How Russia Unfold a Secret Net of Brokers Throughout Ukraine

When the primary armored automobiles of Russia’s invading military reached the center of Chernobyl nuclear plant on the afternoon of Feb. 24, they encountered a Ukrainian unit charged with defending the infamous facility.

In lower than two hours, and with out a combat, the 169 members of the Ukrainian Nationwide Guard laid down their weapons. Russia had taken Chernobyl, a repository for tonnes of nuclear materials and a key staging submit on the strategy to Kyiv.

The autumn of Chernobyl, website of the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe, stands out as an anomaly within the five-month previous warfare: a profitable blitzkrieg operation in a battle marked elsewhere by a brutal and halting advance by Russian troops and grinding resistance by Ukraine.

Now a Reuters investigation has discovered that Russia’s success at Chernobyl was no accident, however a part of a long-standing Kremlin operation to infiltrate the Ukrainian state with secret brokers.

FILE – A sandbag barricade sits on a constructing near the New Secure Confinement (NSC) construction over the previous sarcophagus protecting the broken fourth reactor on the Chernobyl Nuclear Energy Plant, in Chernobyl, Ukraine April 16, 2022.

5 folks with data of the Kremlin’s preparations stated warfare planners round President Vladimir Putin believed that, aided by these brokers, Russia would require solely a small navy pressure and some days to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s administration to give up, flee or capitulate.

By way of interviews with dozens of officers in Russia and Ukraine and a evaluation of Ukrainian courtroom paperwork and statements to investigators, associated to a probe into the conduct of people that labored at Chernobyl, Reuters has established that this infiltration reached far deeper than has been publicly acknowledged. The officers interviewed embrace folks inside Russia who have been briefed on Moscow’s invasion planning and Ukrainian investigators tasked with monitoring down spies.

“Aside from the exterior enemy, we sadly have an inner enemy, and this enemy isn’t any much less harmful,” the secretary of Ukraine’s Nationwide Safety and Protection Council, Oleksiy Danilov, stated in an interview.

On the time of the invasion, Danilov stated, Russia had brokers within the Ukrainian protection, safety and legislation enforcement sectors. He declined to offer names however stated such traitors wanted to be “neutralized” in any respect prices.

Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation is conducting a probe into whether or not the Nationwide Guard acted unlawfully by surrendering its weapons to an enemy, a neighborhood official instructed Reuters. The State Bureau of Investigation did not remark. The Nationwide Guard defended the actions of its unit on the plant, pointing to the dangers of battle at a nuclear website.

Court docket paperwork and testimony, reported right here for the primary time, reveal the function performed by Chernobyl’s head of safety, Valentin Viter, who’s in detention and is being investigated for absenting himself from his submit. An extract from the state register of pre-trial investigations, seen by Reuters, exhibits Viter can also be suspected of treason, an allegation his lawyer says is unfounded. In an announcement to investigators, Viter stated that on the day of the invasion he spoke by cellphone with the Nationwide Guard unit commander. Viter suggested the commander to not endanger his unit, telling him: “Spare your folks.”

One supply with direct data of the Kremlin’s invasion plans instructed Reuters that Russian brokers have been deployed to Chernobyl final 12 months to bribe officers and put together the bottom for a cold takeover. Reuters could not independently confirm the main points of this assertion. Nonetheless, Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation has stated it’s investigating a former high intelligence official, Andriy Naumov, on suspicion of treason for passing Chernobyl safety secrets and techniques to a overseas state. A lawyer for Naumov declined to remark.

At a nationwide degree, sources with data of the Kremlin’s plans stated Moscow was relying on activating sleeper brokers contained in the Ukrainian safety equipment. The sources confirmed Western intelligence reviews that the Kremlin was lining up Oleg Tsaryov, a hotelier, to guide a puppet authorities in Kyiv. And a former Ukrainian prosecutor basic disclosed to Reuters in June that Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, a good friend of Putin, had an encrypted cellphone issued by Russia so he may talk with the Kremlin.

FILE - Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) attends a meeting with leader of Ukraine’s Opposition Platform - For Life party Viktor Medvedchuk in Saint Petersburg, Russia July 18, 2019.

