Almost every Ukrainian knows someone who’s come under occupation since Russia started its war on Ukraine in 2014 and escalated it in February 2022.

Mariupol , Severodonetsk, Donetsk, Sevastopol, Berdyansk – this is a short list of Ukrainian cities that the Russians have taken over.

So how do you live under occupation without becoming a “collaborator?”

The answer to this question is especially crucial when, in some places, the situation is dire – with people lacking internet and phone service, working grocery stores, electricity, gas, and heat.

The Office of the Ukrainian Ombudsman for Human Rights Dmytro Lubinets told Kyiv Post that Ukrainian law is clear on what activities constitute “collaboration.”

If a Ukrainian publicly denies that Russia invaded the separate state of Ukraine or calls for cooperation with the Russians, they can be deprived of the right to hold certain positions in Ukrainian government for some 10-15 years. The same goes for if someone received a non-management position from the occupation authorities.

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However, when a person takes on a leadership position, teaches Russian propaganda, or participates in organizing illegal elections/referendums, they could face prison time in a future, liberated Ukraine.

The most severe punishment – imprisonment lasting from 15 years to life – is for actions that led to people’s deaths or caused other serious consequences.

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At the same time, the ombudsman said that there’s no definition for “collaborator” or “collaborationism” in Ukrainian law.

So, it’s up to state and law enforcement agencies relying on the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Internal Affairs to define.

Collaborators are considered those who knowingly and voluntarily cooperate with the enemy, to the detriment of the Ukrainian state.

For example, someone who heads an illegally-created Russian agency on occupied territory.

But if a person finds themselves under occupation and simply continues performing their duties and not harming Ukraine – or if they did something that harms Ukraine but did it under duress – this doesn’t make them a collaborator.

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What is okay to do?

Lubinets said that each case must be considered individually.

“The very fact that a person lived in the temporarily occupied territory or currently lives and earns a living there does not automatically equate to the fact that such a person is a collaborator,” he said.

“It’s up to law enforcement to decide whether there’s a suspicion that a person has been a collaborator. In the future, it will be up to the courts to decide if a suspicion is justified,” Lubinets said.

If a person receives a Russian pension, or Russian humanitarian aid, uses occupation authorities’ administrative services (because there is no access to the Ukrainian ones), this isn’t a crime, Lubinets added.

The same goes for obtaining Russian citizenship, which is something that can happen by force.

“People have no choice under occupation,” Lubinets said. "For example, they are not allowed to pass through checkpoints if they do not have a so-called ‘passport,’ they are not provided with medical assistance, and pensions are not paid.

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“All these actions are aimed at the fact that without a Russian passport our citizens are doomed to remain without the basic means of subsistence.

A man fills document to apply for new Russian passport at a centre in Melitopol in Zaporizhzhia region, on August 3, 2022, amid the ongoing Russian military action in Ukraine.STRINGER / AFP

“Therefore, the mere fact of obtaining a passport cannot be considered a crime. Ukraine does not recognize forced passporting in temporarily occupied territories and documents issued by the occupying power.”

A person can continue to work as a doctor, teacher, seller, etc., because the Geneva Convention on the Protection of the Civilian Population in Time of War of 1949, as well as additional protocols to it, ratified by Ukraine, do not contain a general ban on continued work in occupied territories.

But if, after liberation, law enforcement agencies receive evidence of other kinds of collaborative activities, there could be a criminal case.

“In each specific case, it is necessary to evaluate the continuation of the performance of labor duties by an employee under conditions of occupation, including whether physical and/or mental coercion was applied to them, or whether they committed actions that contain signs of criminal offenses provided for by the Criminal Code of Ukraine (for example, deliberate cooperation with the occupation authorities for the purpose of obtaining a leadership position or for political reasons, recognition of the occupation of the Russian Federation as legal, transfer of material resources, etc.),” the ombudsman said.

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It’s complicated if a person opens a business. For example, the most popular type of entrepreneurial activity in occupied territories is selling food products.

The Office of the Ombudsman said that conducting economic activities in cooperation with the aggressor state, illegal authorities created on the temporarily occupied territory, including the occupation administration of the aggressor state, is subject to criminal liability.

However: “A small and private business that does not contribute to the strengthening of the enemy and does not harm Ukraine's defense capabilities, or activities aimed at the survival of citizens under occupation, cannot be considered collaborationism,” Lubinets said.

Workers pour metal at a private Berdyansk foundry in Berdyansk, amid the ongoing Russian military action in Ukraine, on June 14, 2022.Yuri KADOBNOV / AFP

What should one not do?

The ombudsman also expressed his opinion regarding participation in illegal elections in the occupied territories, which Russia has already held twice – a “referendum” in September 2022 and “regional elections” in September 2023.

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The best solution is to refrain from participating in them, he said. Russia’s so-called “elections,” are a violation of a number of various international acts, including the goals and principles of the United Nations as enshrined in its Charter, Lubinets said.

But if a person is forced to vote at gunpoint, then it’s better to vote.

Human life is the most important thing, Lubinets said.

It is also best to avoid any contact with the Russian media – as one’s words could be manipulated and used against Ukraine, making you seem like a collaborator even if it wasn’t what you intended.

“Given the style of Russian propaganda, it is not difficult to predict,” Lubinets said.

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