KYIV -- Their mission was top secret: Slip into enemy territory undetected, capture their target, and return with him to Kyiv. They knew it would be dangerous but their superior said it was worth the risk, and the order came from the top. If successful, it could lead to a major breakthrough -- of what kind, specifically, they were not told.
In the early morning hours of June 27, the small group of Ukrainian military intelligence operatives snuck through a hole in Russia-backed separatists’ battle lines. Careful to avoid detection and land mines, they eventually made their way to the city of Snizhne, in the Donetsk region some 20 kilometers from the Russian border. There, they stormed into a home, located their target -- a bald, elderly man with a pencil mustache -- and forcibly extracted him.
They were almost clear, and within sight of Ukrainian government-controlled territory outside the city of Donetsk, when two of the operatives triggered mines that exploded beneath them. Badly wounded, the men were carried by others in the team the rest of the way.
The operatives accomplished their mission before sundown, but it came at a steep cost. One of the wounded men would lose a leg. The other would die in a hospital bed.
The account of the mission, told exclusively to the RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service’s Donbas Desk by an operative who was involved, offers the first detailed look at how Ukraine managed to capture Volodymyr Tsemakh -- a man the head of the Dutch-led investigation into the 2014 shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 has called a “suspect” -- and bring him to Kyiv.
Tsemakh, a 58-year-old Ukrainian citizen and Snizhne resident, was the commander of a Russian-backed separatist air-defense unit of the Russia-backed separatists in the Donetsk region when MH17 was shot down, killing all 298 passengers aboard. In a 2015 video unearthed by Current Time, a Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, he bragged about helping to hide the Russian Buk missile system that the Dutch-led investigation said shot down MH17.
Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU), the Defense Ministry, and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office all declined to comment on the operation to capture Tsemakh or to confirm the details provided to RFE/RL by its source. But the operative’s account aligns closely with Ukrainian and Russian media reports about Tsemakh’s capture and social media posts about the fatally wounded operative that were analyzed by RFE/RL.
While Tsemakh’s capture was largely lauded by the Ukrainian public when some details were published in the days afterward, it took on special significance on September 7, when Zelenskiy and SBU chief Ivan Bakanov told reporters that a major prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia on that day hinged on the captive -- whom a court had released from custody two days earlier -- being included.
That long-anticipated swap involving 70 prisoners -- 35 on each side -- included virtually all high-profile prisoners held by the two countries. Speaking to reporters on the tarmac at Kyiv’s Boryspil International Airport afterward, Zelenskiy called the swap “the first step to end the war” between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists that has killed more than 13,000 people since its outbreak in 2014.
Tsemakh’s inclusion in the exchange, however, disappointed the Dutch-led MH17 investigation team and angered some relatives of MH17 victims who had hoped to see him perhaps participate in a trial of four men -- three Russians and a Ukrainian -- indicted by prosecutors in the Netherlands for their alleged roles in the plane’s downing.
Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said that MH17 investigators managed to question Tsemakh before he was flown to Moscow. Yuriy Lutsenko, who was Ukraine’s prosecutor-general at the time of Tsemakh’s arrest, wrote on Facebook on September 8 that Tsemakh had been offered a deal by the Dutch to become a witness in the MH17 case but declined it.
‘He Must Be Delivered Alive’
Speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of his work in military intelligence, the operative who took part in the mission to capture Tsemakh said it was planned by his superiors well in advance but that his special operations team, comprised of members of various intelligence and security agencies, was given the green light to carry it out only one day in advance.
“If something goes wrong, it is better to know less,” the operative said, recalling discussions held with his superiors on the eve of the mission. They had not even been told the name of the man they were ordered to extract, only what he looked like and where he was located, he said.
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“We asked the commander of one of the intelligence services we cooperated with two questions: ‘Can we liquidate the client if something goes wrong?’ And ‘Is this operation worth such a serious effort?’” the operative recalled.
“To the first question, the commander answered, ‘No, under no circumstances. He must be delivered alive.’ To the second [question], the commander replied something like, ‘Yes, this operation is worth the most serious effort. If all goes well, it will be a breakthrough,’” the operative said.
Outside the city of Donetsk, the operative said his team left Ukraine’s frontline positions, moved through no man’s land, and then slipped quietly through an unmanned section of the separatist forces’ firing positions.
They were able to do so, he said, because they were experienced soldiers who fought in the area previously and knew the lay of the land there well.
Among the team, the operative said, was Oleksandr Kolodyazhniy, a decorated soldier who had fought in the bloody fight for Donetsk airport in 2014 and in pitched battles in the city of Avdyivka in 2016. Kolodyazhniy, 45, had been wounded three times in those clashes, but managed to recover. He was well known in Ukraine for raising the country’s blue-and-yellow flag over the airport while taking heavy fire.
Running Through A Minefield
In Snizhne, the team moved cautiously but quickly to nab Tsemakh, who they found inside his home.
The operative declined to explain what they did with Tsemakh when they found him. But Tsemakh’s wife told the BBC Russian Service that there were signs of a struggle when she returned to the home later on June 27, including traces of blood.
The BBC Russian Service also cited unconfirmed reports that the Ukrainian team drugged Tsemakh to quiet him and dressed him in disguise so anyone they came across would not recognize him.
The operative said the team had little trouble removing Tsemakh until the end of the operation.
After squeezing unnoticed past separatist firing positions back into no man’s land, the group found themselves in the middle of a minefield. In their haste to get to the other side, Kolodyazhniy and another team member each triggered a mine, the operative said.
“The guys were running down the hill and Sasha slipped and fell on his hip, triggering a mine,” the operative explained, using the diminutive for Kolodyazhniy’s first name, Oleksandr. “A second soldier ran up to help him, and he also [triggered an explosion],” he continued.
An unconscious Kolodyazhniy was carried the rest of the way by his team members. The second man, with his leg shredded, was also helped to safety.
Tsemakh was taken to Kyiv immediately, the operative said, while Kolodyazhniy and the other man were rushed to the hospital. There, doctors were forced to amputate what was left of the latter’s leg. After two weeks of trying to save the life of Kolodyazhniy, he died on July 11, the operative said.
His death was widely reported at the time, although the cause was never disclosed. Media reports said only that Kolodyazhniy, who had reportedly worked as a sales representative before the war, had been fatally wounded while conducting an operation near the front line.
On Facebook, family members, friends, and fellow soldiers mourned his loss.
'The Right Call'
In Kyiv, Tsemakh was charged with participating in the creation of a terrorist organization, facing up to 15 years in prison if convicted. But he was not tried.
On September 7, Tsemakh was put on a Russian government plane at Kyiv’s Boryspil Airport and flown to Moscow along with 34 other prisoners. Russian President Vladimir Putin had demanded that he be included in the exchange, Zelenskiy and Bakanov told reporters at the conclusion of the swap. Both said it was a difficult decision.
Much of Ukrainian society has since come down on their side. For many, the return of 35 Ukrainians who had been held in Russia -- including filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, who had languished in Russian prisons for more than five years, the 24 sailors detained in the Black Sea last November, and ailing 20-year-old Pavlo Hryb -- was worth it.
“Zelenskiy made the right call,” Oleksandr Khrebet, the international desk editor at the Kyiv-based Mirror Weekly newspaper, wrote in a column for the Atlantic Council’s Ukraine Alert blog. “Without Tsemakh, political prisoners and [prisoners of war] would still be in Russia and the Kremlin could increase pressure on Ukraine in its inimitable style. With aggression.”