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How Ukrainian officials get away with having Russian citizenship – even amid war

Judges of the Supreme Court of Ukraine count ballots after voting to remove the head of the court during a session in Kyiv, on May 16, 2023. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)
by Oleg Sukhov February 6, 2024 4:37 PM 11 min read
This audio is created with AI assistance

As Russia is waging its war against Ukraine, some high-ranking Ukrainian officials with confirmed or suspected Russian citizenship are doing fine.

Ukraine's Constitution bans foreign citizenship for officials.

However, in some cases, officials with Russian citizenship are not fired at all, and in other cases Ukraine's judiciary stubbornly resists their dismissals.

Analysts say this is partially due to the failure of judicial reform and may hint at lawlessness and corruption in the judiciary.

The authorities' inability or unwillingness to oust Russian citizens from key posts poses a major security risk amid the ongoing war.

"It's a big threat for national security," Mykhailo Zhernakov, head of legal think-tank Dejure, told the Kyiv Independent. "In this chaos it's very easy for foreign agents to operate."

Intelligence service claims top judicial official has Russian citizenship; he denies it, cites pressure
Ukraine’s Foreign Intelligence Service has alleged that Roman Ihnatov, head of the High Qualification Commission, a key agency in Ukraine’s judicial system, has Russian citizenship. Ihnatov, who worked as an investigator in Russia in the 1990s and was required by the law to be a Russian citizen at…

Supreme Court scandal

One of the biggest scandals linked to Russian citizenship is a recent court ruling to reinstate Bohdan Lvov as a judge of the Supreme Court.

The Russian citizenship of Lvov, the former deputy chairman of the Supreme Court, has been proven. He has denied having it.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Schemes investigation project reported in 2022 that Lvov received Russian citizenship in 1999 and still had a valid Russian passport. Schemes cited official information from Russia’s Federal Tax Service and leaked documents from Russia’s official passport database.

Subsequently the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) confirmed that Lvov had Russian citizenship.

Vsevolod Knyazev, then head of the Supreme Court, fired Lvov in October 2022 due to the constitutional ban on judges having foreign citizenship.

However, the Kyiv District Administrative Court issued a ruling on Jan. 10, 2024 to reinstate Lvov as a Supreme Court judge. The court claimed that there was not enough proof for Lvov’s Russian citizenship.

"This decision can be interpreted this way: anyone who took Russian passports or switched to the enemy's side doesn't have to fear anything," the Anti-Corruption Action Center said on Jan. 10. "You can always work it out in courts."

Bohdan Lvov, was reinstated as the head of the commercial chamber of Ukraine's Supreme Court by the Kyiv District Administrative Court. (Supreme Court)

The Supreme Court said on the same day that it would appeal the ruling.

If the court loses the appeal, it will have to reinstate Lvov.

The reinstatement of Lvov shows that the judiciary has stopped imitating reforms and is back to business as usual, Zhernakov said.

Zhernakov argued that it is convenient for powerbrokers to deal with Lvov because, given his controversial background, he is susceptible to political influence.

Lvov did not respond to a request for comment.

The Public Integrity Council, a body set up by the government to assess judges’ integrity, concluded in 2017 that Lvov did not meet ethics and integrity standards and did not have the right to run for a Supreme Court job.

Lvov has been under investigation for allegedly helping a member of the High Council of Justice to extort $500,000 in exchange for favorable court rulings.

"It's convenient for politicians to reach bargains with Lvov,” Zhernakov said.

He has also been investigated as an alleged accomplice of ex-High Commercial Court Chairman Viktor Tatkov and his deputy Artur Yemelyanov, who have been charged with organizing the issuance of unlawful rulings as part one of Ukraine’s largest corruption schemes.

The judge denied the accusations of wrongdoing, and no official charges have been brought against him so far.

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An official haunted by his Russian past

A similar controversy has surrounded Roman Ihnatov, head of the High Qualification Commission – a body that vets judges.

According to his official biography, Ihnatov was an investigator at the prosecutor's office in Russia’s Petrozavodsk in 1995-1996.

Under the Russian law valid at the time, only Russian citizens could be appointed as investigators.

However, Ihnatov has claimed that he did not get Russian citizenship when he lived and worked in Russia.

