He returned a dazed soldier to the Russians. Ukraine calls it treason.

KHERSON, Ukraine — On the night of March 15, Illia Karamalikov received an unexpected phone call.

As a nightclub owner and member of Kherson’s City Council, he had been running a volunteer neighborhood watch in this southern Ukrainian city that had just been invaded by thousands of Russian troops. The soldiers had taken Kherson with little resistance ­but then largely kept going, racing toward other territory and showing no interest in administering the city.

Looting and chaos followed until Mr. Karamalikov and others organized neighborhood patrols of local men. They weren’t working with the Russians but had their permission.

On the phone that night, one of Mr. Karamalikov’s watch leaders reported that a team of guards had encountered someone stumbling toward a checkpoint in a strange green uniform, slathered in mud, looking shellshocked. He wasn’t a looter. He was a lost Russian pilot, and they had disarmed him and were keeping him in a school classroom.

The school where the watchmen held the Russian soldier in Kherson.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times
The bombed-out terminal of the Kherson airport. The Russian soldier had walked nearly 10 miles from the airport after the Ukrainians shelled it, killing many other Russians.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

It was a highly unusual prisoner of war situation — a band of civilians capturing an enemy officer in a city that the enemy controls. “Nobody knew what to do,” said Mr. Karamalikov’s lawyer, Mykhailo Velychko. “They couldn’t hand him over to Ukrainian forces — there were no Ukrainian forces in the city at that time. And there was no Red Cross. And the Russians were everywhere.”

What followed over the next few hours, and continues to play out in court months later, reveals the blurred line between complicity and survival that many Ukrainians had to navigate after the Russians invaded their country — and that poses vexing problems for the authorities now as they decide whom to punish.

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