March 30, 2018

Did Ukrainian counter-intelligence operation uncover a deadly plot?

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Vasyl Hrytsak, the head of the Security Service of Ukraine (known by its Ukrainian-based acronym as SBU), announced on March 9 that a prominent public figure, in collusion with the Moscow-backed leadership of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), part of the temporarily occupied territories of the Donbas, had been systematically transporting weapons from the regions beyond Kyiv’s control into government-controlled Ukraine (Ssu.gov.ua, March 9).

The authorities arrested Volodymyr Ruban on March 8, as he was entering government-controlled Ukraine. Inside the vehicle he was driving, the security services found a significant arsenal, ranging from Kalashnikov assault rifle and rocket-propelled-grenade (RPG) rounds to explosives, tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition and a mortar, all hidden among furniture (Liga.net, March 9). This was clearly far more weaponry than Mr. Ruban could use alone. He is suspected by law enforcement of plotting terrorist attacks and assassination attempts against high government officials in Ukraine (Censor.net.ua, March 20).

Since his apprehension by the authorities, Mr. Ruban has appeared in court. Verkhovna Rada National Deputy Nadiya Savchenko, most famous for her capture by the separatist forces in the Donbas and subsequent imprisonment in Russia, attended his court hearing. Ms. Savchenko stated she would personally stand surety for Mr. Ruban if he received bail. Instead, he was remanded to 60 days in custody (Censor.net.ua, March 20).

Mr. Ruban was well known to the SBU. For several years, he ran a civil-society organization seemingly dedicated to the swapping of captives on either side of the Donbas contact line. He had previously drawn the ire of the security services for falsely identifying himself as an SBU general and even claiming to represent the agency in negotiations with the separatists (Bykvu.com, January 16, 2016). He illegally entered the temporarily occupied territories on February 24, 2017, along with National Deputy Savchenko (Liga.net, February 27, 2017).

In fact, Mr. Ruban came to the SBU’s attention even before the start of the war with Russia. He was allegedly long involved with Ukrainian Choice, a pseudo-non-governmental organization (NGO), financed by Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, designed to promulgate Kremlin-friendly propaganda. According to the SBU, Mr. Ruban later played a part in pushing efforts for federalizing Ukraine in line with the designs pushed by the Kremlin. “We have materials that refer to Ruban’s connection with Ukrainian Choice; he worked actively with them until 2014. Now, he distances himself from it,” the SBU’s head, Mr. Hrytsak asserted, pointing to evidence gathered from online social networks (Ssu.gov.ua, March 9).

Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko confirmed that Mr. Ruban’s recent stop, search and arrest did not happen by chance (Interfax, March 9). Footage from a hidden camera apparently planted inside the vehicle Mr. Ruban was using to smuggle weapons appeared on social media. Moreover, Mr. Lutsenko noted that the authorities knew this was not Mr. Ruban’s first weapons smuggling trip. A previous successful monitoring mission by the security services observed Mr. Ruban transporting weapons to government-controlled Ukraine and secretly storing them in the central-western city of Khmelnytskyi (YouTube, March 23). It quickly became clear that the case was not an isolated incident, but rather the result of a broader, long-running covert SBU operation.

Both the size of Mr. Ruban’s smuggled arsenal and the Ukrainian authorities’ March 9 statements regarding the plot’s alleged targets suggest a much larger conspiracy. The Verkhovna Rada was to be hit by a mortar attack. Moreover, the plan seemed to involve the elimination of essentially the entire political leadership of the state security and law enforcement agencies – the president, internal affairs minister, National Security and Defense Council secretary and the prosecutor general. All this indicated that further arrests were sure to come.

On March 12, the SBU carried out 25 searches across Ukraine, apparently uncovering weapons, propaganda material, explosives and other evidence of subversive activities (Pravda.com.ua, March 12). That same day, the SBU requested that Ms. Savchenko come in for questioning. However, at 4 a.m. she had left for Europe, according to her to testify about the Ukrainian leadership’s corruption and illegal activities (112.international, March 20).

On March 15, Prosecutor General Lutsenko announced he would seek to remove the parliamentarian’s immunity from arrest, detention and prosecution via a vote in the Verkhovna Rada. And by March 20, Anton Herashchenko, an advisor to the internal affairs minister, published the full indictment against Ms. Savchenko on his Facebook page (Facebook.com/anton.gerashchenko, March 20). Two days later, the prosecutor general made a 28-minute presentation to the Ukrainian Parliament, showing a video of both Ms. Savchenko and Mr. Ruban prima facie involved in plotting serious offenses. Mr. Lutsenko made it clear to the lawmakers that there were many megabytes of surveillance and signals intelligence (SIGINT) material to buttress the state’s case (YouTube, March 23). Whether or not the evidence shown to the Verkhovna Rada was contextually accurate or manipulated, the video unmistakably shows Ms. Savchenko and Mr. Ruban.

Ms. Savchenko left Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna Party in October 2016, though she remained a national deputy (UNIAN, December 13, 2016). Since then, allegations arose that she may have also fallen under Mr. Medvedchuk’s patronage. Indeed, along with Mr. Ruban, all three were involved, officially or otherwise, in the release and exchange of captives in eastern Ukraine (UNIAN, March 23, 2018).

The Verkhovna Rada overwhelmingly voted to strip Ms. Savchenko of her immunity based upon the evidence put before it on March 22. She was subsequently detained by the SBU. Appearing before a court the following day, Ms. Savchenko denounced the authorities’ case against her as political persecution and announced a hunger strike (Pravda.com.ua, March 23). She was remanded in custody without bail until May 20 (Interfax, March 23).

While the impending trials of Mr. Ruban and Ms. Savchenko are bound to grab the headlines for many months to come, it is worth noting the length and sensitivity of the SBU operation that led to their arrest, and the lack of leaks during its covert phase. Indeed, almost certainly far more intelligence was (and will be) gleaned and evidence collected than will ever be made public or appear in a courtroom – perhaps on account of how it was obtained. Clearly, Ukrainian security services accumulated a significant amount of SIGINT and effectively used various covert technologies – though neither Mr. Ruban nor Ms. Savchenko seemed to be particularly concerned with counter-surveillance strategies. And it remains unknown whether the SBU’s operational phase is now complete.

Prosecutor General Lutsenko stated there may yet be further arrests: “We can guess who this puppeteer is because of the slogans of the so-called Ukrainian Choice” (Interfax, March 22). The inference to draw from this is that Mr. Medvedchuk, the official interlocutor between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko relating to the swapping of captives, may be expected to become the SBU’s next priority.

The article above is reprinted from Eurasia Daily Monitor with permission from its publisher, the Jamestown Foundation, www.jamestown.org.