Analysis: The West should not trust Ukrainian spy agencies. Neither should Ukrainians

Volodymyr ZelenskyON SUNDAY, JULY 17, the Ukrainian administration of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced the most extensive shake-up of the nation’s security leadership since the Russian military invasion. Two key members of Zelenskiy’s inner circle, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova and domestic security chief Ivan Bakanov, were summarily fired. Venediktova was the public face of Kyiv’s war crimes campaign, which was launched in March in response to the Russian invasion. Bakanov, a childhood friend of Zelenskiy, had headed the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) since 2019.

In a subsequent video statement, Zelenskiy said he fired the two officials after he was informed that at least 60 employees of the SBU and the Prosecutor General’s office had defected to the Russians in eastern Ukraine. Last week, in an article for SpyTalk, Kremlin watcher Olga Lautman said Bakanov’s dismissal had been expected for a few days. Regardless, the move has shaken Western observers, and has given rise to legitimate questions about the susceptibility of Ukraine’s security and intelligence services to Russian meddling. Should the Western alliance, and Western intelligence agencies in particular, trust their Ukrainian counterparts? The answer is, invariably, no. In fact, even the Ukrainians themselves are not in a position to trust their own intelligence services.

From the KGB to the SBU

On September 20, 1991, just one week after Ukraine secured its independence from the Soviet Union, the SBU was founded in place of the Soviet KGB. Initially, the new agency handled both internal security and external intelligence functions. But in 2005, the SBU’s Department of Intelligence became a stand-alone agency under the title Foreign Intelligence Service (SZR). Since then, the SZR has functioned as the institutional equivalent of the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), while the SBU has performed domestic security functions that resemble those of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

As is the case with the entirety of Ukraine’s state sector, the two agencies are endemically bloated. Intelligence observers report that the SBU’s 30,000 employees make it far larger in size than its British counterpart, the Security Service (MI5). Meanwhile, according to the latest information, the SZR has “double the number of personnel than the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and is larger than Britain’s [Secret Intelligence Service, or] MI6”. By all accounts, even today, more than 30 years after the dissolution of the USSR, the two agencies continue to resemble Soviet-style bureaucracies in terms of size, sluggishness, and corruption.

The Ukrainian State’s Pro-Russian Enclave

In 1999, intelligence observers Julie Anderson and Joseph Albini were noting that, in comparison to its Soviet predecessor, the SBU was “new in form, but not in substance”. A shortage of trained intelligence and security personnel meant that, even a decade after its establishment, the agency had to rely on Russian personnel for over a third of its needs. According to Anderson and Albini, these Russian-born —and largely Russian-affiliated— employees had been “trained by and retained contacts with Moscow”. Meanwhile, longtime counterintelligence officer Nikolai Golushko, who had headed of the Soviet KGB in Ukraine until 1991, had fled to Russia, taking with him “key Ukrainian files”. For many years later, these files constituted “a valuable source for blackmail and exploitation of Ukraine’s remaining intelligence officers and their informants”, the authors noted.

Throughout that time, the SBU and the institutional descendants of the Soviet-era KGB in Russia, worked closely on several programs and operations. Numerous senior officers in the SBU continued to receive training in Russia. Unsurprisingly, by 2014, when Russia invaded the Ukrainian region of Crimea, the SBU was known to be “riddled with Russian spies, sympathizers and turncoats”, according to The Wall Street Journal’s Philip Shishkin, who has kept a closer eye on Ukraine’s intelligence services than almost any other foreign media correspondent. Almost as soon as Russia annexed Crimea, the local head of the SBU defected to its Russian counterpart agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB). It was reported at the time that, within days of the Russian invasion, close to a third of SBU employees in Crimea and the Donbas had joined the pro-Moscow separatists.

By then, the SBU’s untrustworthiness was commonly acknowledged and understood in Ukraine. In fact, under the five-year rule of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych (2010–2014), the SBU effectively became a branch of Russian intelligence. During that time, the agency deliberately ignored —and may have even assisted— Russian espionage operations against Ukraine, as the Kremlin’s “intelligence agencies met no obstacles to the infiltration of the SBU and [Ukrainian] military intelligence”. Even after Yanukovych fled to Russia following massive popular pressure, the SBU remained the most pro-Russian part of Ukraine’s labyrinthine government.