FILE – Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (R) attends a gathering with chief of Ukraine’s Opposition Platform – For Life get together Viktor Medvedchuk in Saint Petersburg, Russia July 18, 2019.

Tsaryov stated the Reuters account of how Moscow’s operation total unfolded “has little or no to do with actuality.” He didn’t handle his relationship with the Kremlin. A lawyer for Medvedchuk declined to remark. Medvedchuk is in a Ukrainian jail awaiting trial on treason prices that pre-date the Russian invasion.

Although Russia captured Chernobyl, its plan to take energy in Kyiv failed. In lots of circumstances, the sleeper brokers Moscow had put in did not do their job, in line with a number of sources in Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine Safety Council Secretary Danilov stated the brokers and their handlers believed Ukraine was weak, which was “a complete false impression.”

Folks the Kremlin counted on as its proxies in Ukraine overstated their affect within the years main as much as the invasion, stated 4 of the sources with data of the Kremlin’s preparations. The Kremlin relied in its planning on “clowns – they know a bit of bit, however they all the time say what the management needs to listen to as a result of in any other case they will not receives a commission,” stated one of many 4, an individual near the Moscow-backed separatist management in japanese Ukraine.

Putin now finds himself in a protracted, full-scale warfare, combating for each inch of territory at large price.

However the Russian intelligence infiltration did achieve a technique: It has sown distrust inside Ukraine and laid naked the shortcomings of Ukraine’s close to 30,000-strong Safety Service of Ukraine, or SBU, which shares an advanced historical past with Russia, and is now tasked with searching down traitors and collaborators.

FILE - Members of the Security Service of Ukraine check the social media of a man suspected to be a Russian collaborator after he was detained at his home in Kharkiv, Ukraine, May 12, 2022.

FILE – Members of the Safety Service of Ukraine examine the social media of a person suspected to be a Russian collaborator after he was detained at his residence in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Could 12, 2022.

This inner Ukrainian turmoil burst into partial view on July 17. In a video handle to the nation, President Zelenskyy suspended SBU head Ivan Bakanov, whom he has recognized for years, citing the massive variety of SBU employees suspected of treason. Ukrainian legislation enforcement sources instructed Reuters that some SBU employees recounted in dialog with them that they have been unable to succeed in Bakanov for a number of days after Russia invaded, including to a way of chaos in Kyiv. Bakanov did not reply to Reuters’ requests for remark.

Zelenskyy additionally stated 651 circumstances of alleged treason and collaboration have been opened towards people concerned in legislation enforcement and within the prosecutor’s workplace. Greater than 60 officers from the SBU and the prosecutor basic’s workplace are working towards Ukraine in Russian-occupied zones, Zelenskyy added.

Requested to touch upon Reuters’ findings, the Ukrainian presidential administration, the SBU and the prosecutor basic’s workplace didn’t reply. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated: “All these questions don’t have any relation in any way to us, subsequently there may be nothing for us to touch upon right here.” The Russian intelligence company, the FSB, and the protection ministry didn’t reply to Reuters’ questions.

KGB ties

Moscow’s spy equipment has been intertwined with Chernobyl for many years. After the 1986 catastrophe, when a reactor blew up scattering radioactive clouds throughout Europe, the Soviet KGB stepped in. Greater than 1,000 KGB employees took half within the clean-up, in line with a declassified inner memo to a Ukrainian authorities minister, dated 1991. Then-KGB boss Viktor Chebrikov ordered his officers to recruit brokers among the many plant’s employees and instructed {that a} KGB officer ought to maintain the submit of deputy boss of the plant answerable for safety, in line with one other memo – an inner KGB communication from 1986.

Even after Ukraine turned unbiased in 1991, Moscow’s spy chiefs remained highly effective there. The primary head of Ukraine’s home intelligence service was Nikolai Golushko, who began his profession in Soviet Russia. Earlier than his appointment he led the Ukraine arm of the Soviet KGB. Golushko saved a lot of the Soviet-era officers of their jobs, he wrote in a 2012 memoir.

After 4 months as Ukraine’s spy chief, Golushko moved again to Moscow to rejoin KGB headquarters, and in 1993 turned head of Russia’s newly created Federal Counter-Intelligence Service, precursor to right this moment’s FSB.

