Attacks reportedly carried out by Ukrainian partisans as Kyiv pledges ‘intensification of special saboteur operations’

Isobel Koshiw

4 Oct 2022

The Guardian

At least 18 people working for the Russian occupying authorities in Ukraine have been targeted in attacks allegedly carried out by Ukrainian partisans that have become a key plank of Kyiv’s efforts to retake territory. Following Vladimir Putin’s attempted annexation of four areas of Ukraine on Friday after sham referendums, the Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak vowed to “continue the systemic liberation of the temporarily occupied territories by military means”.  He noted that these means included both the regular Ukrainian army and the “intensification of special saboteur operations”. “The ‘annexation’ of [these] territories exists only in Russian virtual TV reality. What will be more painful for the apologists of the ‘Russian world’ will be [their] meeting with reality and the Ukrainian armed forces,” said Podolyak.

On Tuesday, after Ukrainian forces broke through Russian lines in Kherson in the south, the Russia-installed leader of the area, Vladimir Saldo, appeared panicked. “It’s tense, let’s put it that way,” Reuters reported Saldo as telling Russian TV. Saldo was rumoured to have been poisoned in August and his death was announced by Russian media, before he reappeared.

Ukraine’s security services published a list last week of 390 “collaborators” in Zaporizhzhia region alone, who they said would be prosecuted for volunteering to help the Russian electoral commissions. They also published photos of a further four Ukrainians who they said played high-level roles in helping Moscow organise the fake referendums in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

According to Ukrainian legislation on collaboration passed in the spring, individuals who actively collaborate with Russia will be prosecuted to differing degrees depending on their seniority and the nature of their collaboration.

But the assassinations of Russian-appointed officials mean that some are facing punishment before they reach the courtroom in the form of extra-judicial killings and life-long injuries. Russian state media and occupying officials have blamed Ukraine for several of the attacks, which they have described as acts of “terrorism”.

For Ukraine, however, the attacks are seen as justified in a war in which Russian forces are estimated to have killed tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers and forced millions of Ukrainians to flee their homes.

On Thursday last week, the spate of attacks, which became an almost weekly occurrence over the summer, continued when another Russian-installed official was targeted in the occupied Zaporizhzhia region. A bomb was strapped to the car of Olena Shapurova, the head of education in the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol, according to the city’s mayor-in-exile, Ivan Fedorov. Fedorov said on Ukrainian TV that the car of Shapurova, whom he described as a leading local collaborator, had been “somewhat burned” in the attack but she had survived. Fedorov said the attack was carried out by Ukrainian resistance forces. “[Shapurova] headed the ‘department of education’ and helped the occupiers impose Russian ‘education’ methods [in Melitopol],” said Fedorov.

Ukraine says the partisans’ activities are designed to shake the confidence of Russia’s perceived control over the occupied areas and discourage locals from collaborating. Podolyak told the Washington Post earlier this month that Moscow was finding it difficult to recruit and Russian officials were refusing to travel to Ukraine because of the risks. “The risks and consequences are extreme – and they understand this very well,” Podolyak said.

It is impossible to verify whether all the attacks have been the work of Ukrainian partisans, and not, for example, infighting among the Russian-installed authorities.

Out of the 18 reported attacks, 12 comprised bombs placed either nearby the assumed target or under cars, indicating the assassins received training in bomb-making. The six remaining attacks on Russian-appointed officials include five shootings and one reported poisoning.

One former Ukrainian MP from Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s party, Oleksiy Kovalov, who assumed the post of deputy head of the occupied Kherson region in July, was shot dead in his home on 28 August. It was the second attempt on Kovalov’s life. In June, a bomb was placed in Kovalov’s car. Russian state media later posted a video of Kovalov from the hospital in which he blamed Ukraine’s security services.

Ukraine has said its partisan forces are an official part of its ministry of defence, formed in 2014 in order to disrupt the enemy if an area fell under occupation, said Serhii Kuzan, head of the Ukrainian Center for Security and Cooperation, a Ukrainian thinktank that specialises in military analysis. Ukrainian partisans are led and trained by Ukrainian special forces, who are responsible for carrying out the higher-level acts of subversion, said Kuzan.

While thousands joined Ukraine’s version of the home army, hundreds of people also volunteered to be trained as Ukrainian partisans, said Kuzan. Their task was to stay behind during an occupation, build networks of information, launch information campaigns and pass information back to the Ukrainian authorities. Their work also includes killing high-level political collaborators and the occupying commanders, he added.