Evidence against the Kherson police collaborators began to be gathered back in May 2022. The case files included more than 20 alleged defectors. The information was received from various sources - publications on the Internet, including the Telegram channel of the "Head Office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in the Kherson Region", and eyewitness testimonies.
On November 11, 2022, Ukrainian forces freed Kherson and the locals became subject to prosecution. Many collaborators fled with the Russians, some out of fear of future accountability, and others probably out of ideological support. However, there were those who did not leave.
Last January, 58-year-old Viktor Kyrylov went to Mykolaiv at the request of an investigator. He was checked through databases and it was found that the man worked as a police driver in the Kherson police under the occupiers’ authority. A couple of weeks later, investigators also identified Viktor Kozodoy. When he met with law enforcement, he wrote a statement of voluntary surrender.
If not for a wartime amendment of Ukraine’s Criminal Code, people like Kyrylov and Kozodoy could have been tried for treason, which under martial law results in 15 years in prison or even a life sentence. But in March 2022, in the first days of Russia's full-scale invasion, the Ukrainian parliament approved a new article of the Criminal Code regarding collaborationism, establishing various forms of cooperation with the enemy and, consequently, less severe punishments in some cases, including some with no prison term. (Since Russia’s invasion in February 2022, Ukraine’s Criminal Code has been amended 18 times and the Code of Criminal Procedure 20 times, more than at any time before the war.) But the leniency does not significantly affect the cases of employment in an illegal law enforcement agency in occupied territories. Such actions are punishable by 12 to 15 years in prison.
"It’s not like I was fighting against Ukraine"
On March 29-30, the cases of Kyrylov and Kozodoy were heard in the Shevchenkivskyi District Court of Kyiv. The two men admitted that they had worked during the occupation, agreed that they were guilty of something, but were eventually shocked by the severity of the punishment. They said that they were only drivers in the police.
According to the prosecutor, the illegally created law enforcement agencies helped the occupation authorities. They were fully controlled by the Russian Federation and assisted the Russian Armed Forces in crimes and war against Ukraine.
From 1995 to 2010, Viktor Kyrylov had worked in the Ukrainian police as a patrol inspector, before he retired. After Russia’s invasion, he said that an acquaintance of his worked in the police under the occupiers’ authority and offered him a position as a driver. On June 16, 2022, in Russian-occupied Kherson, he was employed as a police driver in the "guard unit of the Korabelnyi city police department", a law enforcement agency created by the occupiers and considered illegal by Ukraine’s authorities.
"I worked as a driver, drove an investigation team, repaired cars. The situation was difficult. There was no work. There was banditry and marauding. I thought I was helping people of Kherson to protect public order," Kyrylov said. "We did community protection, we didn't relate to Russia. We responded to family scandals, robberies, marauding. We were not chasing guerrillas. The military commandant's office and the FSB [Russia’s intelligence services] were in charge of that, we had nothing to do with it. It's not like I was fighting against Ukraine. I was just a driver... I am not an investigator, I am not an operative."
500 dollars a month
"They could have been transporting detainees, those tortured or killed. We do not know this, we do not accuse [them] of this. But it was one mechanism. The driver is also a part of this mechanism. You did not go on calls with the investigative team just as a driver. You know that, because you worked [in the police]," the prosecutor told Kyrylov.
"I did not pass certification there due to my age. I am not certified. I can't be a police officer," the accused tried to argue.
"What certification? This is an illegal fake authority!" the prosecutor replied.
When questioned by the prosecutor, Kyrylov said that he was given a weapon only by the end of his service. "They made me take a gun," he said.
The man was paid 40,000 Russian rubles (about 500 US dollars) a month. He was not receiving his Ukrainian pension because ATMs were not working. After the liberation of the city, Kyrylov stayed, he did not flee to the occupied territories or to Russia, he did not go to the "other side" because he did not consider himself a collaborator. He was first interrogated in November 2022 and then released. He was served with a notice of suspicion only two months later.
Kyrylov helped the investigation by identifying three other people like him who had been employed by the occupiers. But he claims that during the occupation of Kherson he had no idea that he was breaking the law. His service car still had Ukrainian license plates. He did not receive a Russian passport. Local Ukrainians worked alongside him. However, hoping for a lighter sentence, the man still has to admit that his "department" was subordinate to the Russian police.
