When the notorious warden of a prison controlled by Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine told a court during his arraignment in November that he had been living in Kyiv for more than two years, many people were shocked.
Denys Kulykovskiy first became known to the Ukrainian public in December 2019, when freed hostages returning from the separatist-held areas of the Donbas following a swap spoke of the brutality of the plump man overseeing Izolyatsia, a makeshift prison located inside a former Soviet-era factory in the provincial capital of Donetsk.
The 37-year-old former Ukrainian penitentiary officer who sided with the Kremlin-backed separatists following the downfall of Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 allegedly beat, tortured, and raped multiple people being held at the prison, including Ukrainian soldiers and ordinary citizens.
He was soon a wanted man in Ukraine. The Prosecutor-General's Office in Kyiv formally declared Kulykovskiy a suspect in December 2020 -- but apparently believed he was far from their reach, living either in the separatist-held part of the Donbas or in Russia.
In fact, he was living nearby.
Kulykovskiy had relocated to Kyiv in 2019 after he began cooperating with the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) on a counterintelligence operation, three former SBU officers told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, which investigated the matter in cooperation with the open-source research group Bellingcat. The officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak to the media.
One of the former officers provided details of Kulykovskiy's purported cooperation with the SBU, but it could not be independently verified. Stanislav Aseyev, a former contributor to RFE/RL who was held at Izolyatsia from 2017-2019, said it was likely that Kulykovskiy possessed substantial information about the activities of the separatists -- as well as Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) -- in the Donetsk region.
The same former officer told RFE/RL that he and other agents working with Kulykovskiy were rotated to another agency in the autumn of 2019 and their work with the former warden ended. Kulykovskiy, the former officer said, "essentially became a free man" living in Kyiv.
As evidence that Kulykovskiy cooperated with the agency, the same former officer provided RFE/RL with a video that purportedly showed the former warden speaking by phone from his apartment in Kyiv in 2019 to Vasyl Yevdokymov, who is a senior figure among the separatists in Donetsk and who set up the Izolyatsia prison.
The other two former SBU officers also said that Kulykovskiy assisted with counterintelligence work, and confirmed the details of the video. RFE/RL was not able to independently verify the location and date of the video.
A separate piece of possible evidence was a recording published in January 2020 by a Ukrainian news site in which a man identified as Kulykovskiy is heard speaking about criminal activity with an assistant to Yevdokymov.
In a statement to RFE/RL, the SBU said that "there are no grounds" to claim that Kulykovskiy was an informant and that it moved to arrest him as soon as his whereabouts became known. "When information about Kulykovskiy's presence and movements on the territory of Ukraine was confirmed, he was detained by the SBU counterintelligence," the statement said. It did not provide any explanation of his whereabouts or activities in the years prior to that.
Following The Trail
Intelligence agencies worldwide rarely acknowledge that an individual is or was cooperating with them because it could damage their ability to recruit new sources in the future. Suspects who cooperate are usually given reduced sentences or allowed to remain free -- a tradeoff that can be controversial when someone suspected of serious crimes is treated with leniency.
Kulykovskiy was detained on November 9, 2021 after Aseyev, who is now an expert at the Kyiv-based think tank Ukrainian Institute for the Future, teamed up with Christo Grozev, the lead Russia investigator at Bellingcat, to track him down.
Aseyev had been following the state's investigation into torture at Izolyatsia since being freed and noticed in August 2021 that Kulykovskiy was not among the individuals being charged in absentia by a court in the government-controlled Donetsk region with torture at Izolyatsia.
When he inquired with local police why they left Kulykovskiy's name off the list, he was told the former warden could not charge him in absentia because they had information indicating that he crossed into government-controlled Ukrainian territory in April 2019.
Aseyev then contacted Grozev for help locating Kulykovskiy. Their investigation led them to the first former SBU officer, who said he recalled Kulykovskiy assisting with a counterintelligence operation in 2019. That former officer said he no longer knew where Kulykovskiy was but recommended they inquire with the second former SBU officer, who had been keeping an eye on the former warden.
When contacted by Aseyev and Grozev in October, that former SBU officer said that he knew Kulykovskiy's whereabouts and was ready to turn him over to the authorities. At that point, Aseyev and Grozev urged the police to apprehend the suspect.
The police passed the information to the SBU and officers of the security agency arrested Kulykovskiy on suspicion of "taking part in the killing and torturing of illegally held Ukrainian citizens." The charges against him include human trafficking, involvement in terrorist activities and illegal armed forces, and war crimes.
At his arraignment the following day, Kulykovskiy admitted that he had worked at Izolyatsia. He was ordered held in pretrial detention pending further investigation. He faces up to 12 years in prison if convicted on all charges.
The shifting history of Isolyatsia, a sprawling compound 7 kilometers from the center of Donetsk, reflects the stark changes in the fate of the industrial Donbas region in the past three decades. Its name, which in English means "insulation," not "isolation," comes from the product that was made there in the Soviet era.
For a time, like shuttered factories in many places around the world, it served as a center for the arts, with statues and other installations dotting the grounds. But in June 2014, after the separatists seized parts of the Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk provinces at the start of a war that has killed more than 13,000 people, those forces transformed it into a rudimentary prison that some former inmates have likened to a concentration camp.
Kulykovskiy was tapped as warden nearly from the start.
According to accounts from former inmates, he often took part in what several of them described as frequent beatings, abuse, and torture of people being held there, including electric shock and rape. He was a heavy drinker, according to the accounts.
Stanislav Pechonkin, a former prisoner at Izolyatsia, said that he and his cellmates were once forced to sing for Kulikovskiy on his birthday, were beaten, and narrowly escaped death when the intoxicated warden ordered them shot.
"My cellmates were taken out so that we could entertain those who were celebrating and sing songs for them. All this turned into a beating, and then [Kulykovskiy] and those who were with him -- they were all already quite drunk -- ordered the guard to shoot us," Pechonkin said. He said they were saved by the guard, who was sober and led them back to their cell.
Other inmates claim they were painfully sprayed down with high-powered water, beaten with batons, and had their fingers broken. Women inmates were raped, according to prisoners.
Kulykovskiy was removed from his position in 2018, for excessive violence. Former inmates claim that his dismissal was the result of a financial dispute with Yevdokymov.
Following his dismissal, Kulikovskiy was held for a short period of time as a prisoner at Izolyatsia, where former inmates say he was beaten.
According to the first former SBU officer, Kulikovskiy traveled to Russia after being released. However, in April 2019, he returned to Ukraine, where he was met by SBU agents.
Shortly after his arrest in November, the Kremlin-backed forces controlling Donetsk and part of the surrounding province declared that Kulikovskiy was wanted on charges of treason, torture, and murder.
At least 166 people have been held at Izolyatsia, though the exact number is unknown. The prison is believed to be still in operation.