In Moscow, Golushko acquired a go to from the deputy head of Ukraine’s State Safety Service, Golushko wrote within the memoir. He recalled how Oleg Pugach, the Ukrainian official, requested for Golushko’s assist discovering material to make the uniforms for Ukraine’s intelligence officers. Golushko additionally wrote that Kyiv, in need of its personal sources and experience, signed offers underneath which the SBU agreed to share intelligence info with Moscow. In alternate, Moscow offered provides, expertise and professional assist with investigations. Reuters approached Golushko for remark. A colleague from an intelligence veterans’ group instructed Reuters Golushko, now 85, was in ailing well being and couldn’t reply questions. Reuters was unable to succeed in Pugach and could not independently verify Golushko’s account.

Intelligence officers working at Chernobyl formally turned a part of Ukraine’s safety equipment in 1991, however they continued to take orders from Moscow, stated the individual with direct data of the invasion plan. “In impact, these have been FSB staff,” stated the individual. The SBU didn’t reply to questions on Chernobyl or historic ties to Russian intelligence.

FILE - A general view of the New Safe Confinement (NSC) structure over the old sarcophagus covering the damaged fourth reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in Chernobyl, Ukraine April 7, 2022.

FILE – A basic view of the New Secure Confinement (NSC) construction over the previous sarcophagus protecting the broken fourth reactor on the Chernobyl Nuclear Energy Plant, in Chernobyl, Ukraine April 7, 2022.

The Chernobyl nuclear plant is an unlimited facility. An enormous metal construction encases Reactor No. 4, floor zero of the 1986 catastrophe. The plant lies simply 10 kilometers on the closest level from the border with Belarus, in a dense and extremely irradiated forest. Russia’s warfare planners thought of management of Chernobyl to be strategically vital as a result of it sat on the shortest route for his or her advance on Kyiv, in line with Western navy analysts.

The supply with direct data of the invasion plan stated that in November 2021 Russia began sending undercover intelligence brokers to Ukraine, tasked with establishing contacts with officers liable for securing the Chernobyl energy plant. The brokers’ objective was to make sure there can be no armed resistance as soon as Russian troops rolled in. The supply stated Chernobyl additionally served as a drop-off level for paperwork from SBU headquarters. In return for fee, Ukrainian officers handed Russian spies details about Ukraine’s navy readiness.

Reuters couldn’t independently confirm particulars of the supply’s account, and neither Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation nor the SBU responded to the information company’s questions. However a evaluation of Ukrainian testimony and courtroom paperwork and an interview with a neighborhood official present that Kyiv is conducting no less than three investigations into the conduct of people that labored at Chernobyl. The investigations have recognized no less than two folks suspected of offering info to Russian brokers or in any other case serving to them seize the plant, in line with these paperwork.

One of many males suspected by Ukrainian prosecutors and investigators of serving to Russian forces is Valentin Viter, a 47-year-old colonel within the SBU. On the time of the Russian invasion, Viter was the deputy general-director of the plant liable for its bodily safety.

In Could final 12 months, Viter oversaw a routine coaching train that was meant to simulate an assault by armed saboteurs. Armed members of the Nationwide Guard unit that protects Chernobyl took half, and rehearsed repelling the attackers by pressure. Viter stated the train was successful, in line with a video interview posted shortly afterwards on the plant’s web site. He additionally stated he hoped Chernobyl’s safety crew would “not want to use the data and abilities we acquired in a real-life scenario.”

Viter was seconded from the SBU to work at Chernobyl as safety chief in mid-2019, in line with an announcement he gave to investigators. In an extra assertion, he stated that on Feb. 18 this 12 months – six days earlier than the Russian invasion – he went on sick go away with a respiratory downside.

By then, Russia was bolstering its troops in Belarus in preparation for an invasion, U.S. officers stated on the time. Satellite tv for pc photos shot by U.S. satellite tv for pc imagery firm Maxar on Feb. 15 confirmed a navy pontoon bridge underneath building throughout the Pripyat River in Belarus, north of the facility plant. Ukraine’s police, and the SBU, have been on heightened alert in response to the Russian menace, and the nationwide police chief stated in an announcement on the time that safety was bolstered on the Chernobyl plant.

