Donetsk Rebels and Russian Intelligence

As the world tries to answer the question of who exactly fired the missile that shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, killing 298 innocent people, Moscow is doing its best to lie, obfuscate, shift blame, and evade responsibility. The Kremlin’s best-case scenario now is that local rebels in Ukraine’s Donetsk region who are under the operational control of Russian military intelligence (GRU), took it upon themselves to shoot down a passenger aircraft, using a Russian-supplied Buk (SA-11) anti-aircraft system, having mistaken it for an unarmed Ukrainian An-26 transport plane. The reality may be worse, and it will take time to establish the facts, particularly with Kremlin proxies obstructing the investigation, destroying evidence, hiding bodies, and acting as if the world is not watching this closely. The extent of Russian push-back suggests that Moscow has a great deal to hide.

Nevertheless, even if the shootdown was entirely the work of Donetsk locals, self-styled Cossacks with an itchy trigger finger and an excess of vodka, it bears noting that the pseudo-state there is in fact under the tight control of the Kremlin, in particular of its powerful intelligence agencies, what the Russians call the “special services.” The premier of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) is Aleksandr Boroday, a Russian citizen who, Pravda reported back in 2002, is a member of the special services, specifically the powerful Federal Security Service (FSB).* Boroday was appointed an FSB major-general at the tender age of thirty-five. In the FSB, Boroday worked in the sensitive “political field” and has been tied to Russian nationalist causes. Right now he is busy keeping investigators away from the MH17 crash site.

The DNR’s “defense minister” is the shadowy Igor Girkin, AKA Strelkov, another Russian citizen who has been the subject of much media commentary, given his belligerent actions and obvious power in the Donetsk area. Although he is reported to have an FSB background, he is a GRU asset now, according to U.S. intelligence, and serves as the local coordinator of Kremlin-controlled militias. Strelkov was gloating online about the Boeing 777 shootdown, thinking his forces had destroyed a Ukrainian An-26, then quickly deleted his comments. The DNR individual caught by Ukrainian intelligence on tape discussing the shootdown with GRU superiors is Igor Bezler, another longtime GRU operative with a murky past. It is important to note that the intercept confirmed that Bezler is fully within the GRU chain of command, as is the whole DNR military.

To illustrate just how tightly controlled by the Kremlin the DNR actually is, a little over a week ago it relieved its deputy premier for security, a Ukrainian, and replaced him with Vladimir Antufeyev, another Russian from the special services. Antufeyev previously served as the head of security in the Russian-controlled territory of Transdnistria. Russian media have reported that Antufeyev was brought to the DNR to “restore order” and tamp down in-fighting among some of the rebel bands. It is known that Boroday, Strelkov, and Antufeyev all worked together on behalf of the Russian special services during the 1990s conflict in Transdnistria.

Regardless of who exactly fired the missile that killed 298 innocent people, and who issued the order to do so, the Donetsk pseudo-state is a wholly-owned Kremlin subsidiary, with its top-three “power ministries” all in the hands of Russian citizens who are longtime creatures of Moscow’s special services. The only law in the DNR is Putin’s, as exercised through GRU channels. As such, it is difficult to imagine anyone undertaking any important decision there without Kremlin approval and the go-ahead of Russian intelligence.

*It has recently been claimed that this article was a “joke” — some joke — but Boroday’s affiliation with the special services since the 1990s is admitted by the Russian media.

Active Measures, Havana Style

One of the hardest things for normals – meaning those uninitiated to the world of espionage – to grasp is just how devious and nasty some intelligence agencies actually are, particularly if they are Russian or have been trained by Russians. For years, I’ve contended with uninformed people who simply cannot believe that the Kremlin’s special services, as they call them, actually do espionage, propaganda, sabotage, subversion, and terrorism, despite there being mountains of evidence that they do exactly that, most recently in Ukraine. And it’s not just the Russians doing these sorts of things.

