Crime and Punishment
Struck by the shocking news on the day of the invasion, 24 February 2022, many Russians rushed to show their support for Ukraine. In the first months of the war, the number of individual contributions to the Civic Assistance Committee — the most reputable Russian NGO helping Ukrainian refugees — grew multi-fold. The number of individual donations to Ukraine also increased significantly.
One such donor was Max (name changed). He did not want to hide his outrage and compassion behind anonymous tools and openly transferred RUB 60,000 (~USD 600) to the collection account of the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU) using SWIFT.
While the transaction was pending, the Russian General Prosecutor's Office (a part of the Interior Ministry) released a statement. It said that the “financial, material, technical, consulting, and other help to a foreign state, international or foreign organisation or their representatives in actions aimed against the security of the Russian Federation” constitutes treason and that all such financial operations will be scrutinised individually.
The media spread this message widely, alerting that mass arrests could follow. Even though humanitarian aid and helping close relatives are excluded from the definition of treason, many lawyers advised against sending money to Ukraine altogether. Considering the close horizontal ties between the two nations, this was a new reality that many people could not grasp at once.
Max successfully cancelled the transfer, but, two days later, the bank where he also worked asked him to resign. Then he was summoned by the Federal Security Service (FSB), questioned, his apartment searched, and his devices confiscated. “This is treason,” the officer concluded. “Punishable by 12–20 years.” Around midnight, the FSB let Max go asking him to “live his normal life” and wait for the decision. Taking no chances, he fled the country at dawn.
Even though Max says that he made a transfer for “support and restoration of Ukraine,” it seems that the only donation call on the NBU website at the time (February 24–27) was for the needs of the Ukrainian army.
This story was told anonymously to Helpdesk.media in June 2022, at which time no criminal case had yet been instigated against Max. Probably, the FSB did not want any pending proceedings to spoil their internal statistics, but, if Max crossed the border back to Russia, the prosecution would start immediately.
Treason cases are usually confidential, and it is hard to gather a detailed picture of the law enforcement patterns. Department One, a legal defence NGO, reported in May that since the beginning of the war, they have consulted more than 30 people who had to deal with the FSB and 50 who had their bank accounts blocked due to the donations to Ukraine.
Only a handful of the account blocking reports are available in the media, and all of them are from the majority state-owned SberBank, the largest bank in Russia. Only one report includes the receiver's name, and it is Come Back Alive — a prominent Ukrainian fund supporting the army.
In August, the FSB released a video of fully armoured officers entering the apartments of three people and delivering a warning against committing treason. Department One knows of five more similar incidents, eight in total, by August 19, 2022. All the people concerned made bank transfers to Ukraine, at least four of them to Come Back Alive.
Even the Russians who live abroad are on the FSB’s radar. Aleksandra (name changed) donated EUR 25 to Come Back Alive from her SberBank account, and the FSB paid a visit to her mother. An officer is now a regular in the classes she teaches at a university.
For the FSB and police, there is no such thing as bank secrecy. Rosfinmonitoring (Federal Financial Monitoring Service) collects and analyses financial transaction data across the banks to combat financial crimes. Police can inquire about the particular recipient (like Come Back Alive) and get the complete list of donors, even retroactively.
Help came from an unexpected direction. One week into the full-fledged war, the EU started blocking SWIFT for Russian banks, with SberBank being cut off in June 2022. International bank transfers became unreliable, and it's safe to say that most Russians turned to other, less trackable ways of moving their funds internationally.
But it's not only the FSB searching the database. Sometimes, vigilant citizens report on their fellow Russians for supporting Ukraine. This happened to a trendy cafe in the centre of Moscow that advertised a charity auction to benefit a Ukrainian volunteering group Kyiv Angels, on their Instagram page. It attracted the attention of pro-state bloggers, who noticed that the Angels support the army between their humanitarian jobs. The cafe was bullied online, its owners doxed and threatened. A local deputy officially reported them to the police. Eventually, the owners apologised and claimed they were hacked, which convinced no one. After being visited by “people in uniforms,” the cafe had to close for a short while.
Despite the authorities agreeing that sponsoring the Ukrainian army constitutes treason, in a year, there has not been a single reported criminal case instigated for such donations. It makes one wonder, especially contrasted with the harsh penal action against those donating to the “internal enemy”, such as Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation.
It seems common for the number of treason cases to grow during or before a country gets involved in a war — to show it's under threat. Before 2014, there were 2–3 treason convictions a year in Russia; after, 15 a year. In March 2022, several experts claimed that the FSB, which handles treason, is now at capacity and cannot process more cases a year if it wants to: “The system is not ready for mass repression.”
However, this time, it seems that FSB has shared some of its powers and authority with the Interior Ministry, which includes the police. Usually, the FSB secretly cultivates the subject for months before appearing at their door with a fully cooked lawsuit. But now, the Interior Ministry announces the mass investigations beforehand. Probably, the FSB then felt pressured to act and, in the absence of a better plan, did the search-and-warn operation, scaring off the potential defendants (many of them left Russia). By May 2022, Department One knew of seven instances of the FSB officers visiting the relatives of those who fled, threatened with prosecution for their anti-war position. “Convince them to come back to Russia,” they asked.
Another occasion of the treason authorities fusing together is the criminal case against the oppositional politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, who has been in jail since April 2022 for spreading “fakes” about the Russian army. In October, he was charged with treason for giving public talks abroad. This is the first criminal case under the “help to a foreign organisation” section quoted above, and the first treason case led by the Interior Department, not the FSB. Additionally, in July 2022, the state amended the law: now, almost any collaboration with any foreign organisation can be considered treason (art. 275.1 of the Criminal Code).
Despite the evident miscoordination between the two agencies on how to handle the cases, this fusion may mean that the limited capacity of the FSB will receive reinforcement from the police, and, in the future, we will see the rise of convictions. However, the fact that there were no reports of persecutions of Russian citizens for donating to Ukraine since spring 2022, holds out a hope of it not becoming a trend.
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