He faced a police investigation over an alleged contract killing, but Volodymyr Saldo is now beyond the reach of Ukrainian law
19 December 2023
The Russians were Volodymyr Saldo’s salvation. The wealthy Ukrainian in his 50s had done a stint in the national parliament and won three terms as the mayor of the southern city of Kherson, but at the start of 2022 police had opened a case against him for ordering a contract killing. “I wanted to jail him,” says Oleksandr Prokudin, Kherson’s police chief at the time and now the city’s governor, sitting in the basement he uses for meetings since the Russians blew the roof off his office.
Detectives had found the intermediary they suspected of sending gangland assassins to shoot one of Saldo’s enemies. And the intermediary had told them it was Saldo who had paid for the hit, Prokudin says. “Then the war happened.”
Today, Saldo is beyond the reach of Ukrainian law. He is once again a powerful politician – Vladimir Putin’s chosen ruler of the occupied territory that lies across the river from Kherson. From there, shells, bombs and mortars rain down ceaselessly on the city he used to run.
A Guardian investigation into Saldo’s regime reveals how, under the banner of Russian nationalism, the invaders and their collaborators appear to be using terror tactics to construct on Ukrainian soil an extension of the gangster state Putin has built at home, where cronies grow rich and dissent is punished.
With the frontline in the war looking deadlocked – and with influential westerners calling on Ukraine to surrender occupied lands to Putin as the price of peace – it is a regime under which millions of Ukrainians may be condemned to live for years.
A system of traitors
Few dare speak openly of life under Saldo. “It’s like Stalin’s regime,” says Serhiy Khlan, a former Kherson councillor who now lives in Kyiv. He reports what his contacts still in occupied territory tell him. “If we are all sitting and telling stories and someone says, ‘Fuck Russia!’ someone will call and tell the Russians. It’s a system of traitors, of whispering, of denunciation.”
An account by a person deep inside occupied Kherson reached by the Guardian through an intermediary depicts a similar picture of extreme repression. Yuri – not their real name – says the regime continues to carry out the “filtration” that began after the invasion. This, says Yuri, involves “searches at key transportation crossroads, constant raids, and phone checks”.
The only phone networks available are Russian ones, known to be equipped with devices that allow the authorities to listen in. The intensity of arrests has decreased, Yuri says, but the occupation’s security services sometimes fabricate cases against Ukrainians so they have someone to detain.
A key part of Saldo’s role, says Yuri, is propaganda. His Telegram feed broadcasts Putin’s fiction that the goal of Russia’s “special military operation” is to free Ukrainians from their fascist overlords. “The groups of people cheerfully greeting the Ukro-nazis in Kherson’s central square were staged for the media,” read one of Saldo’s posts after Ukrainian forces liberated Kherson city a year ago, forcing Russia back to the eastern shore of the Dnipro river. Extras were bussed in, Saldo claimed. “Kherson residents are afraid of Ukrainian soldiers. Armed representatives of the Kyiv regime are massacring civilians suspected of sympathising with Russia.” While it is true that there have been reprisals against collaborators in liberated Kherson, it is the Russians and their accomplices who have killed civilians in their thousands across Ukraine.
The difficulty for Saldo, especially before the occupiers finessed their surveillance operation, was that Ukrainians in his territory still had access to reality, through their private conversations and their phones. The reality of Bucha, for instance, the Kyiv suburb where the Russians killed dozens of captives and consigned their bodies to mass graves. So reality had to change.
One day in the early weeks of the occupation, Serhiy Tsygipa, a retired grandfather, set off on foot from his home in eastern Kherson region to deliver supplies to the next town. He took his dog, Ice, a boxer named for the white patch on its chest. An ardent patriot, Serhiy had worked as a journalist and political consultant and served in the military. When Russian troops descended, he posted details of their movements on his Facebook page. “It was important to him to keep the world informed about what was happening in this little place,” says his wife, Olena. Serhiy did not come home. The Russians, Olena learned, stopped him at a checkpoint. She found Ice tethered near the municipal building they were using as a detention centre.