On the morning of the Russian invasion, Feb. 24, Viter stated, in an announcement to investigators, that he was at his residence in Kyiv. He telephoned the top of the Chernobyl Nationwide Guard unit, who was at his submit. By then, folks on the plant knew a column of Russian armored automobiles was heading their means.

Viter, in line with his testimony to Ukrainian investigators, instructed the commander, in Russian: “Spare your folks.” Viter had no official authority over the Nationwide Guard, and Reuters couldn’t decide whether or not the commander was heeding Viter’s phrases when the unit surrendered after discussions with the Russian invaders. A Nationwide Guard assertion recognized the unit commander as Yuriy Pindak.

FILE - Trenches dug by the Russian military are seen in an area with high levels of radiation called the Red Forest, near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in Chernobyl, Ukraine, April 16, 2022.

FILE – Trenches dug by the Russian navy are seen in an space with excessive ranges of radiation referred to as the Purple Forest, close to the Chernobyl Nuclear Energy Plant, in Chernobyl, Ukraine, April 16, 2022.

When the Russian troopers lastly retreated from Chernobyl after a 36-day occupation, they took Pindak and most of his unit away as captives. Ukraine says the guards are being held in Russia or Belarus. Russian officers didn’t touch upon the unit’s whereabouts.

Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation is conducting a probe into whether or not the Nationwide Guard broke the legislation by laying down arms, stated Yuriy Fomichev, mayor of the city of Slavutych the place a lot of the Chernobyl employees dwell. Fomichev stated he was not conscious of anybody having been charged. The State Bureau of Investigation did not reply to Reuters’ questions in regards to the matter.

The Nationwide Guard declined to touch upon the actions of particular person commanders and members of the unit tasked with defending Chernobyl. “Preventing on the territory of nuclear services is prohibited by the Geneva Conference,” it stated, including that this was “one of many causes” why there was no heavy combating on the website. It referred questions on any investigation to the Bureau.

Article 56 of a further protocol to the Geneva Conventions states that nuclear energy vegetation and different harmful installations shouldn’t be attacked.

Viter was arrested in western Ukraine and is now in pre-trial detention there on suspicion of absenting himself from his submit. An extract from the courtroom’s register, seen by Reuters, exhibits that legislation enforcement brokers have initiated a second investigation into Viter for suspected treason by “intentionally aiding the navy items of the aggressor nation, the Russian Federation, in finishing up subversive actions towards Ukraine.” They’ve but to uncover proof tying him to Russian particular companies.

Viter has stated in courtroom statements that he fled Kyiv for the security of his household two days after Chernobyl was seized however tried to remain involved with colleagues on the plant.

His lawyer, Oleksandr Kovalenko, stated Viter had a professional motive for being off work and was unaware that he ought to keep at Chernobyl. The lawyer stated any treason allegation was unfounded and Viter had not been served with a letter of suspicion, a step which normally precedes prices. In response to the lawyer, Viter stated “Spare your folks” to remind the Nationwide Guard commander that many individuals trusted him. Viter didn’t focus on give up, Kovalenko stated. He added that investigators had not requested Viter about any alternate of paperwork at Chernobyl.

Money and emeralds

The extent to which Russia infiltrated Chernobyl has centered Ukrainian authorities’ consideration on the SBU, the company Viter labored for, sources stated. Particularly, navy prosecutors on Viter’s case are concerned with his connection to a former Ukrainian official referred to as Andriy Naumov, in line with sources with data of the investigation and a transcript of Viter’s questioning seen by Reuters.

Beforehand an official within the Ukrainian prosecutor’s workplace, by 2018 Naumov had been appointed head of COTIZ, a state enterprise liable for estate-management of the radioactive exclusion zone round Chernobyl. A serious a part of COTIZ’s function was to advertise “excessive tourism” within the exclusion zone, however the enterprise additionally had a task in maintaining the positioning safe, in line with its web site.

