While claiming to defend democracy, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky has outlawed his opposition, ordered his rivals’ arrest, and presided over the disappearance and assassination of dissidents across the country.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has framed his country’s war against Russia as a battle for democracy itself. In a carefully choreographed address to US Congress on March 16, Zelensky stated, “Right now, the destiny of our country is being decided. The destiny of our people, whether Ukrainians will be free, whether they will be able to preserve their democracy.”
US corporate media has responded by showering Zelensky with fawning press, driving a campaign for his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize and inspiring a flamboyant musical tribute to himself and the Ukrainian military during the 2022 Grammy awards ceremony on April 3.
Western media has looked the other way, however, as Zelensky and top officials in his administration have sanctioned a campaign of kidnapping, torture, and assassination of local Ukrainian lawmakers accused of collaborating with Russia. Several mayors and other Ukrainian officials have been killed since the outbreak of war, many reportedly by Ukrainian state agents after engaging in de-escalation talks with Russia.
“There is one less traitor in Ukraine,” Internal Affairs Ministry advisor Anton Geraschenko stated in endorsement of the murder of a Ukrainian mayor accused of collaborating with Russia.
Zelensky has further exploited the atmosphere of war to outlaw an array of opposition parties and order the arrest of his leading rivals. His authoritarian decrees have triggered the disappearance, torture and even murder of an array of human rights activists, communist and leftist organizers, journalists and government officials accused of “pro-Russian” sympathies.
The Ukrainian SBU security services has served as the enforcement arm of the officially authorized campaign of repression. With training from the CIA and close coordination with Ukraine’s state-backed neo-Nazi paramilitaries, the SBU has spent the past weeks filling its vast archipelago of torture dungeons with political dissidents.
On the battlefield, meanwhile, the Ukrainian military has engaged in a series of atrocities against captured Russian troops and proudly exhibited its sadistic acts on social media. Here too, the perpetrators of human rights abuses appear to have received approval from the upper echelons of Ukrainian leadership.
While Zelensky spouts bromides about the defense of democracy before worshipful Western audiences, he is using the war as a theater for enacting a blood-drenched purge of political rivals, dissidents and critics.
“The war is being used to kidnap, imprison and even kill opposition members who express themselves critical of the government,” a left-wing activist beaten and persecuted by Ukraine’s security services commented this April. “We must all fear for our freedom and our lives.”
Torture and enforced disappearances “common practices” of Ukraine’s SBU
When a US-backed government seized power in Kiev following the Euromaidan regime change operation of 2013-14, Ukraine’s government embarked on a nationwide purge of political elements deemed pro-Russian or insufficiently nationalistic. The passage of “decommunization” laws by the Ukrainian parliament further eased the persecution of leftist elements and the prosecution of activists for political speech.
The post-Maidan regime has focused its wrath on Ukrainians who have advocated a peace settlement with pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east, those who have documented human rights abuses by the Ukrainian military, and members of communist organizations. Dissident elements have faced the constant threat of ultra-nationalist violence, imprisonment, and even murder.
The Ukrainian security service known as the SBU has served as the main enforcer of the post-Maidan government’s campaign of domestic political repression. Pro-Western monitors including the United Nations Office of the High Commission (UN OHCR) and Human Rights Watch have accused the SBU of systematically torturing political opponents and Ukrainian dissidents with near-total impunity.
The UN OHCR found in 2016 that “arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment of such conflict-related detainees were common practice of SBU… A former Kharkiv SBU officer explained, ‘For the SBU, the law virtually does not exist as everything that is illegal can be either classified or explained by referring to state necessity.”
Yevhen Karas, the founder of the infamous neo-Nazi C14 unit, has detailed the close relationship his gang and other extreme right factions have enjoyed with the SBU. The SBU “informs not only us, but also Azov, the Right Sector, and so on,” Karas boasted in a 2017 interview.