Olena was told that her husband had been taken to a jail in Crimea, the nearby peninsula Russia seized in 2014, and sentenced to 13 years for espionage under the Russian criminal code.
One day a video of Serhiy appeared on YouTube. He was wearing a fresh shirt but his eye was bruised. Speaking into the camera, he declared that there had been no massacre at Bucha – just a “psychological operation” by the Ukrainians using bodies from a morgue.
Olena has received letters that she believes have been smuggled out on behalf of her husband. Some are oblique, written like poems. In one, he says he spat in his tormentor’s face. Olena finds its title baffling: “Call to the office of the president of Ukraine.” The accounts of former detainees in liberated Kherson city help to decipher the message. The torturers had electrical cables. They would clip them to bodies and turn on the current. A “call to Zelensky”, Ukraine’s president, meant attaching the wires to the victim’s genitals. Attaching them to the anus was known as a “call to Biden”. Sometimes they would douse the prisoner’s flesh with water first, to make it conduct the shocks better.
Welcoming the Russians
Even without the police investigation, in the years before the war Saldo’s political career had been waning. His term in parliament was cut short when Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, to whose party Saldo belonged, was overthrown in 2014. Two years later, Saldo was detained in the Dominican Republic. When he got home, he claimed that a Kherson businessman had lured him there, handcuffed him to a bed and extorted a payoff with a stun gun. It was this businessman’s brother who would later be killed, allegedly on Saldo’s orders.
The ordeal left him bitter, one of Saldo’s former lovers says, compounding the strife of two cancer operations. He tried and failed to win back the Kherson mayoralty. But he still enjoyed the support of Russia.
In 2016, a recording was posted online of Saldo discussing his relationship with the FSB, Russia’s security service. He describes meetings in Crimea with his handler. “The main thing is to provide information about what is happening on the ground, about public sentiment, about protests, what they worry about. And if they do decide to enter Kherson, they will need reliable people.” A person close to Saldo confirmed to the Guardian that the voice is his; Saldo has claimed it was stitched together from recordings of his speech.
When the invasion came, Saldo went to ground for two weeks. As Putin’s forces advanced on Kyiv, he resurfaced to give a speech flanked with Soviet flags at a small rally welcoming the Russians. The next month, Saldo was appointed Kherson’s gauleiter.
The Russians set about organising a local version of the FSB. Called the GSB, or Government Security Service, it was staffed by both Russians and Ukrainians and headed by a man who had served as a Ukrainian intelligence chief in the pro-Russian Yanukovych regime. Saldo gave the GSB premises they converted into torture chambers and oversaw the budget that Moscow sent, Ukrainian prosecutors say.
According to the war crimes proceedings Ukrainian prosecutors recently opened against Saldo, among other alleged offences he ordered the torture of a farmer in rural Kherson. The purpose of this torture, which the farmer alleged to the Guardian, was seemingly not to gain military intelligence, identify Ukrainian partisans, or extract some false confession for propaganda purposes. It appeared instead to be to force the farmer to sign over his farm. What this suggests is that another endeavour appears to be driving Saldo’s regime: pillage.
On a recent Wednesday morning, one of the shells that landed on Kherson city fell between a florist’s and a block of flats. A council worker was walking nearby. Her body fell by the side of the road. The endless deaths of his former constituents, Saldo proclaims in his speeches and posts, are a sacrifice for the glory of the Russian Motherland. But over a coffee a few yards from the crater, a local politician who tussled with him for years believes his old adversary’s motivations are unchanged. “Saldo,” says Victor Bogdanov, “is always about money.”
For decades, the Kremlin has exploited Ukraine’s Achilles heel: corruption. From dirty gas and steel deals with Ukrainian oligarchs to subverting anti-corruption campaigns by exploiting the resultant scandals, the Russians have capitalised on a great weakness in Ukraine’s young
democracy. In Saldo, whose appetite for kickbacks earned him the nickname Mr Fifty Percent, it would seem they found a natural partner.
