- Ukraine’s intelligence service tricked 32 Russian mercenaries into confessing their roles in the 2014 Donbass war and nearly flying into Ukrainian custody, according to explosive reports from Ukrainian media.
- The Ukrainians invented a fake security contract and extracted confessions from the mercenaries at the job interview, then put them on a flight that would take them from Russia to Belarus, then to Ukraine, the reports said.
- However, the plan fell through at the last minute when the Russians were in Belarus, and the Belarusian secret police arrested the mercenaries instead. They have since been released back to Russia.
- Insider spoke to five current and former intelligence officials and contractors, who largely called the operation “perfect” despite the last-minute breakdown, and “humiliating” for Putin.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The intelligence world is currently roiled by reports that Ukraine’s intelligence service had tricked 32 Russian mercenaries accused of war crimes into confessing – and almost got them to Ukraine by setting up fake job interviews under the guise of a security contract.
The reports claim that the Ukrainian intelligence (SBU) operation was designed to convince dozens of Russian mercenaries who had fought in the 2014 Donbass war, between Russia- and Ukraine-backed fighters, to provide verification of their presence in the region. The entire operation began nearly a year ago, the reports said.
To extract the mercenaries’ confessions and eventually bring them into custody, the SBU created a fake security contract for them, set up fake job interviews, and readied a flight taking them from Moscow to Minsk, then to Istanbul on July 25, the reports said.
The plan was then for the charter flight, secretly arranged by the SBU, to claim a medical or technical emergency while airborne and divert to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, where the mercenaries could be imprisoned and offered to Russia in a prisoner swap, according to local media.
But at the last moment the operation was delayed for unknown reasons, and the Belarusian secret police (KGB) arrested the men in a spa outside Minsk, where they were awaiting their rescheduled flight.
Belarus quietly deported the 32 mercenaries back to Russia over the weekend. Various political factions in Ukraine are now trading blame for what they say was a leak that rumbled the flight to Kyiv and tipped off Belarus, journalist Christo Grozev tweeted.
https://t.co/1BJnohlwTO believes the leak to Russia came from Ukraine's presidential administration *after* the mercenaries had crossed into Minsk. They were prevented from boarding the plane to Istanbul, and were arrested theatrically in a show that seemed to serve Luka's goals.
— Christo Grozev (@christogrozev) August 18, 2020
Insider spoke to five current and former intelligence officials and contractors, who called the operation “perfect,” and “humiliating” for Russia.
All five declined to be named but their identities are known to Insider.
‘What … rock stars’
A person who works for a Central European NATO country’s counterintelligence service told Insider that despite the plan’s last-minute breakdown, “this does not change the intelligence operation element at work here, which was absolutely brilliant.”
This source works undercover and does not have permission to be identified by the media.
“The only reason these men are not in the dock in Kyiv right now is that it appears – this has not been properly confirmed – that someone in political leadership got cold feet about letting it proceed to its final destination,” the operative said.
“This will not be lost on Putin or the intelligence officials he’s probably going to fire for this. Operationally it was a humiliating defeat for Russian intelligence even if the flight never arrived.”
An Italian official called the plan “perfect.”
“What … rock stars,” a senior Italian law-enforcement official said of the Ukrainian operation.
“We run small operations like this against [the Sicilian mafia] and [Calabrian] ‘ndrangheta to catch fugitives, but to organise it with this level of detail and keep it a secret from the Russian FSB [security services], while working out of Kyiv, which is obviously a priority collection target for the Russians on a normal day … It’s just perfect tradecraft in the most difficult environment.”
A retired senior official in British intelligence with extensive experience dealing with Russia said the possibility that the operation would be scuttled at the last second makes sense in light of the political or even military ramifications.
This person continues to work as a security consultant and asked not to be named in order to speak openly.
“I am sure the people who planned and executed this apparently perfect mission are furious with their political leaders for not taking it to its conclusion, but this might be a short-sighted view,” the veteran said.
“The operators did their job perfectly and gave their leadership options,” the source continued. “It’s not necessarily up to the intelligence services to decide if successfully kidnapping 32 Russian citizens – even if it’s legally justified – and infuriating Putin while Russian tanks and troops occupy the eastern part of your nation is the best course.”
“Here’s a strong argument that the confessions and success of the overall operation are enough of a win to warrant not provoking even more bad blood with Putin.”
‘This must vex Putin considerably’
So far Ukraine has released three confessions of the mercenaries, which contain levels of detail that all five officials agreed would be nearly impossible to fake.
The evidence released so far includes passports, official Russian military documents proving their service and specialties, and a citation for bravery personally signed by Putin for fighting in Ukraine.
Some records have already popped up https://t.co/ezAMsZWF4Z
Unverified, of course. Yanina Sokolova is a journalist and she just mentions she received them.
— пані Марія (@latectonia) August 18, 2020
“The Russians know if these are their guys or not, and if it’s true,” said a Baltic official, who refused to comment further until more details became clear. “My reaction is faking this would require too much effort and there’s almost no payoff here unless it’s true.”
The latest incident is only the most recent of a series of aggressive operations by Ukraine. In May 2018, the SBU faked the death of a Ukranian journalist targeted by Russia in order to expose the Kremlin’s assassination network.
The operation, which was successful, was noted at the time for the ruthlessness of the SBU in allowing the journalist’s family to believe he was dead while they arrested the would-be assassins.
“It’s really quite the intelligence knife fight between Russia and Ukraine these days and Kyiv must feel pretty good about how well they are performing against a much larger foe,” said the Central European source.
“This must vex Putin considerably considering the resources Russia has poured into controlling Ukraine for centuries,” they added. “The government, police, politics, business, all have extensive Russian intelligence influence and compromises, and yet these guys managed to keep such an aggressive and targeted operation a secret anyway.”