MORE DANGEROUS THAN ENEMIES – Ukraine Security Service officer charged with spying

There are, I was once told, two types of traitor. There is the idealist, keen to achieve his (or her) political aims at huge personal risk, seeking success as the only reward. And there is the one who does it for money or some other personal advantage. Both are dangerous but one is more despised than the other. “Traitors are more dangerous than enemies,” said the late Velupillai Prabhakaran, a Tamil separatist and founder of the so-called Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. But they’re only dangerous if they’re not caught. Now a senior officer in Ukraine’s Security Service, the SBU, has been taken into custody, accused of working for Russian intelligence, and so far, his motivation has not been made clear.

Major General Valery Shaitanov is walked out in handcuffs by Security Service officers. Shaitanov. Photo uss.gov.ua

The man arrested is Major-General Valerii Shaitanov. Apart from passing on military intelligence to his Russian handler, it’s claimed that he was planning to assassinate the British-educated Chechen fighter Adam Osmayev, who led the Dudayev Battalion, a pro-Ukraine group fighting against the separatists in Donbass. The detention of Shaitanov shook Ukraine and looks likely to lead to further arrests.

Ivan Bakanov, Head of the Security Service of Ukraine since 29 August 2019. He is also a member of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine. His predecessor Vasyl Hrytsak was fired from the office by Ukrainian President Zelinski. In December 2017, Bakanov chaired the Servant of the People party. He also led the electoral staff of Volodymyr Zelensky during the presidential campaign. Photo by uss.gov.ua

The Chair of the SBU, Ivan Bakanov, describes it as the most significant step since the previous, pro-Russian regime of Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014 in the so-called Orange Revolution. “Unfortunately, an individual that was promoted to general after the Revolution of Dignity and was supposed to protect Ukraine,” said Bakanov, “in reality was working against its interests. We have conducted a long-term, complex, and multi-layered operation. This is the most important exposure conducted by the SBU since the independence.”

Adam OsmaevAdam Osmaev

 It’s worth remembering what   happened in that revolution, whose   repercussions rumble on even today.   Step into Kyiv’s imposing Maidan   Square, where much of the action took place, and you are very likely to be approached by people who claim they’re collecting for “our boys” in Eastern Ukraine. It reminded me of certain bars in Northern Ireland back in the days of the Troubles. But while in Belfast or Derry it was always obvious, just whose boys do the Maidan Square cash collectors have in mind? Are they supporters of the Ukrainian military? The separatist rebels? Or are they just lining their own pockets? Certainly, in Yanukovych’s time, the protestors against his regime got rough justice. “We’ve had some unfortunate experiences of adjudication,” I was told by Judge Volodomir Mazurok, a Vice-Rector at Kyiv’s School for Judges, “especially the mishandling of cases of peaceful protestors in Maidan.” Mazurok now teaches tomorrow’s judges how to run a fair trial and how to abide by the European Convention of Human Rights in their judgements. The School, in Kyiv, is supported by the Council of Europe and funded by the European Union and has its work cut out: Ukraine covers 600,0002 kilometres and employs eight thousand judges, all of them relatively poorly paid.

Judge Volodomir Mazurok, Vice-Rector at Kyiv’s School for Judges newjustice.org.ua

To be honest, though, nobody in Ukraine is particularly well paid, which explains a willingness on the part of some to carry out nasty jobs for cash-in-hand. It’s alleged that Shaitanov was recruiting an unnamed person – a former Ukrainian intelligence agent – who was to murder Osmayev, for which he would receive $200,000 (€184,000), a Russian passport and the identity card of a reserve officer in the Russian military.

Egorov held meetings with Shaitanov and recruited assets N in Europe Photo by uss.gov.ua

The evidence so far released suggests that Shaitanov’s FSB handler was Colonel Ihor Yehorov from the Department of Counterintelligence Operations, which is involved in planning, directing and carrying out intelligence, sabotage and terrorist missions inside Ukraine and, indeed, elsewhere. A part of the deal was allegedly that Shaitanov would set up the murder of Osmayev, either doing it himself or arranging for it to be done.