After his stint at Chernobyl, Naumov was made the top of the SBU’s division of inner safety, a division that investigates different officers suspected of legal exercise. Final 12 months, the company stated it thwarted an assassination try on Naumov by different SBU officers. Naumov was later fired as division chief, in line with Ukrainian media outlet Ukrainska Pravda and a legislation enforcement supply.

Naumov vanished shortly earlier than the invasion, an individual in legislation enforcement stated. He ultimately turned up in Serbia in June. A Serbian police assertion issued on June 8 stated police and anti-corruption brokers had arrested a Ukrainian citizen recognized by the initials “A.N.” on the border with North Macedonia. He had been attempting to cross into North Macedonia from Serbia. A search of the BMW wherein he was a passenger uncovered $124,924 and 607,990 euros in money, plus two emeralds, the assertion stated. It stated the person and the unnamed driver of the BMW, who was additionally detained, have been suspected of aspiring to launder the money and emeralds, which police imagine originated from legal actions. Volodymyr Tolkach, Ukraine’s ambassador to Serbia, publicly confirmed the arrested man was Naumov.

The State Bureau of Investigation confirmed a neighborhood media report that it’s conducting a pre-trial investigation into Naumov for state treason. It stated it was trying into whether or not Naumov collected info on the safety set-up at Chernobyl whereas working on the plant and later on the SBU and handed it to a overseas state. The assertion didn’t say what grounds it had for suspecting he handed on secrets and techniques or if it had particular proof linking him to Russia.

On March 31, President Zelenskyy issued a decree stripping Naumov of his brigadier-general rank. The identical day, the Ukrainian president introduced in an emotional handle that Naumov and one other SBU basic have been “traitors” who violated their oath of allegiance to Ukraine. Zelenskyy didn’t make reference to Chernobyl.

Naumov stays in detention in Serbia and couldn’t be reached for remark. His lawyer in Serbia, Viktor Gostiljac, declined to remark. The SBU didn’t reply to questions on Naumov.


For Russia’s warfare planners, seizing Chernobyl was only a stepping stone to the primary goal: taking management of the Ukrainian nationwide authorities in Kyiv. There, too, the Kremlin anticipated that undercover brokers in positions of energy would play a vital half, in line with 4 sources with data of the plan.

Yuriy Lutsenko, who served as Ukraine’s prosecutor basic from 2016 till 2019, revealed to Reuters that on the time he left the function “tons of” of Protection Ministry staff have been underneath surveillance, authorized by his workplace, as a result of they have been suspected of ties to the Russian state. Lutsenko stated he believed there have been comparable numbers of suspected spies in different ministries.

Russia’s warfare planners have been additionally relying on different allies to assist in the takeover, 5 sources stated.

Some of the seen loyalists was Viktor Medvedchuk, a frontrunner of Ukraine’s Opposition Platform – For Life get together. Putin is god-father to one in every of Medvedchuk’s youngsters. Since 2014, Medvedchuk has been a vocal opponent of the favored protests that referred to as for nearer ties to the European Union.

FILE - Pro-Russian Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk is seen in handcuffs while being detained by security forces in unknown location in Ukraine, in this handout picture released April 12, 2022.

FILE – Professional-Russian Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk is seen in handcuffs whereas being detained by safety forces in unknown location in Ukraine, on this handout image launched April 12, 2022.

Medvedchuk was charged with state treason on Could 11, 2021. Investigators from the SBU alleged on the time that Medvedchuk handed secret particulars about Ukrainian navy items to Russian officers, and supposed to recruit Ukrainian brokers and covertly affect Ukrainian politics. The day earlier than the invasion, he left his residence in Kyiv and was planning on leaving the nation, in violation of the phrases of his bail, in line with the SBU.

Medvedchuk was detained on April 12, Zelenskyy introduced that day. Zelenskyy instantly posted photos of him handcuffed, in Ukrainian navy fatigues and looking out bedraggled. Medvedchuk has since been in detention.

Medvedchuk has denied the treason prices, saying they have been falsified and a part of a political plot towards him. Kremlin spokesman Peskov instructed reporters on April 13 Medvedchuk had no back-channel communication with the Russian management.

