It was in a letter addressed to the UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet last weekend that a stark and unnerving warning about the Russian invasion of Ukraine was delivered.
“We have credible information that indicates Russian forces are creating lists of identified Ukrainians to be killed or sent to camps following a military occupation,” read the note written by the U.S. Representative to the UN’s European Office, Bathsheba Nell Crocker.
The letter would list Russian and Belarusian dissidents in exile in Ukraine, journalists and anti-corruption activists, and religious and ethnic minorities and LGBTQ persons as among those with the potential to be targeted under the guise of Russia’s campaign of “de-Nazification” in Ukraine.
Now, with Russia having launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in the early hours of Feb. 24, and Russian troops approaching Kyiv, the warnings outlined in the letter have taken on greater urgency as streams of people flee the country’s besieged cosmopolitan capital seeking refuge.
With territories in Ukraine’s east—controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists since 2014—offering a disturbing insight into the potential risks faced by citizens in a Russian-occupied Ukraine, journalists and activists on the ground expressed deep concern, as the threat of a nationwide, Russian-led regime looms overhead.
“Ukraine, honestly, is going through a nightmare right now,” Ivan Verstyuk, an editor at independent Ukrainian news magazine NV, told VICE World News. “Personal safety is a primary concern for all of the Ukrainian journalists.” He cited reports that “Russia will be targeting opinion leaders, activists and journalists on the territories it aims to occupy.”
“If Russia occupies a large part of the country or installs a puppet regime obviously there will be no press freedom in the occupied territories. It’s just impossible to imagine how totalitarian that regime would be.”
In a statement released on Feb. 24, press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) highlighted that journalists are “prime targets” in Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine.
“There are journalists who fear retaliation—the information battlefield is very important for Moscow. Americans have said that there are journalists on the [Russian] ‘kill list’,” Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, told VICE World News.
Oleg Sukhov, a Russian journalist who migrated to Ukraine in 2014 amid crackdowns on independent media in Russia, said he had relocated to the western part of the country when alarm bells were ringing of a Russian invasion. The Kyiv Independent reporter said it will be practically impossible to be a journalist in Russian-occupied Ukraine, and that being jailed would be the “best case scenario.”
“If Russia occupies a large part of the country or installs a puppet regime obviously there will be no press freedom in the occupied territories,” said Sukhov, who added that Russian rule would see freedom of speech “destroyed completely.”
“It’s just impossible to imagine how totalitarian that regime would be.”
According to the UN human rights office, civic activism and press freedom has been severely curtailed in Russia-occupied Crimea since 2014, with journalists and bloggers critical of the government targeted through surveillance, arrests, and deportation.
Last year, a freelance correspondent in Crimea was tortured in detention after being arrested on the suspicion that he was working for Ukrainian intelligence. Meanwhile, Luhansk and Donetsk, cities ruled by pro-Russian separatists since 2014, have also seen arbitrary detention of critics—especially human rights activists and those with dissident views—within a political atmosphere that some deem even more repressive than Russia’s.
Even before the invasion, Kremlin-backed agents operated with relative impunity in dispatching exiled Russian and Belarusian dissidents in Ukraine. In 2017, Denis Voronenkov, a Russian lawmaker and exiled critic of President Vladimir Putin, was shot dead at point-blank range in a brazen assassination in broad daylight on the streets of Kyiv.
Then, a Belarusian activist living in Ukraine was found hanging from a tree in a park in Kyiv last year, a suspected victim of murder. He was the director of a non-governmental organization that helps those who have fled Belarus, a totalitarian state bordering Ukraine that acts as a puppet of Russia.
It’s this political violence and suppression that many anticipate will now become common-place in a Russian-controlled Ukraine, and since yesterday’s invasion, individuals and companies have sprung to action to safeguard citizens.
Twitter has tweeted out a Ukrainian-language guide on changing the privacy settings of profiles for Ukrainians, including how to deactivate accounts, for anyone who might have posted sensitive content fearing for their safety. Offers have also been made to provide free VPN accounts and IT infrastructure for journalists and news agencies to continue operating.
Meanwhile, Facebook’s head of security policy announced a new feature in Ukraine that allows users to lock their profile with just one click—a tool that they’ve previously provided in Afghanistan. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, has also set up a special operations center to monitor the crisis in Ukraine.
But these online safeguards offer only a limited amount of real-life protection for the millions of Ukrainians used to airing their views freely.
Uliana Pcholkina is a finalist at Miss Wheelchair World 2017, and has in recent years used her platform to advocate for LGBTQ and disability rights, as well as criticize Russia’s role in stoking war in eastern Ukraine.
Taking shelter in the bathroom of her apartment on the outskirts of Kyiv, Pcholkina and her husband, also a wheelchair user, are unable to leave to seek refuge in bomb shelters due to mobility issues.
They have little choice but to sit and wait as the sound of fighting draws nearer to their home and Russian troops advance into their city—and with it, a likely end to her ability, as well as that of millions of other Ukrainians, to publicly air her views.
“Now active Russian citizens protesting are being beaten and arrested. We will just be killed,” Pcholkina said in a voice note to VICE World News. “I believe that we will simply be destroyed as active citizens.
Follow Alastair McCready on Twitter.