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EBU investigation exposes brutal Russification in occupied Ukraine

16 November 2023
Emiliano Bos, reporter for RSI, interviewing internally displaced people from occupied territories
Emiliano Bos, reporter for RSI. He travelled to east Ukraine where he interviewed internally displaced people from occupied territories

In an extensive investigation spanning several months, the EBU Investigative Journalism Network has exposed the harsh reality of Russia’s aggressive policy of assimilation of territories it has illegally annexed in east Ukraine.

While the two countries continue to fight a war of attrition on the frontlines, millions of people in the Russian-controlled areas between Crimea and Luhansk live a life where Moscow rules apply. Breaking or ignoring those rules can make it hard to survive, but adhering to them could mean prosecution for collaboration by the Ukrainian state. 

Cut off from the world and trapped between the chaos of frontline fighting and the Russian borders, the inhabitants of Donetsk, Luhansk and areas of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia grapple with a nightmarish existence. Eyewitness and expert accounts reveal incidences of torture, coercion, deportation, cultural erasure, and military indoctrination, contravening international law and in some cases amounting to possible war crimes.

In the shadows of these occupied territories, individuals like ‘Ludmila’ (a pseudonym) share chilling stories of life under occupation: “You live like a spider in a jar... Forbidden to speak about Ukraine; Ukrainian symbols are banned. If you hear something or say something they think is wrong, they grab you and put you in a basement. You worry that the night will fall and they will come for you.” 

Survival can hinge on submitting to Moscow’s rule. Access to basic services – food, education, jobs, healthcare, life-saving medicines, pensions, property – demand accepting Russian passports and swearing allegiance to Russia. But this coerced Russification can also expose individuals to accusations of collaboration with the enemy under Ukrainian law – legislation that has raised concerns among international and Ukrainian organizations.

Kateryna Rashevska, legal advisor, Regional Center for Human Rights in Kyiv, says “The law is not clear enough…I think that in future there could be proceedings in the European Court of Human Rights where Ukraine will be found guilty of human rights violations of people who were labelled by our courts as collaborators.”

The EBU Investigative Journalism Network, drawing on the skills of journalists from EBU Members’ DR, LRT, ORF, RSI, RTVE and UA:PBC, has conducted over 20 interviews with experts, witnesses, and victims of torture to expose these issues. 

Pilar Requena an investigative journalist with RTVE and Chair of the Investigative Journalism Network Steering Committee, stresses the gravity of their findings: “This investigation aimed to find out if Russian authorities are complying with international law and humanitarian standards in Ukrainian occupied territories. It is clear - they don’t. 

“It is amazing to work with investigative colleagues from different European countries. We all share the same values and principles, with the aim of exposing wrongdoing and looking for a better world.”

Belén López Garrido, News Editor at Eurovision News, is the Project Manager for the Investigative Journalism Network. She says, “The diversity of skills and expertise in our group really helped us to see the complete picture. These areas in east Ukraine are a black hole of information for the outside world. Being able to draw on the resources of such a wide range of members allowed us to share an immense wealth of reporting.”

Central to the investigation are these elements showing the reality of life in occupied Ukraine:

Halyna’s story

Halyna (pseudonym) is a Ukrainian woman living in a town in occupied Zaporizhzhia, with first-hand experience of life under Russian rule. Her story unfolds through messages exchanged over 20 months with journalist Alla Sadovnyk from UA:PBC, brought to life with a gripping illustrated storyboard.

Reimagining Mariupol

The reconstruction of the city destroyed by the Russian siege, and the Russification of its culture including the theatre where hundreds of people died during the attack on the city. 

Ukraine’s collaboration dilemma

Early in the war, Kyiv strengthened laws to punish activities deemed treason or collaboration with the enemy. What experts call the “lack of definition” of this law has resulted in thousands of cases being brought forward against Ukrainian citizens. According to some Ukrainian lawyers and NGOs, those accused often do not have access to their legal counsel and cannot offer exonerating evidence in their defence. 

Return of Soviet symbols

An exploration of the resurgence of Soviet symbols as part of the Russian the propaganda strategy throughout the occupied regions. 

Profile of Vladimir Saldo

Saldo is the Kremlin-installed proxy serving as Governor of the Kherson region. The investigation looks at his motivations – and the implications – of Saldo and other key players shaping the occupied territories.

Liz Corbin, EBU Deputy Director Media and Head of News, emphasizes that this is a pan-European investigation only made possible by the public service media community: “Once again, I want to congratulate the EBU Investigative Journalism Network on truly game-changing journalism. Not only delivering evidence-based, trusted news, but showing that collaboration – the very core of public service media – really works to overcome the challenges journalists face on the ground on stories like this.

EBU Members interested in republishing this story should contact Belén López Garrido, 

Relevant links and documents


Jo Waters

Head of Content Communications