Kiev officially endorses assassinating Ukrainian mayors for negotiating with Russia
Since Russia launched its military operation inside Ukraine, the SBU has hunted down local officials that decided to accept humanitarian supplies from Russia or negotiated with Russian forces to arrange corridors for civilian evacuations.
On March 1, for example, Volodymyr Strok, the mayor of the eastern city of Kreminna in the Ukrainian-controlled side of Lugansk, was kidnapped by men in military uniform, according to his wife, and shot in the heart.
On March 3, pictures of Strok’s visibly tortured body appeared. A day before his murder, Struk had reportedly urged his Ukrainian colleagues to negotiate with pro-Russian officials.
Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs, celebrated the mayor’s murder, declaring on his Telegram page (see below): “There is one less traitor in Ukraine. The mayor of Kreminna in Luhansk region, former deputy of Luhansk parliament was found killed.”
According to Geraschenko, Strok had been judged by the “court of the people’s tribunal.”
The Ukrainian official therefore delivered a chilling message to anyone choosing to seek cooperation with Russia: do so and lose your life.
On March 7, the mayor of Gostomel, Yuri Prylipko, was found murdered. Prylipko had reportedly entered into negotiations with the Russian military to organize a humanitarian corridor for the evacuation of his city’s residents – a red line for Ukrainian ultra-nationalists who had long been in conflict with the mayor’s office.
Next, on March 24, Gennady Matsegora, the mayor of Kupyansk in northeastern Ukraine, released a video (below) appealing to President Volodymyr Zelensky and his administration for the release of his daughter, who had been held hostage by agents of the Ukrainian SBU intelligence agency.
Then there was the murder of Denis Kireev, a top member of the Ukrainian negotiating team, who was killed in broad daylight in Kiev after the first round of talks with Russia. Kireev was subsequently accused in local Ukrainian media of “treason.”
President Volodymyr Zelensky’s statement that “there would be consequences for collaborators” indicates that these atrocities have been sanctioned by the highest levels of government.
As of today, eleven mayors from various towns in Ukraine are missing. Western media outlets have been following the Kiev line without exception, claiming that all mayors been arrested by the Russian military. The Russian Ministry of Defense has denied the charge, however, and little evidence exists to corroborate Kiev’s line about the missing mayors.
Zelensky outlaws political opposition, authorizes arrest of rivals and war propaganda blitz
When war erupted with Russia this February, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky issued a series of decrees formalizing Kiev’s campaign against political opposition and dissident speech.
In a March 19 executive order, Zelensky invoked martial law to ban 11 opposition parties. The outlawed parties consisted of the entire left-wing, socialist or anti-NATO spectrum in Ukraine. They included the For Life Party, the Left Opposition, the Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine, the Socialist Party of Ukraine, Union of Left Forces, Socialists, the Party of Shariy, Ours, State, Opposition Bloc and the Volodymyr Saldo Bloc.
Openly fascist and pro-Nazi parties like the Azov National Corps were left untouched by the presidential decree, however.
“The activities of those politicians aimed at division or collusion will not succeed, but will receive a harsh response,” President Zelensky stated.
As he wiped out his opposition, Zelensky ordered an unprecedented domestic propaganda initiative to nationalize all television news broadcasting and combine all channels into a single 24 hour channel called “United News” to “tell the truth about war.”
Next, on April 12, Zelensky announced the arrest of his principal political rival, Viktor Medvedchuk, by Ukraine’s SBU security services.
The founder of the second largest party in Ukraine, the now-illegal Patriots for Life, Medvedchuk is the de facto representative of the country’s ethnic Russian population. Though Patriots for Life is regarded as “pro-Russia,” in part because of his close relations with Vladimir Putin, the new chairman of the party has condemned Russia’s “aggression” against Ukraine.
Members of the state-sponsored neo-Nazi Azov Battalion’s National Corps attacked Medvedchuk’s home in March 2019, accusing him of treason and demanding his arrest.
