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Cybersleuths Say Zelenskiy's Office Postponed Russian Mercenary Sting Operation After Cease-Fire Pact

Vasyl Burba, who led the military intelligence at the time and was overseeing the operation, said Zelenskiy's office pushed back the sting operation several days because of concerns that it would jeopardize the truce deal.
Vasyl Burba, who led the military intelligence at the time and was overseeing the operation, said Zelenskiy's office pushed back the sting operation several days because of concerns that it would jeopardize the truce deal.

An alleged plot by Ukrainian intelligence agencies to capture almost three dozen Russian mercenaries fell apart after President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's office requested a postponement, according to an investigation by the open-source research group Bellingcat and the Russia-focused media outlet The Insider.

In a report issued on November 17 after a yearlong investigation, British-based Bellingcat and The Insider said they found that the country's military intelligence service had planned to force a plane carrying 33 Russian mercenaries from Minsk to Istanbul on July 25, 2020, to land in Ukraine under false pretenses.

The planned forced landing was to have been the final stage of an elaborate sting operation carried out by the military intelligence service with support from the counterintelligence department of the domestic intelligence agency, the SBU, according to the report. The goal, it said, was to lure and arrest Russian mercenaries who previously fought on the side of Russia-backed anti-government forces in the war in the eastern Ukrainian region known as the Donbas.

However, the report said, just days before the plane was to take off from Belarus, Zelenskiy agreed to a cease-fire in the conflict in the Donbas effective on July 27, 2020.

According to the report, Vasyl Burba, who led the military intelligence at the time and was overseeing the operation, said Zelenskiy's office pushed back the sting operation several days because of concerns that it would jeopardize the truce deal.

The report quotes Burba as saying he met with Zelenskiy's chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, just days before the operation to give a final update. Burba said Yermak proposed postponing the sting operation.

"According to Burba, the position of the Office of the President was that if the sting operation would continue as planned and culminate in detentions on 25 July, the cease-fire would be dead before it started," the report by Bellingcat and The Insider said.

Several operatives told Bellingcat that Burba called them immediately after the meeting with Yermak. However, Bellingcat said it could not independently verify Burba's alleged conversation with Yermak, and Zelenskiy's office did not provide comments for this investigation, despite multiple requests.

Zelenskiy, Yermak, and the intelligence agencies have in the past denied that Ukrainian authorities hatched any such plan, which might have caused an international uproar had it been carried out, in part because diverting a plane on false pretenses is illegal.

In September 2020, Yermak called accounts of an alleged Ukrainian operation a "detective story" whose authors took "a few facts from reality" and added a heavy dose of "fiction." In comments in June 2021, Zelenskiy suggested that Ukraine may have been drawn into a plot initiated by another country.

In a statement to RFE/RL on November 17 following publication of the report, the Zelenskiy administration said "it is the policy of the President's Office and the Ukrainian government not to comment on the existence or nonexistence of any intelligence operations."

The mercenaries arrived in Belarus on July 25 and were arrested by the Belarusian KGB at their hotel on the outskirts of Minsk on July 29. Belarus accused them of seeking to destabilize the country ahead of an August 9 presidential election in which authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka faced an unprecedented challenge from the pro-democracy opposition. They were later sent back to Russia.

The report by Bellingcat and The Insider is based on "interviews with individuals involved with the operation, a massive amount of documentary evidence…and open-source verification of claims," Bellingcat said. The report said that many of the sources spoke on condition of anonymity due to safety concerns or because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

The report directly contradicted one of the findings announced a day earlier by a Ukrainian parliamentary committee that was set up to investigate the matter.

The head of the parliamentary committee, Maryana Bezuhla, told journalists on November 15 that there was no evidence that Zelenskiy had postponed the operation. The committee was unable to determine who or what caused the postponement.

Bezuhla is a member of Zelenskiy's Servant of the People party, which holds a majority in parliament.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy

According to the report, the military intelligence agency lured the mercenaries through a fake website mimicking a disbanded Russian paramilitary organization.

The Ukrainian operatives posted fake job ads seeking Russians with military backgrounds and requesting they send resumes with details of their prior experience.

More than 200 people applied, many detailing their service in eastern Ukraine, creating a "gold mine" of information for Ukraine's intelligence, the report said.

It said that military intelligence worked with the domestic intelligence agency to pick out those applicants most wanted for their wartime activities in eastern Ukraine, narrowing it down to slightly less than three dozen.

The saga became known in Ukraine and elsewhere as Vagnergate -- a reference to Vagner, a prominent private Russian military company whose employees have fought in the Donbas war and other conflicts involving Russia.

According to the report by Bellingcat and The Insider, most of the men targeted in the operation "had at some point served as mercenaries" for Vagner in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, or the Central African Republic (CAR).

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service
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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.

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