You may recall the scandal that ensued back in the fall of 2012 when The Daily Caller, a right-wing news website, published sensational allegations that Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) had been cavorting in the Dominican Republic with underage prostitutes. The bombshell dropped just days before the senator faced reelection. In the months that followed, the story — which Menendez firmly denied — began to fall apart as sources recanted their accounts, and the mud began to sling inside the fishbowl of Washington, DC reporting. The damage to the senator’s reputation, however, had been done.

Some people smelled a rat from the start, and it seems that such doubts were well placed. A detailed new report in The Washington Post, which is based on solid research, makes clear that the effort to smear Sen. Menendez was actually a Cuban intelligence operation. What Havana, specifically its powerful Intelligence Directorate (Dirección de Inteligencia — DI), did here is a classic case of an Active Measure, to use the proper Chekist term. The Russians trained Castro’s spies, and their modus operandi is similar at many points, particularly in the dirty tricks department. Havana’s spies excel at espionage and political warfare, and they have successfully smeared many foes abroad over the decades, and the DI’s dislike for Sen. Menendez, a strong opponent of the Castro regime, is well known. So they engineered a complex propaganda operation to damage an enemy.

As elaborated in the Post‘s account, U.S. counterintelligence for some time has known that Cuban spies were behind the Menendez smear, which bears the hallmarks of a classic DI operation. They created a fake tipster, “Pete Williams,” who “told FBI agents and others he had information about Menendez participating in poolside sex parties with underage prostitutes while vacationing at the Dominican Republic home of Salomon Melgen, a wealthy eye doctor, donor and friend of the senator.”

None can say the DI, which as I’ve explained before is a very competent spy service that has customarily run rings around U.S. intelligence, didn’t work hard at this operation:

According to the former U.S. official familiar with the intelligence, the information suggested that Cuban operatives worked through business allies and lawyers in the Dominican Republic to create the fictitious tipster. The former official said the U.S. intelligence community obtained information showing that Cuban operatives allegedly attempted to lend credence to the timeline of the prostitution allegations by tracking flights on Melgen’s private plane that Menendez made for visits to the elite Casa de Campo resort, where the eye doctor has a home.

How this all got started is a textbook case of an Active Measure, using anonymous sources and cut-outs:

The FBI’s Miami field office began its probe into the Menendez prostitution allegations in August 2012 after receiving copies of e-mails that “Pete Williams” sent to a liberal watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. CREW said the tipster began corresponding with its investigators that spring, but they told the FBI they were unable to meet Williams in person or corroborate the claims.

“My duty as a US citizen obligates me to report what I consider a grave violation of the most fundamental codes of conduct that a politician of my country must follow,” the tipster, identified as Williams, wrote to CREW in an April 2012 e-mail, claiming “first hand information” about Menendez’s participation in “inappropriate sexual activities with young prostitutes.”

The FBI investigated these allegations for months, particularly after they exploded in the media in November 2012, only to find there was nothing to them. Instead, it bore the hallmarks of a DI operation, as was obvious to those who are familiar with their tradecraft. As explained by Enrique Garcia Diaz, a senior Cuban intelligence defector to the United States, “From the moment that article about Senator Menendez was published, I suspected that it was an invention of Cuban intelligence, because that is the way they work. It is their modus operandi … They fabricate lies. They look to create intrigue.”

Sen. Menendez has been briefed on the Cuban intelligence operation waged against him, and he is pressing the Department of Justice for a full investigation of the matter, and I hope DoJ does due diligence here. In response to the realization that he got played by Havana’s spies, Tucker Carlson, editor in chief of The Daily Caller, expressed skepticism: “I really can’t assess it without more information … It’s bizarre on its face, but also fascinating.” If he’s waiting for a personal brief by the DI on how they smeared Sen. Menendez, Mr. Carlson will be waiting a long time. In the interim, he should read up on the real world of espionage and learn the term Active Measure.