Roman Ihnatov, head of the High Qualification Commission of Judges (The High Qualification Commission's site).

Russian lawyers Mark Feigin and Vadim Prokhorov told the Kyiv Independent that it was absolutely impossible for Russian officials, including investigators, not to be Russian citizens in the 1990s.

Feigin said that there could have been some chaos with ordinary people's citizenship issues in the early 1990s but the requirement on Russian citizenship was rigorously enforced for state officials.

Moreover, citizenship issues had been mostly settled by 1993 – before Ihnatov's appointment as an investigator, Feigin said.

Ihnatov also claimed that he was stateless until 1997.

But Feigin and Prokhorov said that it was legally impossible for officials who worked at Russian law enforcement agencies to be stateless. They dismissed Ihnatov's claim as "science fiction" and "nonsense."

Even if Ihnatov was a Russian citizen in the 1990s, it is unclear if he remains one now.

Feigin argued that, if a person has not officially renounced Russian citizenship, he remains a national of Russia regardless of whether he or she currently has a Russian passport.

Ukraine's Foreign Intelligence Service claimed in December that a person whose full name and date of birth fully coincide with Ihnatov's has a valid Russian passport, according to a letter leaked to online newspaper Dzerkalo Tyzhnya.

Ihnatov denied having a Russian passport and attributed the incident to alleged political pressure.

The High Qualification Commission and the High Council of Justice said they would investigate the claim.

Natalia Sedletska, head of the Kyiv bureau of RFE/RL, said in December that the media outlet had not found Ihnatov’s alleged Russian passport in Russian databases.

However, Prokhorov and Russian lawyer Yelena Lukyanova said that Russian official and leaked databases are not reliable, and some information may be missing.

Sedletska said that the number of Ihnatov's alleged Russian passport provided by the Foreign Intelligence Service is a combination of his Soviet passport's number and its issue date, which means it cannot be a currently valid Russian passport.

It is not clear if the Foreign Intelligence Service made a mistake and was referring to his Soviet passport. The Foreign Intelligence Service declined to comment on the issue.

A protester burns his Russian passport during a demonstration against Russia's military invasion on Ukraine, in Belgrade, on March 6, 2022, 11 days after Russia launched a military invasion on Ukraine. (Andrej Isakovic / AFP via Getty Images)

Former Soviet citizens who lived in Russia after 1991 and did not officially reject Russian citizenship were Russian citizens by law, Feigin and Prokhorov said. Russian citizenship stamps were put in their Soviet passports until they received Russian ones.

Such people were even considered Russian citizens regardless of whether they had a stamp, the lawyers argued.

Meanwhile, the State Investigation Bureau opened a treason case against Ihnatov in September in connection with the circumstances of his visit to Russian-occupied Luhansk in November 2014. He denied any wrongdoing.

In November 2014, Ihnatov was detained by Russian proxies in Luhansk and later released. He subsequently claimed that he had gone to Luhansk to visit his mother and an acquaintance helped him get released.

In December, the State Investigation Bureau asked the High Council of Justice to consider firing Ihnatov from his position due to his alleged Russian citizenship and the treason investigation.

So far, he has not been dismissed.

Based on his work as a Russian investigator, the bureau concluded that Ihnatov became a Russian citizen and took an oath to serve Russia. The bureau argued that Ihnatov lied about his Russian citizenship and thus undermined trust in the judiciary.

Low-ranking judges

The case of Yulia Pereyaslovska, a judge at the Selydove City Court in Donetsk Oblast, is even more fascinating.

In 2021, she tried to cross the border between mainland Ukraine and Russian-occupied Crimea. Ukrainian border guards found her Russian passport, which her husband had been trying to hide.

The passport was issued to Pereyaslovska in 2019 in occupied Crimea.

The Security Service sent the information on her Russian passport to the High Council of Justice, and the council opened a probe against the judge.

Years later, the council still has not made a decision on the judge.

In 2021, Pereyaslovska asked the High Council of Justice to fire her because her five-year stint as a judge was over.

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Ironically, the head of the court refused to fire her despite her own desire to be dismissed.

In 2022, AutoMaidan, an anti-corruption watchdog, sent a request to the head of the Selydove court but he claimed she could not be fired from the court because she was being vetted. This claim contradicts Pereyaslovska's own statement in her lawsuit that she did not intend to be vetted.

