremlin messages on social media, driven by loyalties to Russia and without any contact by the government in Moscow, the SBU says. Some take money from the Russians to do so. A handful were actively passing military information, such as Ukrainian artillery positions, to the enemy, according to the SBU.

According to the SBU, Mr. Popov was a prodigious poster on social media, praising Russian war efforts and wishing for a speedy victory for Moscow. Mr. Popov was detained on suspicion of violating article 436-2 of Ukraine’s criminal code, which punishes with up to five years in prison the production and distribution of materials that publicly support and glorify the enemy in wartime. He remains behind bars, awaiting a trial, according to the SBU, and couldn’t be reached for comment.

Such supporters of Moscow are relatively rare in Kyiv and areas of northern Ukraine that Russia attempted to seize before retreating 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 they succeeded with Moscow’s help in capturing the main cities of the Donbas—Donetsk and Luhansk—and establishing Russian-controlled “people’s republics” there.

Since the Feb. 24 invasion, Russian forces have destroyed more than 2,000 high-rises in Kharkiv and months of shelling that have leveled entire residential neighborhoods. In Donbas, several smaller cities, including Mariupol and Severodonetsk, have been reduced to rubble by Russian artillery. “Kharkiv is a Russian-speaking city and there used to be a very loyal attitude to the Russian Federation here,” said Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov, himself a Russian-speaker. “But now the situation has turned 180 degrees. The east of Ukraine is more radical in its attitude to 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 TV, and it’s another to actually live through it.”

Unlike the wars in former Yugoslavia or the Caucasus, the conflict in Ukraine isn’t driven by religion, native language or ethnicity, but by a sense of national belonging and, for many Ukrainians, a desire to live in a democracy. This means that, for many, especially in the east, whether to consider oneself Russian or Ukrainian—and whether to support Moscow or Kyiv in the war—is a matter of choice rather than birth.

The result is that many families, particularly in the Donbas, have been split, with siblings finding themselves on the opposite sides of the front line. Many Ukrainian soldiers come from Russian-occupied Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea and say they are fighting so they can return to their hometowns one day.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, the Ukrainian governor of the Donetsk region, knows it firsthand. His brother has been an intelligence official in the Russian-controlled Donetsk People’s Republic since 2014 and has appeared repeatedly on Russian TV. His parents, too, have remained in Russian-held Donetsk, and he says he hasn’t spoken to them or his brother in years. “Family ties cannot be a reason to maintain connections with people who support the other side,” Mr. Kyrylenko said. “My convictions, my love for my country, don’t allow me morally to even communicate or try to convince someone there.”

In recent weeks, Mr. Kyrylenko has tried to persuade civilians in his region to leave. Between 80% and 90% of the residents of Ukrainian-controlled cities on the front lines in Donbas have heeded these appeals and fled to safer parts of Ukraine or abroad, unwilling to face the risk of being stranded under Russian occupation.

Many of those who remain want to live under Moscow’s rule once again, Ukrainian officials in Donbas acknowledge. Some older people are counting on receiving higher Russian pensions—which under some circumstances is possible without losing access to existing Ukrainian benefits.

A few remaining residents in Severodonetsk, interviewed last month before Russian forces arrived in the city, declined to provide their full names and were reluctant to talk about their allegiances. “We don’t care what flag is flying over the city as long as there is peace,” said one young man. “We’re not following politics, we’re just trying to survive,” added a middle-aged woman.

After Russian forces entered parts of the city in recent days, some locals emerged from hide-outs in nearly-empty residential towers, cheering Russian troops and greeting their relatives in Russia as a Russian TV crew passed by. “We’ve been waiting for you for so long,” said one middle-aged man in a small group singing a Russian patriotic song. “We are so glad that you have come to us,” said a woman in the group, according to a recording broadcast on Russian state TV.

Despite these occasional expressions of support, Russian efforts to build a powerful fifth column in Ukraine have largely failed, in part because much of the money that the Kremlin had poured into the effort has been stolen along the way, said Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s GUR military intelligence agency. “People were paid by Russia, but were their agents really here? Dead souls,” said Gen. Budanov. “I don’t have any doubts that Russia had and maybe still possesses a wide network of agents, and agents of influence, in Ukraine. But as for their abilities, now we can see the result, and it’s not very impressive.”