For months it has been obvious to those who wish to see that Russian intelligence stands behind the campaign of espionage, terrorism, propaganda, and covert action (including raising and arming rebel militias), which I have termed Special War, that is being waged by Vladimir Putin against Ukraine. I’ve written about this murky matter several times. After the recent election of Petro Poroshenko as Ukraine’s president, the Kremlin’s efforts to terrorize and coerce its neighbor have only increased, and evidence of Russian intelligence involvement has mounted by the day.
Recently, U.S. officials have confirmed widespread rumors that the shadowy paramilitary boss Igor Girkin (AKA Strelkov), who has been a major figure in the campaign to destabilize Ukraine and serves as the defense minister of the self-proclaimed (and Moscow-backed) “Donetsk People’s Republic” in southeast Ukraine, is actually a Russian military intelligence (GRU) colonel. GRU special operators have been deeply involved in the seizure of Crimea and continuing efforts to terrorize and destabilize eastern Ukraine.
Today, in an interview with the Kyiv newspaper Den, Valentyn Nalyvaychenko, the director of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU), elaborated just how large a role Russian intelligence, particularly the powerful Federal Security Service (FSB), is playing in Putin’s effort to destabilize and intimidate Kyiv into submission. Nalyvaychenko explained that the FSB stands behind Russia’s entire anti-Ukraine campaign, choosing the Kremlin’s strategy and operations, and the SBU has detained several Russian intelligence operatives in eastern Ukraine recently, including over ninety “terrorists and saboteurs,” among them thirteen Russian nationals – “mercenaries and professional intelligence officers, agents.” He said that the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s on-going Special War operations in eastern Ukraine were planned long before this spring, with the full collaboration of Ukraine’s previous government.
Although it has been widely known that, during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, the SBU was deeply penetrated by the FSB, with Russian officers actually holding positions inside Ukrainian intelligence, Nalyvaychenko stated that even he did not realize how bad the situation was until recently. There is a major hunt afoot now for pro-Kremlin agents inside the SBU since, the director explained, “from December 2013 until the end of February 2014, three groups of high-ranking FSB officers worked in the SBU. During these months, all modern arms, files, archives, everything that forms a basis for a professional intelligence service, were transferred to Simferopol” in Crimea.
The SBU has severed all ties with Russian intelligence – under Yanukovych, Ukraine’s spies functioned as an extension of the FSB – but it will be some time before this massive penetration is undone; it is no longer mysterious why so many recent Ukrainian military operations to root out separatists in the Donetsk area have fallen short of expectations, since the pro-Russian paramilitaries know they are coming. The first task at hand must be detecting and neutralizing Russian spies and provocateurs inside Ukraine’s defense and security system, and that is now underway, though it will take years to get this problem under control, given the daunting extent of Kremlin penetration.
Kyiv, finally, is also fighting back on the propaganda front, where the Russians have been highly active, and today 5 Kanal TV (which is owned by Poroshenko) showed a video, provided by the SBU, of an interview with a “terrorist” recently captured near Slovyansk. Though his face was obscured, the prisoner, said to be named Mykola Viktorovych, explained that he was recruited by the FSB to fight as a mercenary for the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” After training, he was paid an advance of 200,000 rubles (about USD 5,000), and he said the volunteers were promised bonuses of USD 300 for every Ukrainian soldier they killed and USD 1,000 for each officer. He was then given a train ticket to Luhansk and sent to war. As he stated:
I was told that there were a lot of our Russian guys here, who had been sent here earlier. They told me not to be scared. But I do not believe in this war. I condemn the Putin regime for starting this war between our peoples. Please forgive me if you can.
This story is far from over, but it is encouraging that Kyiv at last is fighting back against the FSB and Putin’s Special War. If Ukraine expects to survive, there is no choice.