Saldo secured the Russians’ blessing for illicit money-making by cutting them in. One of the schemes he is alleged to have overseen involved stacks of Ukrainian currency left in the vaults of Kherson’s banks. Bank staff had punched holes in them as the Russian forces invaded. According to Oleksandr Vlasov, a Kherson entrepreneur who says he was invited to join the scheme, Saldo told one of his deputies to find ways to exchange the equivalent of $5m in damaged bills for valid tender. Vlasov says the deputy told him FSB officers in Kherson had given Saldo permission for this provided he split the proceeds with them 50-50.
Vlasov declined to take part but said the deputy told him later he had successfully laundered the damaged bills, including by having couriers take them into unoccupied Ukraine to feed into pre-payment machines. Parts of his account tally with a report by Most, a Kherson publication.
Corruption in Saldo’s regime extends down to the basements where detainees are taken. Andriy Kovalenko is a local prosecutor whose team has documented 19,000 war crimes in the region since the invasion. In the streets around his sandbagged office in Kherson city, he points to the spots where fellow residents’ lives ended abruptly. At one, a bunch of flowers lies on a bench. He says those overseeing the torture chambers “organised a scheme where they would call the relatives and say: ‘Your guy is detained. Give me money and we’ll let him out.’”
But the biggest money-spinner appears to be grain. Ukraine is one of the biggest exporters in the world. Occupied territory accounts for about a quarter of the annual harvest. Ukrainian criminal filings, witness accounts and corporate records appear to show connections between grain-supply contracts Saldo’s authorities have signed and Russian commodity ventures linked to the personal business interests of Putin’s circle.
Bitten by a racoon
At the end of August, Saldo made his latest visit to the Kremlin with an update on the eastern Kherson region – now formally a Russian province following a sham referendum. He told Putin about the aftermath of the flood caused by the destruction of the Kakhovka dam on the Dinpro. The evidence strongly indicates that the Russians, who controlled the area, were responsible. “This was a despicable act by the Kyiv authorities,” Saldo declared, according to a Kremlin transcript. However, Saldo told Putin, “this disaster rallied us together even more, and we became even more confident that Russia is a great country that leaves no one behind.” Putin congratulated Saldo on his efforts, including a healthy grain harvest.
In November, a Ukrainian court convicted Saldo of treason in absentia. The sentence is 15 years. For now he is protected by Russian forces, minefields and fear. Even the sanctions the UK has imposed on him appear to have scant effect.
And yet Saldo cannot feel secure. So far, he has dodged attempts to administer summary justice with poison and missiles. But in the kind of gangster state he is helping to build, no one is safe.
Recently, Saldo visited Russian troops to meet their mascot, a racoon seized from Kherson’s zoo during the retreat across the Dnipro. The creature came to symbolise the occupiers’ readiness to steal anything and everything. Saldo chatted jovially with the soldiers, then went to stroke the racoon. It bit him.
Tom Burgis is a bestselling author and award-winning investigative reporter. His latest book, Kleptopia: How dirty money is conquering the world, was published in 2020 and became an international bestseller. It exposes the hidden connections that link a massacre on the Kazakh steppe and a stolen election in Zimbabwe to the City of London and the White House. The book shows how the world’s kleptocrats – those who rule through corruption – are uniting and threaten to overwhelm democracy. After abandoning early efforts as a wandering poet, Tom served as a foreign correspondent in South America and Africa. He spent 16 years at the Financial Times, including as a long-standing member of the investigations team. He has exposed corruption scandals, covered terrorist attacks, coups, neo-Nazis and forgotten conflicts, and traced dirty money around the world. His journalism has won awards in the US, UK and Asia. In 2023 he joined The Guardian as an investigation’s correspondent.