"This is nonsense and utter sabotage," AutoMaidan Head Kateryna Butko told the Kyiv Independent.

In December 2022, an appellate court upheld Pereyaslovska's lawsuit and required the Selydove City Court to fire her.

The court told the Kyiv Independent that she had been finally dismissed in December. The basis for dismissal was the expiry of her 5-year term, not her Russian citizenship.

In July 2023, Schemes also reported that Lyudmila Arestova, a judge at the Donetsk District Administrative Court, had become a Russian citizen in April 2014 and acquired a Russian tax identification number, according to Russia's passport database.

Arestova denied having Russian citizenship in a comment for the Kyiv Independent.

The SBU told AutoMaidan it could not confirm her Russian citizenship because Russia does not currently have embassies in Ukraine. The State Investigation Bureau opened an investigation into the issue.

However, she still remains a judge at the court.

The Donetsk District Administrative Court claimed in a comment for the Kyiv Independent that her Russian citizenship had not been confirmed.

The High Council of Justice told the Kyiv Independent that it had not had enough time to consider the Arestova and Pereyaslovska cases because it did not have the authority to consider disciplinary cases from 2021 until September 2023.

However, the council has had such authority since September 2023 but has not made any decision yet.

Mayor of Odesa Hennadiy Trukhanov speaks to the Kyiv Independent in his office on April 27, 2022. (Oleksandr Gimanov)

A Russia-friendly mayor

And it's not only judges.

Odesa Mayor Hennady Trukhanov’s Russian citizenship was confirmed by prosecutors at Odesa’s Malinovsky Court in 2019 as part of a corruption case. The prosecutors cited responses sent by Russian authorities.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project has published a copy of Trukhanov’s Russian passport.

Trukhanov’s Russian passports were annulled in 2017 due to alleged procedural violations, according to Russian authorities.

The SBU had previously claimed it had found no evidence of Trukhanov’s Russian citizenship.

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Despite the confirmation of him having a Russian passport in the past and his efforts to hide it, Trukhanov remains mayor.

Vitaly Tytych, ex-head of judicial watchdog Public Integrity Council, told the Kyiv Independent that he must be ousted from his post as part of criminal investigations.

Trukhanov has been charged with corruption, and he must also be investigated over his links to Russia, he added.

Trukhanov used to be a member of the pro-Russian Party of Regions and Opposition Bloc parties.

In 2014, he regularly attended pro-Russian  rallies in Odesa.

Odesa-based pro-Russian activists Serhiy Dolzhenkov, charged with infringing on Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and Dmytro Khablyuk, who was deported to Russia in 2011 due to his alleged pro-Russian sabotage activities, have claimed that Trukhanov financed pro-Russian protesters in Odesa in 2014. Trukhanov denies the accusations.

He did not respond to a request for comment.

Security risks

Legal experts argue that Ukrainian authorities' inability to identify Russian citizens among officials or fire them poses a major security risk.

"It's a security issue," Butko said. "During the Russian invasion, officials should not be allowed to hold Russian passports."

Zhernakov said that Russia may use judges with Russian passports to influence Ukraine through their rulings. They also have access to state secrets.

Tytych said that the SBU had failed to fulfill its function and investigate the Russian citizenship of officials during security checks.

Zhernakov argued that this failure may be attributed to either negligence or a lack of professionalism.

"There's a lot of officials with Russian passports," Butko said. "But (intelligence agencies) don't find them or don't want to find them. It's either inability to find them or reluctance to do so."

Zhernakov and Butko also said that it is absurd for Ukrainian agencies to base their investigations of officials’ citizenship on official requests sent to Russia during the full-scale invasion.

The SBU denied the accusations in a comment for the Kyiv Independent. The service said that it is regularly identifying Russian citizens among Ukrainian officials charged with treason and constantly uncovering Russian agents.

Experts also criticized the judiciary's failure to cleanse its ranks and attributed the dire situation with Russian citizenship to botched judicial reform.

"They can issue any decision that harms the interests of Ukraine's defense,” Tytych said.

Zhernakov and Butko also called for amending legislation to improve legal tools for ousting officials with Russian citizenship.

"Two years into Russia's full-scale invasion, we still haven't sorted out this issue," Zhernakov said.

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