In August 2020, Azov’s National Corps opened fire on a bus carrying representatives of Medvedchuk’s party, wounding several with rubber-coated steel bullets.
Zelensky’s administration escalated the assault on his top opponent in February 2021 when he shuttered several media outlets controlled by Medvedchuk. The US State Department openly endorsed the president’s move, declaring that the United States “supports Ukrainian efforts to counter Russia’s malign influence…”
Three months later, Kiev jailed Medvedchuk and charged him with treason. Zelensky justified locking away his leading rival on the grounds that he needed to “fight against the danger of Russian aggression in the information arena.”
Medvedchuk escaped house arrest at the onset of the war between Russia and Ukraine, but is a captive once again, and may be used as collateral for a post-war prisoner swap with Russia.
Under Zelensky’s watch, “the war is being used to kidnap, imprison and even kill opposition members”
Since Russian troops entered Ukraine on February 24, Ukraine’s SBU security service had been on a rampage against any and all iterations of internal political opposition. Leftist Ukrainian activists have faced particularly harsh treatment, including kidnapping and torture.
This March 3 in the city of Dnipro, SBU officers accompanied by Azov ultra-nationalists raided the home of activists with the Livizja (Left) organization, which has organized against social spending cuts and right-wing media propaganda. While one activist said the Azov member “cut my hair off with a knife,” the state security agents proceeded to torture her husband, Alexander Matjuschenko, pressing a gun barrel to his head and forcing him to repeatedly belt out the nationalist salute, “Slava Ukraini!”
“Then they put bags over our heads, tied our hands with tape and took us to the SBU building in a car. There they continued to interrogate us and threatened to cut off our ears,” Matjuschenko’s wife told the leftist German publication Junge Welt.
The Azov members and SBU agents recorded the torture session and published images of Matjuschenko’s bloodied face online.
Perhaps the most ghastly incident of repression took place when neo-Nazis backed by the Ukrainian government kidnapped Maxim Ryndovskiy, a professional MMA fighter, and brutally tortured him for the crime of training with Russian fighters at a gym in Chechnya. Ryndovskiy also happened to be Jewish, with a Star of David tattooed on his leg, and had spoken out on social media against the war in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s SBU has even hunted opposition figures outside the country’s borders. As journalist Dan Cohen reported, Anatoly Shariy of the recently banned Party of Shariy said he was the target of a recent SBU assassination attempt. Shariy has been an outspoken opponent of the US-backed Maidan regime, and has been forced to flee into exile after enduring years of harassment from nationalists.
This March, the libertarian politician and online pundit received an email from a friend, “Igor,” seeking to arrange a meeting. He subsequently learned that Igor was held by the SBU at the time and being used to bait Shariy into disclosing his location.
For his part, Shariy has been placed on the notorious Myrotvorets public blacklist of “enemies of the state” founded by Anton Geraschenko – the Ministry of Internal Affairs advisor who endorsed the assassination of Ukrainian lawmakers accused of Russian sympathies. Several journalists and Ukrainian dissidents, including the prominent columnist Oles Buzina, were murdered by state-backed death squads after their names appeared on the list.
Common Ukrainian citizens have also been subjected to torture since the start of the war this February. Seemingly countless videos have appeared on social media showing civilians tied to lamp posts, often with their genitals exposed or their faces painted green. Carried out by Territorial Defense volunteers tasked with enforcing law and order during wartime, these acts of humiliation and torture have targeted everyone from accused Russian sympathizers to Roma people to alleged thieves.
Journalist Dan Cohen interviewed a Ukrainian businessman named Igor who was arrested by the SBU for his financial ties with Russian companies and detained this March in the security service’s notorious headquarters in downtown Kiev. Igor said he overheard Russian POWs being beaten with pipes by Territorial Defense volunteers being coached by SBU officers. Pummeled to the sound of the Ukrainian national anthem, the Russian prisoners were brutalized until they confessed their hatred for Putin.
