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Ukraine Looks To Stalin Era To Root Out Spies

Ukrainian Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey in combat uniform in Slovyansk in July
Ukrainian Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey in combat uniform in Slovyansk in July

Kyiv appears to have taken a page from Stalin's book in a bid to root out pro-Russian spies looking to weaken Ukraine's defenses from within.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey has announced the creation of a Special Service, similar to a counterintelligence organization that existed during Josef Stalin's rule, to deal with subversive elements in the Ukrainian military.

"Today, more than ever, it is important to get rid of the Russian 'fifth column' in the Ukrainian armed forces and the Defense Ministry," he wrote on Facebook on August 30. "In order to expose and dispose of enemy agents, due to evidence of failures to fulfill commanders' orders and cases of desertion, under my direct supervision the Special Service within the Defense Ministry is being created."

The organization would be "similar to SMERSH, working first and foremost on the front lines and within the military's administration," he wrote. "In the near future we will see the results of its work."

SMERSH is the Russian-language acronym for "Special Methods To Detect Spies," a secret and notorious group created by Stalin from 1943 to 1946 as a military counterintelligence organization.

According to Vadim Birstein, author of "Smersh: Stalin's Secret Weapon," "5.4 million Soviet POWs and civilians sent by the Nazis to Germany as slave laborers went through SMERSH's hands, and 600,000 of them ended up as convicts in the GULAG."

The group also captured or killed 9,500 German agents and arrested about 800 Japanese military and intelligence agents, and at least 400 former White Russians and pro-Japanese Russians, according to Birstein.

SMERSH was jokingly said to stand for "death to spies," and the name featured in James Bond novels as a fictional Soviet counterintelligence organization.

Since his appointment in early July, Heletey has gained a reputation for making bold and controversial comments. Shortly after taking over his post, Heletey rejected any talks with rebel forces until they disarmed. On September 1, he followed up his counterespionage announcement by warning on his Facebook page that "a great war has arrived at our doorstep -- the likes of which Europe has not seen since World War II."

The recent posts came as Ukraine's military has struggled in recent days to repel a counteroffensive by pro-Russian forces in southeastern Ukraine. Before then, Ukraine's forces had been gaining ground against rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk.

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