The SBU Under Zelensky

Despite sporadic attempts to reform the SBU’s pro-Russian culture after 2014, by 2019, when Zelensky assumed office in Kyiv, the SBU remained “porous vis-à-vis the Russian Security Service”. It was, by all accounts, “a service which Western counterparts [were] hesitant to engage with”. When they took over power, Zelensky and his close collaborators were aware of the SBU’s pro-Russian identity. But this problem was not easy to solve. When Yanukovych had fled to Russia, his SBU lieutenants had made sure to steal or destroy literally all internal data on the agency’s personnel, as well as “anything related to cooperation between the Ukrainian and Russian intelligence services”. It was reported at the time that every SBU “hard drive and flash drive” was literally smashed with hammers by officers loyal to the departing regime. Meanwhile, the agency’s entire senior leadership fled to Russia.

Zelensky knew that he had to act quickly. In his inauguration speech, which he delivered on May 20, 2019, he called on the Ukrainian parliament to immediately dismiss a number of senior government officials, including the head of the SBU, Vasyl Hrytsak. Having received the memo, Hrytsak resigned on his own initiative before he was fired. In the months that followed, Zelensky fired 90 percent of SBU officers, ranging from low-level technical staff to regional heads from across the country. They were replaced by a new generation of freshly minted officers, who underwent polygraph tests prior to being admitted into the SBU’s ranks. By late 2021, Zelensky and his closest aides believed they had successfully tackled the SBU’s “Russian problem”.

The SBU’s Russian Problem Persists

But they were wrong. The pace of reforms was too rushed and too unsystematic to sack the inner sanctum of the SBU’s Russian enclave. Like some of his predecessors, Zelensky consciously refrained from making his reforms seem like a purge, as doing so could reawaken longstanding divisions that are deeply entrenched in Ukrainian society. As a recent report by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) noted, “in a country aspiring to protect its democracy, there is […] an unwillingness to begin arresting [pro-Russian] Ukrainians, since [it could] fracture Ukrainian politics, creating precisely the conditions to facilitate a Russian takeover”.

That hesitation, however is what denied Zelensky political control over the SBU. In the words of that same RUSI report, the result of that hesitation was that Russia now “has a bureaucracy in waiting”, a “shadow structure […] inside the Ukrainian government to move information around known Kremlin assets”. Last week’s dismissals of the head of the SBU and the prosecutor general, were clear signs that Zelensky has recognized that his efforts to reform these institutions have been far from successful. The Ukrainian president is thus beginning to realize the very size of the Russian shadow structure within the Ukrainian state, which now directly threatens the cohesion of his administration and the very survival of the Ukrainian resistance against the Kremlin.

The Future

What will happen from now on? It will be difficult for the Zelensky government to survive without implementing an extensive and far-reaching cleanup of the state apparatus. There are reports that this is already underway. However, any such move runs the risk of being perceived as a Soviet-style purge, and could alienate large segments of Ukraine’s Russian speaking population.

The situation is particularly problematic in areas under Russian control. As everyday Ukrainians, as well as government officials, are trying desperately to survive in the occupied areas, they face the dilemma of quitting their jobs, or continuing to work in hopes of receiving a much needed monthly paycheck. If they choose the latter option, they can easily be viewed as collaborationists by Zelensky and his government. Such an approach, combined with extensive purges in free Ukraine, may create the preconditions of a civil war. That would be an anathema for the Ukrainian cause, and would derail the efforts of the Western alliance to save Ukraine from the brink of disaster.

* Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis is Professor of Intelligence and Security Studies at Coastal Carolina University. He specializes in intelligence collection.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 July 2022 | Permalink

2 Responses to Analysis: The West should not trust Ukrainian spy agencies. Neither should Ukrainians

  1. Jimmy Gilbert says:

    and so, six months in, they still can’t kill Zelensky… If anything, this is over blown. Yes, there are problems. Heck, the CIA & FBI bought the Steel Dossier lock stock… or was it collusion with the DNC? In six months, Russia as we know it today, will be gone… Hopefully, for the better…

  2. 1984 says:

    The past several hundred years has seen nation states identity closely aligned to the ethnicities of the majority. Racism has meant that members of a particular majority could only become employed by the nation’s intelligence agencies.

    How does the Ukraine deal with this if 1/3 of its population are Russian and an even larger portion have relatives all over Russia.

    Especially during a war.

    I’ve love to hear Dr Fitsanakis’s opninions on how does one make a new agency free of your enemies direct and indirect control.

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