war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Moscow revives Stalin’s SMERSH to hunt down resistance in occupied Ukraine

Halya Coynash
The announced hunt for ‘saboteurs and spies’ is the latest form of terror against Ukrainians living in their own country and persecuted for as little as demonstrating the Ukrainian flag or saying ‘Glory to Ukraine!”

SMERSH ’arrest’ from the video that appeared, supposedly of an arrest in Belgorod

SMERSH ’arrest’ from the video that appeared, supposedly of an arrest in Belgorod

Moves appear to be underway in Russia to formally reinstate the notorious Stalin-era SMERSH ‘counterintelligence’ units, with the aim being to fight supposed ‘saboteurs and spies’, especially in occupied parts of Ukraine.  There are no grounds for doubting that this is envisaged as an additional weapon of terror directed against Ukrainian resistance and Ukrainian identity since this is exactly the role played by Crimean SMERSH since 2022.  The latter is purportedly an initiative group with no official status, however its ‘vigilantes’ clearly collaborate closely with Russian enforcement bodies. At least one other SMERSH unit has already appeared in occupied Zaporizhzhia oblast, with this also on the hunt for Ukrainians openly supporting their own country.

On 4 December 2023, Russian Duma deputy Andrei Gurulev, a lieutenant general on the Duma defence committee, announced the creation of SMERSH in occupied parts of Ukraine (he used the aggressor state’s term ‘Russia’s new regions’).  The aim of SMERSH, he claimed, was “to fight saboteurs and spies” and he called for SMERSH to be revived throughout Russia.  While the security service is working all out, he wrote, they could miss something, and claimed that there are internal enemies acting against Russia’s interests “with the help of Western security services”.  Although both Russian-installed Crimean leader Sergei Aksyonov and Yan Gagin from the Russian proxy ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ were cited as having called for such units, this was seemingly the first time that a Russian official said that SMERSH was already functioning in occupied parts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts.

In January 2024, a video was broadcast of a man ‘confessing’ to having broadcast details about Russian air defence in Belgorod.  He was between two men in uniform with the word SMERSH on the back.

Such ‘videoed confessions’ are precisely what Crimean SMERSH regularly produces, with such ‘confessions’ taking place in rooms that look like police offices.

The reinstatement of SMERSH was noted on 8 January 2024 by the United Kingdom’s Defence Ministry.  It stated that it was, as yet, “unclear whether the new name indicates any significantly new capabilities or role for Russian counterintelligence functions, or whether it is merely a re-badging. However it is another example of how the Russian authorities consciously couch the Russia-Ukraine conflict in the spirit of the Second World War, and their strong focus on the supposed infiltration of external threats into the country". 

SMERSH [a kind of abbreviation for ‘death to spies’] took over the supposed hunt for ‘German spies’ inside the Soviet Union from the NKVD in 1943.  From then until it was formally disbanded in 1946, SMERSH hunted for ‘spies’ much as the NKVD had earlier hunted for ‘enemies of the people’, monitoring whether people were suitably ‘patriotic’ and generally instilling terror.  It reportedly arrested almost 600 thousand Soviet soldiers, with most probably targeted not as spies, but because they had tried to injure themselves to escape the front, deserted, or were simply viewed as ‘politically unreliable’. 

In announcing the creation of SMERSH formations in occupied Ukraine, Gurulev said that they would work in much the same way there as had the Stalin-era original. 

There is every reason to believe that this is no empty threat, however it remains to be seen whether the FSB are willing to give up any of their politically motivated arrests of Ukrainians on ‘sabotage’ or ‘spying’ charges.  These are easy ways for the FSB to get ‘good statistics’ and, probably, bonuses, so they may well jealously guard ‘their patch’. 

At present Crimean SMERSH is hunting any Crimeans who express pro-Ukrainian views and the latter are likely to be the main target of any new ‘SMERSH’ groups.  Notorious collaborator Alexander Talipov and his ilk evidently work hand in hand with the occupation police or FSB, with their victims tortured or terrorized into making ‘public apologies’ on video, with these generally coinciding with news that the person is facing at least administrative, if not criminal, charges (details here).  The Ukrainians are denounced and persecuted for as little as a Ukrainian flag in the window, singing or playing a Ukrainian song, saying ‘Glory to Ukraine!” or telling the truth about Russia’s war against Ukraine.

RIA-Melitopol reported on 10 January that the Russian FSB are recruiting people from occupied Melitopol and surroundings to “help SMERSH”.  In fact, the evidence shown is for the moment on the level of that seen with Crimean SMERSH, proving collaboration with Russian enforcement bodies, but not necessarily demonstrating total control by the latter.  Like its Crimean counterpart, Zaporizhzhia SMERSH also hunts those with a strong pro-Ukrainian position, calling such Ukrainians ‘zhduny’ [those waiting for liberation by Ukraine’s Armed Forces].  Most of the entries, which began at the end of August 2023 simply identify those ‘accused’ of supporting Ukraine without the shocking videoed ‘confessions’.  They do, however, invite people to send them ‘denunciations’ against those who do not support the Russian invaders.. 

It is typical that ‘Zaporizhzhia SMERSH’ should have also focused on the appalling persecution of five young administrators of Ukrainian Telegram channels: Yana Suvorova (19); Mark Kaliush; Heorhiy Levchenko; Oleksandr Malyshev, Maksym Rupchov; and Kostiantyn Zynovkin.  All of them were abducted and almost certainly tortured into making videoed ‘confessions’.  The five are among a very large number of Ukrainians abducted, tortured and either held incommunicado, or put on ‘trial’ facing insane charges.  

In that sense, SMERSH may well be about ‘re-badging’. Russia is, in short, already using methods of terror against Ukrainians and will continue to do so until it is driven from all Ukrainian territory. 

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