Lutsenko, the previous Ukraine prosecutor basic, instructed Reuters that earlier than the Russian invasion, Medvedchuk used an encrypted phone that was issued to him by the Kremlin, gear reserved just for essentially the most senior Russian officers and pro-Russian separatist leaders. Lutsenko stated Ukrainian investigators had managed to hack the encrypted cellphone system, with out disclosing what they discovered.

Medvedchuk’s lawyer, Tetyana Zhukovska, declined to remark till a courtroom has handed down a choice within the case. The Ukrainian prosecutor’s workplace didn’t remark.

One other key determine, in line with three sources accustomed to the Russian plans, was Oleg Tsaryov, a square-jawed 52-year-old former member of Ukraine’s parliament. He was picked by Kremlin invasion planners to guide the brand new interim authorities they deliberate to put in, these sources stated. Their feedback are the primary affirmation from inside Russia of U.S. intelligence assessments, reported by the Monetary Occasions earlier this 12 months, that Moscow was contemplating placing Tsaryov in a management function in a puppet authorities in Kyiv.

Tsaryov has been underneath Ukrainian and U.S. sanctions since 2014, when, after a bid to win election as Ukrainian president collapsed, he headed up a physique referred to as “Novorossiya,” or New Russia. The group pushed the thought of turning southeastern Ukraine right into a separate pro-Russian statelet. By the beginning of this 12 months, he was in Russian-annexed Crimea, the place he owns two accommodations.

Within the early hours of Feb. 24, at first of the invasion, Tsaryov instructed his greater than 200,000 Telegram followers he had crossed into Kyiv-controlled territory. “I am in Ukraine. Kyiv can be free from fascists.”

However Zelenskyy didn’t capitulate. Any expectations in Moscow that he would flee Kyiv or negotiate a deal that may cede to Russia’s calls for quickly evaporated. Within the weeks that adopted, Ukrainian forces halted Russian troops’ advance on Kyiv.

Tsaryov by no means made it to the capital. On June 10, he posted an commercial to his Telegram followers for his seaside resort in Crimea, the place a one-night keep prices 1,500 rubles ($28) per individual per night time. Tsaryov is now spending his time in Crimea with visits to Moscow, in line with his social media posts.

Paranoia and distrust

Russia’s marketing campaign of infiltration did, nevertheless, stir suspicion and distrust at some ranges of the Ukrainian state, which hampered its capacity to manipulate, particularly within the first few days after the invasion.

One stark incident that fueled the tensions in Kyiv’s energy corridors associated to the dying in early March of Denys Kirieiev, a former financial institution govt, a number of sources stated. He was a member of the Ukrainian delegation that took half in short-lived talks with Russian negotiators on the Ukraine-Belarus border, beginning on Feb. 28. {A photograph} confirmed Kirieiev sitting alongside Ukrainian officers on the negotiating desk.

An advisor to the Zelenskyy administration stated, in a web-based interview, that officers from the SBU shot Kirieiev whereas attempting to arrest him as a Russian spy.

However Ukraine’s Army Intelligence Company stated Kirieiev was its worker and intelligence officer, and that he died a hero whereas conducting an unspecified particular project defending Ukraine. A supply near the Ukrainian navy instructed Reuters that Kirieiev was certainly a spy working for Ukraine. He had entry to the best ranges of the Russian management, this supply stated, and was feeding again worthwhile info on invasion plans and different issues to his handlers in Kyiv.

Amid the chaos early within the warfare, Bakanov, then the top of the SBU, left Kyiv for no less than three days after the Russian invasion, in line with three folks in Ukrainian legislation enforcement. Two of those folks stated some SBU employees recounted they have been unable to succeed in Bakanov for a number of days after Russia invaded. In suspending Bakanov on July 17, Zelenskyy cited an article in Ukraine’s Armed Forces statute, underneath which servicemen may be relieved of their duties for improper conduct resulting in casualties or a menace of casualties.

Bakanov and the SBU didn’t reply to Reuters’ questions.

Zelenskyy, in his speech, confused the toll Russian infiltration was taking over his embattled nation by talking of the quite a few officers who’ve been accused of betraying Ukraine.

“Such an array of crimes towards the foundations of the nationwide safety of the state … poses very critical inquiries to the related leaders,” Zelenskyy stated.

“Every of those questions will obtain a correct reply.”

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