Lawyers based in Russia and in parts of eastern Ukraine held by Moscow-backed separatists have flooded the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) with thousands of complaints against Kyiv for alleged rights violations in the conflict-ridden Donbas, in what appears to be a coordinated campaign to tar Ukraine, an investigation by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service has found.
The investigative TV program Skhemy (Schemes) found that around 6,000 claims related to the conflict in the Donbas, out of a total of 10,000 claims Ukraine faces at the ECHR, were filed by several groups of lawyers from Russia and areas of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine that are under the control of the separatists.
A Moscow law firm that has filed thousands of complaints has substantial experience "defending the interests" of the Russian government, and a lawyer in the Donbas who has also filed claims is under investigation on suspicion of falsifying application forms to international courts.
The number of cases that will ultimately be considered by the Strasbourg-based court, let alone brought to trial, is unclear. Still, the sheer number of filings has bumped Ukraine up to third among nations facing allegations of human rights violations at the ECHR.
Moscow has long asserted that Ukraine violates the rights of Russian speakers in the Donbas. It has used those claims to justify interference in the region, including its backing of the separatists' seizure of parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in 2014, and as a potential catalyst for stepped-up military action in the future.
More than 13,000 people have been killed and thousands more wounded in the war that erupted in the Donbas in April 2014, a month after Russia's armed takeover of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. Russia denies involvement, despite ample evidence showing it has provided arms, fighters, financing, and other aid to the separatists.
Until 2014, no claims of rights violations had been filed over Kyiv's policies or actions in the Donbas at the ECHR, Ukrainian human rights lawyer Serhiy Zayets told Schemes, a joint investigative project of RFE/RL and Ukrainian public broadcaster UA:First.
"There are several Russian lawyers who started filing complaints only after 2014. They have no complaints against Russia, and only against Ukraine," Zayets said, adding that it is "an extremely large number of cases."
The report by Schemes comes amid evidence of a Russian troop buildup -- including heavy armor such as tanks -- in and around Ukraine, primarily in Crimea and in areas abutting the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, in what some analysts have argued could portend a major Russian offensive. Others say it's more likely to be a show of force aimed to frighten Kyiv, the European Union, and the United States.
The Schemes report also comes less than two months after Ukraine accused Russia of the "targeted assassinations" of "perceived opponents" in a case filed at the ECHR, the latest in a series of legal complaints against Moscow.
It was the ninth case filed by Ukraine against Russia at the ECHR, four of which are still pending and refer to the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014, human rights violations in Crimea, and Russia's seizure of three Ukrainian Navy vessels in the Kerch Strait in 2018.
The Schemes investigation found that lawyers linked to Klishin and Partners, a Moscow-based law firm, had filed more than 5,000 complaints at the ECHR against Ukraine for rights violations.
Asked about the complaints, Klishin and Partners declined to provide a substantive comment, sending a statement to Schemes saying that it had "not registered any public interest in Russia" in the topic.
It also said it was not obliged to reply to an organization deemed "foreign agents," a reference to controversial Russian legislation under which several Russian-language services of RFE/RL have been designated as "foreign agents" by the Russian authorities.
Whether Klishin and Partners were acting in coordination with the Kremlin is unclear. On its website, the firm states it has "sufficient experience defending the interests of the government."
Also active in filing complaints at the ECHR has been Vladimir Fyodorov, a Russian lawyer who bragged to separatist-run TV in the Donetsk region in 2016 that, thanks in part to his efforts, Ukraine was among the nations facing the largest number of claims at the court.
Without providing specific evidence, Fyodorov asserted that, early in the conflict, the court "did everything possible not to accept these lawsuits from us…but they were forced to…in part due to our work, thanks to which, Ukraine is now on top in [terms of] the number of lawsuits at the European Court of Human Rights."
Fyodorov's brother, Grigoriy, is a former member of the Russian Civic Chamber and has also been active in such efforts.
Schemes also found that a significant number of complaints have emerged from lawyers working within areas of the Donbas under separatist control. Vitaliy Galakhov, head of an organization called Fair Protection, claimed to have sent some 2,000 claims to the ECHR in 2018. Schemes was able to confirm that only four claims filed by Galakhov are actually pending at the court now.
Galakhov is wanted by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) on suspicion of falsifying application forms to international courts from residents of areas of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions under the control of the Russian-backed separatists. Law enforcement officers have found about 100 people who contend that they did not actually apply, according to the Schemes investigation.
Also active in filing Donbas-related complaints against Kyiv at the court, Schemes found, has been the Union of Refugees of Ukraine, established by Oleh Tsaryov, a former Ukrainian lawmaker from the Moscow-friendly Party of Regions and a leading separatist figure in eastern Ukraine for a time.
Although no direct link to the Kremlin was discovered in the investigation, Moscow can only gain from such a campaign, said Aleksandr Cherkasov, director of the Russian human rights group Memorial.
"Any decision by an international body that is beneficial to Russia will then be used [by Moscow] either as propaganda or a trump card to be used during negotiations," Cherkasov told Schemes, referring to efforts to resolve the conflict in the Donbas.
"If a decision is made in favor of [Russia], then it was made by wise Western lawyers and politicians," he said, describing how he believes the Kremlin would seek to take advantage of such cases. "And if not in [Russia's] favor, then it's the result of a sellout to the plutocrats who are opposed to [Russia] politically."