Meet Russia’s New “International Brigades”

For months, the most prominent meme pushed by Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin as it wages Special War against Ukraine has been that the country is a nest of fascist vipers, and that Jew-hating Neo-Nazis are in power in Kyiv. As such, Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine is therefore defensive, indeed a replay of the Second World War, rather the Great Patriotic War that Russia continues to misrepresent for current political purposes. Just today, according to Interfax, Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Democracy and Rule of Law, stated that the problems of Nazism and anti-Semitism are “the most pressing ones” in Ukraine now. This meme has become pervasive among many in the West too, despite its fraudulence. A good guide to judging how close a person is to the Kremlin position on Ukraine is how often and how loudly s/he informs you that “fascists” are running that country.

In keeping with the Ukraine-Is-Fascist theme, we have an interesting new piece of propaganda from the Strategic Culture Foundation, a Russian far-right think-tank established in 2005 which is prone to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, which explicitly compares the war being waged in eastern Ukraine today with Spain in the 1930s. “The International Brigades in the Donbas: Like Spain in 1936 – only volunteers!” is authored by Nikolay Malishevsky, a Belarusian who is a frequent contributor to SCF and possesses the ultra-nationalist views fused with Orthodox spirituality that are all the rage in the Kremlin these days. The article itself is pure agitprop, complete with vintage propaganda images from the Spanish Civil War – it should be noted that SCF has been warning about rising “fascism” in Ukraine long before the current war started – but it reveals several things about the not-so-secret secret war being waged by Russian intelligence in eastern Ukraine.

According to Malishevsky, the self-proclaimed Donbas People’s Republic has hailed the the establishment of new International Brigades to defend its territory against Ukrainian “aggression,” and its “Prime Minister” Aleksandr Boroday has said that the parallels with Spain in the 1930s are “obvious” and his government is “ready to accept the service of volunteers from all countries, without exception, in Europe, America, Asia and Africa.”

This, Malishevsky makes clear, is a deeply inclusive appeal to: “Men and women. Natives of Western, Central, Eastern and Southern Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East and Central Asia. Socialists and conservatives. Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims … all united in military brotherhood and the desire to stop the brown plague of the 21st century.” He is at pains to note that volunteers are not coming solely from Orthodox countries like Russia, Belarus, and Serbia, but from many places.

The reader is shown a purported picture of an unnamed Czech volunteer, while Malishevsky claims that a unit of Poles showed up to defend “Russian Donbas” in late May, led by one Bartosz Becker, a group of “free Polish people who object to the basing of NATO terrorists in Poland.”  The author asserts that among the “antifascist volunteers” there is a Hungarian unit calling itself the “Legion of Saint Stephen,” made up of ethnic Hungarians and “traditionalists” who are fighting for “a New Europe, in which Hungary could become a key partner for Russia and Poland.” Given known ties between Russian intelligence and Hungary’s far-right, this is an interesting statement, if true. Malishevsky claims that some “antifascist” Italians are supporting the Donbas People’s Republic with humanitarian aid, but not (yet) with fighters.

There is allegedly also a unit of twenty Israelis serving with local Donbas militia in the “Aliya” Battalion, veterans of the Israeli and Soviet militaries, while there is a unit of German volunteers serving in Novorossiya calling itself the Ernst Thälmann Battalion (which, not coincidentally, was the name of the German unit in the International Brigades in Spain, circa 1936-39). Its leader is Alexander Kiefel, said to be a veteran of East German special forces, including a tour in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, and according to Malishevsky the Germans are there as volunteers, not mercenaries, and more are coming to defend “free” Ukraine. There is also a unit of Serbs commanded by one Bratislav Živković.

According to Malishevsky, these volunteers are fighting under the command of the Donbas mystery man and “Defense Minister” Igor Strelkov, who is known to be an an officer of Russian military intelligence (GRU). The author waxes romantically about recreating the International Brigades of “heroes like Hemingway” in Spain, adding that soon there will be more volunteers  – “Russians, Serbs, Belarusians, Poles, Israelis, Germans, Hungarians, Italians, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Canadians and many others.”

In truth, these new International Brigades seem to have hardly more than a handful of fighters of dubious provenance. But you can expect to hear more about them and their struggle against “fascism” in Ukraine in the days ahead. So far, the only obvious similarity between this effort and the iconic International Brigades in Spain in the 1930s is that both are the creation of the Kremlin’s intelligence apparatus, and fully under its control.