A first attempt to kill Osmayev had failed when his wife, Amina Okuyeva, drew a handgun and shot the would-be killer, who had posed as a French journalist. In a second attempt, in 2017, Osmayev and Okuyeva were driving back to Kyiv when a group of gunmen, possibly as many as seven, opened fire on their car with assault rifles. Osmayev was wounded but Okuyeva was shot in the head and died. Both Osmayev and his would-be killer ended up in intensive care. There was speculation in the Ukrainian media that the attacker could be Artur Denisultanov-Kurmakaev, known by the code name ‘Dingo’, who had also been involved in the murder of Umar Israilov, the former head of security for the leader of the Chechen Republic at the time, Ramzan Kadyrov. Israilov was killed in Vienna after accusing Kadyrov of torture. He had applied for political asylum in Austria. Russian media at the time laid the blame on Artur Denisultanov-Kurmakaev, who they referred to as ‘the Bandit of St. Petersburg’.

FSB handler Igor Yegorov Photo by uss.gov.ua

An investigation by the New York Times suggested that Denisultanov-Kurmakaev was to have received $100,000 (€92,000) with the aim of bringing Israilov to Russia, dead or alive. Denisultanov-Kurmakaev became famous, the NYT said, because of a high-profile story concerning his exchange for a Russian soldier, held in captivity in Chechnya after the first Russian-Chechen war in 1998.

THEY COME NOT SINGLE SPIES, BUT IN BATTALIONS

It’s claimed by the SBU that Shaitanov used his position to collect intelligence from his fellow officers. The Pre-trial investigations must now establish if they passed intelligence to him innocently, believing they were merely sharing with a colleague, or if any of them knew exactly what, if anything, Shaitanov was up to. The phone-tapped conversations between Shaitanov and his FSB handler Egorov that the SBU has made public suggest that the Osmayev murder was planned as a “turn-key project”, according to one of the speakers. Shaitanov said he was concerned with how to bury the body and how to dispose of the boots Osmayev would be wearing, because forensic science could use the mud on them to trace where he’d been.

Audio recordings, proving that FSB and Shaytanov were planning terrorist acts

 

Meanwhile, his other work for Russia continued, it’s claimed, supplying details about covert operations and personnel, about cooperation between defence departments and foreign partners, and about the internal workings of the SBU. He was also allegedly trying to recruit brother officers to work for the FSB. The SBU is fairly sure that Russia had – and probably still has – other assets in high places. Their homes, along with Shaitanov’s residences and places of work, are being thoroughly searched. The SBU have already arrested a former employee who apparently retained contacts with Ihor Yehorov. In a statement, the SBU said they had found at his home an impressive arsenal of firearms and ammunition.

Glock Pistol used to kill Osmaev

The law enforcement officials found an RPG-26 hand-held anti-tank rocket-propelled grenade launcher, an under-barrel grenade launcher, together with two grenades, a Steyr 1914 pistol with silencer, three RGD-5 grenades and the fuses to fit them, a quantity of plastic explosive, together with twelve detonator caps, and more than 9,000 rounds of ammunition in a variety of calibres. The Steyr is interesting, largely because of its vintage. The pistol was designed in 1912 and manufactured by the Austrian arms company Steyr-Mannlicher for the Austro-Hungarian army, just in time for World War One. Venerable, then, but if it’s been well looked after, still a deadly piece of ordnance in skilled hands, especially with a silencer. However, it only takes Steyr 9mm ammunition, which must be getting harder to find these days. Incidentally, it was not a Steyr that Serbian nationalist Gabrilo Princip used to murder Archduke Franz-Ferdinand in Sarajevo; that was a Belgian-made FN-Browning 1910.

Needless to say, Russia has retaliated for the arrest of Shaitanov. Several people have been arrested in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, just after the Orange Revolution had displaced Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Yanukovych. When he fled Ukraine, he went first to Crimea, which is mainly Russian-speaking, before settling in South Russia. Now the FSB says it has uncovered a Ukrainian-controlled “sabotage and terrorism group” in Crimea, including a female Russian military officer who, it’s claimed, “divulged state secrets”. Sound familiar? The English expression “tit-for-tat” springs to mind.

Valeriy Shaitanov Photo by uss.gov.ua

The FSB says the unnamed female officer passed intelligence to the Ukrainian military in 2017-18 and that a Ukrainian national also spied on them, they said, on orders from Kyiv. Both are being investigated for alleged treason and espionage. The Ukrainian national is being held in detention facilities but the female officer is under house arrest because she has a child. The FSB claim the plot was masterminded by Colonel Oleg Akhmedov, head of military intelligence in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson and that it all came to light during a separate investigation into a Russian suspect, accused of amassing a weapons cache in Crimea, allegedly on orders from Colonel Akhmedov.

HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF

It’s all highly suspicious, coming just one day after the arrest of Shaitanov for supposedly working for the FSB with murderous intent whilst spying on his own countrymen. It’s strange how events seem to repeat themselves in this way; as Karl Marx famously put it, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. Shaitanov’s supposed handler, Yehorov, has won a number of medals during his service for Russia, including one “for the return of Crimea”. Shaitanov, whose code name in his dealings with Yehorov was “Bobyl”, was a head of special operations at the elite Ukrainian unit Alpha at time of the Maidan protests. The unit took part in the assault on the House of Trade Unions, then being used as a base by the protestors. Shaitanov came to the notice of the SBU following the arrests in January of several members of a criminal gang of professional killers, the same group, it’s believed, who attacked Osmayev and killed his wife on a road near Kyiv. One of the group is now a suspect in the murder of Amina Okueva. His DNA was found on one of the weapons used in that attack.

Amina Okueva wife of Adam Osmaev © Wikipedia

Russian media has, as always, been quick to dismiss the story; the Russian news site Stalker Zone described the SBU evidence as ‘delusional’, whilst admitting that it’s possible that a member of the SBU could have been pro-Russia. “It’s impossible to rule out that in the SBU there are decent people,” the article says. By ‘decent people’ the writer means traitors to Ukraine who are working instead for Russia. The article suggests the SBU arrest was a publicity stunt and that it was unlikely that the FSB would have been involved in attempts to murder Osmayov, whom it dismisses as “a washed-up Chechen terrorist, also known for stealing money.” It seems to be known only to the writer of this extremely biased article, which also makes the mistake of saying that the $200,000 pay-off was supposed to be for Shaitanov, when it was for the killer he allegedly hired. Oh, and he says the phone-tap exchanges were faked, although without providing evidence. It was, perhaps, the inevitable Russian reply.

What do we know about Shaitanov? According to Yuri Butusov, a Kyiv-based journalist, Shaitanov was linked with the initial failure of the Ukrainian military in Slayvansk, which is in the oblast of Donetsk and was taken by pro-Russian forces, then eventually taken back by Ukraine. Butusov claims that the Ukrainian commanders negotiated with the separatists and refused to carry out assault operations, for which, says Butusov, Shaitanov was temporarily suspended. In this mish-mash of truth, obfuscation and downright lies, it’s very hard to work out what’s really happening, although there’s no doubt that the people of Slayvansk, whoever’s side they’re on, have suffered greatly. If you look up Slayvansk on-line you get conflicting news reports, propaganda reports and – interesting, this – an advertisement from Booking.com for a two-room holiday apartment to rent there “with balcony and city views”, plus, from Trip Advisor, a link headed “10 things to do in Slavyansk-na-Kubani”. I would have thought the best thing to do, very probably, is “duck”.

The fact is that Ukraine is struggling to develop into a modern free market economy with the sort of democracy that might one day qualify it to join the EU. It has a long way to go, although it’s a delightful country in many ways and Kyiv is a beautiful city. It also makes the best vodka I’ve ever tasted. Like other former Soviet states, its economy fell back by around 10% after the Communist bloc collapsed but it was picking up before the corona virus came along. The Ministry for Development of Economy, Trade and Agriculture is now predicting that Ukraine’s gross domestic product (GDP) will drop by 4.2% in 2020, while inflation will climb from 4.1% to 7%. They think things will improve next year. I hope so; it deserves to do well, once it has got rid of corruption and criminality. That will be more difficult with supporters like the Council of Europe and the EU bogged down in their own problems.

Ukrainian President Zelinski (middle) on a working trip to the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions. © gov.ua

The disinformation campaigns being run by Russia don’t help, either. NATO has been forced to put out rebuttals to Russian claims that, for instance, the Alliance is falling apart over Covid-19 (it isn’t), that it’s failing its member states (it’s actually helping enormously the almost one billion people living in NATO countries), that it is spreading the virus, either deliberately or by accident, and even that it created the virus. There are, of course, lots of stories about the corona virus being a biological weapon, while virologists have said repeatedly that it isn’t. I’m with the scientists: propagandists tend to get the science wrong. No doubt we’ll be hearing much more in the coming days about Shaitanov, Yehorov and others involved in this alleged plot. With Russia also having arrested alleged spies, can we now expect a prisoner swap? Whatever we hear, listen carefully, sceptically and keep your own council. Where espionage is concerned, it seems truth is whatever you choose it to be. As the French playwright Jean Cocteau wrote, “History is a combination of reality and lies. The reality of History becomes a lie. The unreality of the fable becomes the truth.”

Robin Crow

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