Top Ukrainian officials have dismissed an explosive CNN report that said Ukraine's main intelligence agency orchestrated a sting operation in neighboring Belarus in 2020 to arrest Russian mercenaries wanted for crimes in Ukraine.
The report, published on September 8, quoted three "former high-ranking Ukrainian military intelligence officials" as saying that Ukrainian intelligence, with help from U.S. security agencies, worked to fool a group of Russians into thinking they were flying to Venezuela as private soldiers to guard oil facilities there.
CNN said the Russians were duped into turning over evidence to Ukrainian agents who recruited them for the fake mercenary work. The plan allegedly went awry when the Russians, 32 in all, were unexpectedly diverted to Belarus and were arrested at a Minsk region resort by Belarusian security officials.
The arrest came just weeks before Belarus held a presidential election in which longtime ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka ultimately declared victory, sparking unprecedented street protests amid allegations of widespread fraud.
Ukraine's main security agency denied initial reports of its involvement last year.
In an interview with RFE/RL on September 8, Mykhaylo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, dismissed the report and suggested that CNN had been duped.
"Let's start with the fact that there are no factual references in the material at all. An anonymous source then spoke about a possible event," Podolyak said. "In the [United] States themselves, they absolutely denied any participation in any such special operations. What position should it be? We should formally enter into a dialogue with anonymous sources."
"Who could CNN journalists talk to in Ukraine? What are these anonymous people whose words were used? And how to verify that these 'anonyms' are not related to Russian interests and influence?" Podolyak said.
Russia's main security agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), meanwhile issued an unusually quick response to the CNN report, alleging Ukraine had committed an act of state terrorism.
The incident "is a criminal offense to begin with. It is the planned abduction of Russian citizens from the territory of a third country, and everything that happens, everything that we see from the Ukrainian special services, are acts of state terrorism," the FSB was quoted as saying by the TASS news agency.
In the aftermath of the arrests in August 2020, Zelenskiy spoke with Lukashenka by phone and called for the Russians who had been detained by Belarus to be transferred to Ukraine, according to a readout of the call released by Zelenskiy's office.
However, Lukashenka reportedly rejected that request.
The CNN report also said Ukraine received funding and technical support from the Central Intelligence Agency in setting up the ruse.
However, the report quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying some U.S. officials were aware of the plot but had no involvement.