KHARKIV, Ukraine – Kharkiv, one of Ukraine’s most important industrial and cultural centers, is only 25 miles from the Russian border and everyone here knows their city is a top target if Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin orders an invasion.
Politicians, patriotic groups, pro-western community activists and even Ukrainian language teachers were not surprised to learn about a chilling warning by American intelligence that, if Russia invades their country, they could face arrest, internment in concentration camps or execution by the occupation authorities.
American intelligence made public over the weekend indicates Moscow has already drawn up lists of prominent Ukrainian politicians, pro-democracy activists, journalists, anti-corruption campaigners, religious groups, the LGBTQI and Russian and Belarusian dissidents who fled to Ukraine from their own countries, to be targeted. The information indicates that the Russians would use lethal force against peaceful protesters.
A letter to the UN from president U.S. President Joseph Biden’s administration described “credible” information about Moscow’s plans to use “targeted killings, kidnappings, forced disappearances, unjust detentions and the use of torture.”
The Biden administration was apparently startled by the specificity of the lists of Ukrainians who would be sent to concentration camps or be killed. The lists were drawn up by Russia’s secret police and military intelligence.
Hanna Churkina is a prominent member of a pro-democracy group Kharkiv Maidan Monitoring and a campaigner for popularizing the Ukrainian language.
“Nobody should be surprised by this news. This is what the Russians have been doing in the areas of Ukraine they’ve occupied since 2014,” Ms. Churkina said. “There many people disappeared. Some were later found dead and many have never been found. Others are languishing in prison cells without trial. Some received long sentences after show trials.”
Ms. Churkina knows her activism will make her a target if the Russians take Kharkiv.
“Of course I’m worried for my family and myself, but I’m not running. Why should I run? This is my country. It’s the only one we have and we will fight to defend it. We don’t choose the time to be born into this world, but we can choose to behave with dignity however enormous or menacing the threat,” Ms. Churkina said.
Borys Redin was one of the key people to organize demonstrations in Kharkiv in support of the mass protests in Kyiv that turned into a revolution which ousted the country’s then pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych.
A few days later, powerful pro-Kremlin politicians organized a conference in Kharkiv with plans to secede the city and other eastern Ukrainian areas from Ukraine and call in Russian troops.
Mr. Redin and thousands of others with Ukrainian flags marched toward the pro-Moscow politicians’ meeting. A petrified Mr. Yanukovych fled Kharkiv and the secession attempt failed.
Since then, Mr. Redin has run an information center called Vilni Zbory Hromadyan (A Free Citizens’ Assembly) that provides information about political events and the conflict from a blue tent, which has become a well-known landmark in Kharkiv’s central Svoboda Square.
“Executing and imprisoning opposition has been the Russian way for centuries and, no doubt if they get into Kharkiv, they would try to do the same here,” Mr. Redin said.
“[Mr.] Putin has made no secret of how much he admires Stalin, and [he]has even put up new statues to him. He has long been using Stalin’s and Hitler’s methods to exterminate opposition and take other’s territory. I know that I’m on their list,” Mr. Redin said.
Mr. Redin knows this is the case because friends of his in the town of Belhorod, just over the Russian border who have contacts in the local FSB department and who visited its offices, have seen his photograph displayed among other Ukrainians “wanted” by the secret police.
“Putin can’t scare us into fleeing our own city,” Mr. Redin said. “If he tries, a lot of blood will be spilled and it will be Russian blood.”
In 2015, when hundreds of pro-democracy supporters rallied to mark the first anniversary of their foiling the secession attempt, a bomb left by the side of the road along their route exploded, killing four people and injuring many others.
“That was the revenge of the pro-Putin cretins,” Mr. Redin said.
Many people wandered in and out of the tent as this reported interviewed Mr. Redin, stamping feet in the chill as they caught up on the latest news. They were also planning to commemorate on the following day, with a large gathering, the drama of 2014.
But they were also planning what to do if the Russians attacked. Most said they would fight or help resist in other ways. Some were standing at frames with nets stretched across them and intricately tying in strips of white material to create white, winter camouflage netting.
One of those was Yulia Razumenko, a teacher.
“I’m not scared and I have faith in our army,” Ms. Razumenko said. “If the Russians are stupid enough to try to enter Kharkiv, they will face immense resistance.”
Last weekend she took a first aid course and this week has signed up for firearms training.
“We will show [Mr.] Putin what a really big mistake he’s made,” she said.
The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHRPG), one of Ukraine’s oldest and most respected pro-democracy groups, knows it will be a target of a Russian hunt to eliminate opposition.
The group has documented hundreds of cases of men and women being persecuted by Russian authorities in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk for being critical of the Kremlin’s aggression or occupation.
“Leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics made it a daily thing to persecute first pro-Ukrainian civic figures, then later simply anybody whom they didn’t like or who objected to their actions,” KHRPG wrote in a report.
“People disappear without traces each day with it later becoming known that they have either been shot, or are being held in the basements of official state buildings seized by the separatists in Slovyansk, Luhansk, Donetsk, Horlivka and other cities,” the report said.
Sometimes the captives are freed in exchange for a ransom in cash or property.