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Female Tank Commander 'Defects' For Love, Warns Kyiv Of 'Invasion' Plan

Svitlana Dryuk gained notoriety as a tank commander for separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. (file photo)

KYIV -- It may be a Ukrainian love story as complicated and dubious as the motives behind the simmering war itself: A female separatist commander and star propagandist for Russia-backed separatists defects to Kyiv to be with her Ukrainian spy lover. But she also brings word of Russian plans for a massive invasion. Moreover, she's ready to testify in The Hague to Moscow's role in alleged war crimes.

Svitlana Dryuk, the notorious commander of an all-female tank crew for anti-Kyiv forces in some of the bloodiest battles of the five-year conflict, aired her allegations on Ukraine's 1+1 TV channel on March 3.

The report was met with celebration by many Ukrainians who cited her defection and disclosures as a victory, worry by others who took seriously her claims of a return to possible all-out war, and indignation by former separatist comrades who said she should be "hanged" as a "turncoat."

But some skeptical Ukrainians are questioning whether she could actually possess the information she claims. They say the motives behind her switch in allegiance deserve more scrutiny and warn of the possible propaganda uses for such a defector in Kyiv.

Killing Ukrainians

Known by the nom de guerre Veterok (Breeze), the 40-year-old Dryuk debuted as a defector in a nearly nine-minute TV segment in which she admitted to having killed Ukrainians.

"I'm not excusing myself," she told reporter Andriy Tsapliyenko. "It was just a specific time and I was doing what I was told to [do]."

The United Nations estimates that around 13,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which next month enters its sixth year. A peace accord known as the Minsk II agreements, signed in February 2015, has helped deescalate but failed to stop the fighting.

Dryuk said she first joined the separatist ranks in 2014, eventually rising to senior officer in the Vostok Battalion led by Oleksandr Khodakovskyy, a prominent warlord and onetime head of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU)'s Alpha special-forces unit in Donetsk.

Dryuk became a darling of separatist and Russian media, which featured her in such documentaries as one extolling her all-female tank unit as "Heroes Of Our Time."

Her popularity led to the production of a full-length action movie called The Little Militiawoman (Opolchenochka), directed by Russian Aleksei Kozlov, that was loosely based on Dryuk's time in command. It is reportedly set for Russian release on May 9, Victory Day, when that country marks the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Red Army in 1945. It is unclear how Dryuk's defection might affect the film's release.

Now in Kyiv with her two teenage children, Dryuk said she was collaborating with Ukraine's intelligence services, a claim corroborated by the SBU in a statement.

"[Dryuk's] defection became the final stage of a long-standing operation of the SBU's counterintelligence unit, which resulted in a valuable eyewitness to Russian military aggression in Ukraine, as well as important materials on the leadership role of officers of the Armed Forces of Russia and members of Russian special services in organizing terrorist activities in the Donbas," the SBU said.

'Full-Scale Invasion'

Ukrainian and Western officials have repeatedly accused Russia of using regular army officers to fight alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine, a claim that Moscow consistently denies despite mounting evidence.

The spy agency said Dryuk also provided information about military equipment and the fighting positions of separatist units, as well as the location of storage facilities for fuel, ammunition, and heavy weapons that it said had come from Russia.

Specifically, Dryuk claimed to have shared Russian plans for a "full-scale invasion" involving "100,000 troops" who could pour into Ukraine in just four hours' time.

Dryuk reportedly said "special identification documents" have been created for "every Russian soldier who will enter" Ukraine, allowing such servicemen to present themselves as citizens from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and granting Moscow plausible deniability of direct involvement in the war.

Dryuk said she divulged the plan to Ukrainian intelligence officers after switching sides and that she also provided documents showing the results of tests of Russia's latest version of the T-72 main battle tank, the T-72B3, conducted in eastern Ukraine.

Dryuk vowed that she is ready to take up arms for Ukraine and return to the front line to fight against her former comrades if such an invasion occurs.

She also said she was ready to testify to Russian "war crimes" before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, though she did not specify what those crimes may be.

She explained her defection by citing her love for an unnamed Ukrainian intelligence officer.

"I have here, I hope, a friend who is very close to me. He is a member of the security service," Dryuk said. "I have no regrets."

Propaganda 'Achievement' For Kyiv

Neither Dryuk nor the SBU disclosed when Dryuk flipped, but the security agency said the operation required an "unprecedented level of conspiracy and skill" to pull off.

Oleksiy Melnyk, a co-director for foreign relations and security programs at the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center think tank, said he believes much of Dryuk's account and says such an operation would require a high degree of skill and planning.

Still, he said, it should be thoroughly scrutinized.

"I don't know if it is a romantic story or, more likely, her real intentions are not just personal feelings for a Ukrainian intelligence officer but some other incentives," he said, adding that Kyiv should treat her claims with caution.

"I'm not sure she had access to information that she claims to know about strategic plans," Melnyk said. "She could probably have had access to this mobilization system [and] these IDs prepared for Russian [soldiers]. But I'm not sure we should 100-percent trust the information about Russian strategic plans."

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Western governments have warned in recent months of a buildup of tens of thousands of Russian troops, with heavy weaponry, along the border with Ukraine.

Melnyk speculated that Dryuk could provide "important intelligence" to the Ukrainian side.

While Russia-backed separatists might rue the loss of a prominent propaganda figure -- Moscow-born former separatist commander Igor "Strelkov" Girkin said she should be "hanged...for treason" and others suggested she'd been tortured into cooperating with Kyiv -- Melnyk said Ukraine was right to celebrate Dryuk's defection as a propaganda "achievement."

"I would congratulate our special services," he said.