Then came Igor’s turn. “They used a lighter to heat up a needle, then put it under my fingernails,” he told Cohen. “The worst was when they put a plastic bag over my head and suffocated me and when they held the muzzle of a Kalashnikov rifle to my head and forced me to answer their questions.”
Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, the first head of the SBU after the Euromaidan regime change operation of 2013-14, nurtured close ties to Washington when he served as general consul to the Ukrainian embassy to the US during the George W. Bush administration. During that time, Nalyvaichenko was recruited by the CIA, according to his predecessor at the SBU, Alexander Yakimenko, who served under the Russian-oriented government of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych.
In 2021, Zelensky appointed one of Ukraine’s most notorious intelligence figures, Oleksander Poklad, to lead SBU’s counterintelligence division. Poklad is nicknamed “The Strangler,” a reference to his reputation for using torture and assorted dirty tricks to set-up his bosses’ political rivals on treason charges.
This April, a vivid illustration of the SBU’s brutality emerged in the form of video (below) showing its agents pummeling a group of men accused of Russian sympathies in the city of Dnipro.
“We will never take Russian soldiers prisoner”: Ukraine’s military flaunts its war crimes
While the Western media has focused squarely on alleged Russian human rights abuses since the outbreak of war, Ukrainian soldiers and pro-Ukrainian social media accounts have proudly exhibited sadistic war crimes, from field executions to the torture of captive soldiers.
Ukrainian soldiers’ use of the cellphones of dead Russian soldiers to mock and hector their relatives appears to be a common practice. In fact, the Ukrainian government has begun using notoriously invasive facial recognition technology from Clearview AI, a US tech company, to identify Russian casualties and taunt their relatives on social media.
Video has also emerged this April showing Ukrainian soldiers shooting defenseless Russian POWs in the legs outside the city of Kharkov. A separate video published by Ukrainian and US-backed Georgian Legion soldiers showed the fighters carrying out field executions of wounded Russian captives near a village outside Kiev.
It is likely that these soldiers had been emboldened by their superiors’ blessings. Mamula Mamulashvili, the commander of the Georgian Legion, which participated in the field executions of wounded Russian POW’s, boasted this April that his unit freely engages in war crimes: “Yes, we tie their hands and feet sometimes. I speak for the Georgian Legion, we will never take Russian soldiers prisoner. Not a single one of them will be taken prisoner.”
Similarly, Gennadiy Druzenko, the head of the Ukrainian military medical service, stated in an interview with Ukraine 24 that he “issued an order to castrate all Russian men because they were subhuman and worse than cockroaches.”
Ukrainian officials present woman tortured and killed by Azov as victim of Russia
While Western media homes in on Russian human rights violations at home and inside Ukraine, the Ukrainian government has authorized a propaganda campaign known as “Total War” that includes the planting of bogus images and false stories to further implicate Russia.
In one especially cynical example of the strategy, Ukraine 24 – a TV channel where guests have called for the genocidal extermination of Russian children – published a photo this April depicting a female corpse branded with a bloody swastika on her stomach. Ukraine 24 claimed that it found this woman in Gostumel, one of the regions in the Kiev Oblast that the Russians vacated on March 29.
Lesia Vasylenko, a Ukrainian member of parliament, and Oleksiy Arestovych, the top advisor to President Zelensky, published the photo of the defiled female corpse on social media. While Vasylenko left the photo online, Arestovych deleted it eight hours after posting when confronted with the fact that he had published a fake.
In fact, the image was pulled from footage originally recorded by Patrick Lancaster, a Donetsk-based US journalist who had filmed the corpse of a woman tortured and murdered by members of the Ukrainian Azov Battalion in a Mariupol school basement they had converted into a base.
As weapons pour into Ukraine from NATO states and the war intensifies, the atrocities are almost certain to pile up – and with the blessing of leadership in Kiev. As Zelensky proclaimed during a visit to the city of Bucha this April, “if we do not find a civilized way out, you know our people – they will find an uncivilized way out.”