Looking for a lenient sentence
Kyrylov did not object to a simplified trial, without examining all the evidence. It was explained to him that he would not be able to appeal the verdict on the factual circumstances that were not examined in the court hearing. Having pleaded guilty, Kyrylov still tried to justify himself, and sometimes contradicted his own statements. While he said that he allegedly did not know that he was not just a driver but a law enforcement officer, he also insisted on the fact that he was engaged in the protection of public order in the occupied city.
"I served the purpose of protecting public order in the city of Kherson from these bandits," Kyrylov explained.
"From what bandits?" the judge asked.
"There was no authority there. The occupiers didn't care about that. They were minding their own business."
"How many of them were arrested?"
"They were repressed, yes. But the courts did not work, of course. Robberies - yes..." (indistinct)
"Illegal handling of weapons - has anyone been arrested?"
"It wasn't us..."
"How effective was your unit?"
"A call would be received by the duty department: "Grandma has died". We would go to make a report. Someone had a fight - we would go and make a report."
Kyrylov asked for a shorter prison term than the law prescribes.
"Given my age, I will never get out of prison. I will already be over 70. But I am very remorseful," he said.
"A dead-end situation"
Before the Russian invasion, Viktor Kozodoy worked in a car repair shop. But he is also a former police officer of the Kherson patrol service. In December 2008, he was sentenced to 3 years in prison for “abuse of power by a law enforcement officer”. He was released on parole after serving just over 10 months behind bars.
From August 2, 2022, under the occupation, Kozodoy took the position of a police driver in the same unit as Kyrylov. He is believed to have continued working there until November 11, the day of the official liberation of Kherson.
"During the occupation, I took a job. [It was] a dead-end situation," he told the court.
"Do you admit that you were a police officer?" the judge asked.
"I had no documents, I had nothing as a police officer," Kozodoy replied.
"So, you don't admit that you were holding the position of a police officer?"
"The guilt is that I took a job."
"A police driver."
Kozodoy explained that he was unable to evacuate during the occupation, nor to take his sick mother away with him. Russians were shooting at cars and it was dangerous to leave. He and his wife lost their jobs, and his mother was not receiving her pension because the post office was not working. Kyrylov was the one who approached him about joining the police under occupation. He worked in shifts - one day and then two days off - and drove investigators in response to calls. He says that they often went to places where people had died of natural causes and had been lying in their apartment for several months. Police officers would report the incident and call for a mortician.
Pointing to collaborators
Kozodoy said that the first time he was paid 37,000 rubles, then another 50,000 for two months, and then the occupiers’ administration began to "evacuate" from Kherson.
"Did you realize that you joined the agency of an enemy country?" the judge asked.
"A dead-end situation," the accused repeated.
"And how many people worked in this department?"
"About 20 people."
"How many people remained in Kherson during the occupation?"
"During the occupation? The last I knew, there were 60,000."
"And 20 were in the most desperate situation [to agree to work for the police]?"
"At that time, many went to work as security guards, on the railroad, and in the police."
Kozodoy said that as soon as the city was liberated, he immediately approached people in military uniforms and asked them what to do. On January 29, 2023, SBU [Ukraine’s investigation branch] officers came to his house during a check in the city. In the course of this meeting, the man wrote a six-page confession. Just like Kyrylov, he pointed out to the investigators several local residents who also collaborated with the occupiers.
Kozodoy lived in Kherson in civil partnership with a woman and her two children, and also took care of his disabled mother. He received a positive personal assessment from the condominium board members. The defendant's partner addressed the court and said that he was a caring father and son.
"He suggested we leave. But I have a dog, a cat. His mom doesn't walk, there's no way we could have taken her. And when we decided and were ready to leave, it was already too dangerous. He was not setting anyone against Ukraine. We were waiting for them to liberate us," said his partner.
When Kozodoy heard that the prosecutor was requesting 12 years and six months in prison, he was at a loss for words. His lawyer, referring to the difficult life circumstances and his client’s cooperation with the investigation, dared to ask for a 5-year probation.
After the judge went to the deliberation room, the defense lawyer did not hide his disappointment: Kozodoy should have spoken more persuasively at the hearing, expressed regret for what he had done, and not remain silent.
Kyrylov was sentenced to 12 years and six months in prison, and Kozodoy to 12 years. They have the right to appeal the severity of this punishment. When Kozodoy’s lawyer asked whether to file an appeal against the verdict, Kozodoy sighed and said that it was useless and that instead he should be sent to the 90th correctional facility in Kherson, where the hostilities are still ongoing. The prosecutor indicated that this facility is currently not working.
This report is part of our coverage of war crimes justice produced in partnership with Ukrainian journalists. A first version of this article was published on the "Sudovyi Reporter" website.