Since the beginning of the undeclared Russian-Ukrainian war in early 2014, the secret services of both countries have been key players in the conflict, particularly due to its “hybrid” nature. Covert operations, sabotage and espionage naturally all increased significantly compared to the pre-war years. Russian agents carried out numerous assassinations of Ukrainian officers, not only near the frontlines but also away from the combat zone—such as the car bomb killings, in 2017, of Colonel Oleksandr Kharaberyush, a counter-intelligence officer of the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU), in Mariupol (Ssu.gov.ua, March 31, 2017), and Colonel Maksym Shapoval, a commander of an elite special forces unit, in Kyiv (Radio Liberty, April 27, 2017). Moreover, in between these two murders, Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov held a press briefing in response to an explosions at a military ammunition depot in Balakliya, declaring that it was a terrorist attack, planned and executed by Russia (Espreso TV, April 2, 2017). Together, those and other such incidents demonstrated the SSU’s clearly inadequate focus on leaks of critical classified information. Since 2014, many SSU officers were fired because of their suspected ties to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). But according to the Ukrainian special service’s former deputy head, General Victor Yagun, the SSU never adopted strict-enough security and background-check measures (Nrcu.gov.ua, April 14).
Seemingly confirming Yagun’s words, a new scandal came to light in recent weeks. On April 14, the SSU reported it had arrested a “mole” within its ranks—Major General Valerii Shaitanov, who served as the chief of the service’s Center for Special Operations “A” (Ssu.gov.ua, April 14). He was detained under suspicion of state treason and for allegedly carrying out terrorist attacks. The arrest was the culmination of a years-long covert operation that had started in 2015. According to official statements, since that time, Shaitanov had multiple contacts with Russian FSB agent Colonel Igor Egorov, in Croatia, Germany and France. Egorov frequently visited Ukraine until 2014, as part of a bilateral cooperation initiative between the FSB and SSU, which could probably have helped him first make contact with Shaitanov. Egorov had participated in the occupation of Crimea and was even awarded a medal “For the Return of Crimea.”
The SSU contends that, as part of Shaitanov’s association with Egorov, the Ukrainian officer passed along to Russian intelligence information on clandestine operations in occupied Donbas (including mission specifics and personnel involved), broader national security matters, details of Ukraine’s defense cooperation with foreign partners, as well as the personal data of senior Ukrainian officers (he also helped to recruit them to work for the FSB). Moreover, Shaitanov allegedly planned the assassination of famous ethnic-Chechen volunteer Adam Osmaev. As a reward, Egorov promised to issue Shaitanov a Russian passport, pay him $200,000 and arrange for the Ukrainian agent to receive a military pension from Moscow (Ssu.gov.ua, April 14).
The fact that Shaitanov and Egorov’s meetings abroad were surveilled means that this Ukrainian counter-intelligence operation must have required permission from the security services of the host countries or possibly even authorization at the level of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), since all three foreign countries where the two men met—Croatia, Germany and France—are member states of the Alliance. The SSU was even more likely to have worked together with German security authorities due to some evidence that Egorov may have been a member of a European network that killed Chechen volunteer fighter Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin last year (Bild, April, 19). Some of Shaitanov and Egorov’s meeting places in Hamburg were identified and published by Ukrainian blogger Anton Pavlushko (Facebook.com/anton.pavlushko, April 14).
For now, Shaitanov will reside in jail for 60 days as a pre-trial investigation continues. On April 16, the SSU reported it had detained another former Center for Special Operations “A” operative who was also allegedly in contact with FSB Colonel Egorov. During the search of the suspect’s residence, the SSU seized a large weapons arsenal, including rifles, an RPG-26 rocket launcher, hand grenades, explosive materials and rounds (Ssu.gov.ua, April 16).
Russia almost always reacts to such cases with comparable, retaliatory actions. Thus, a day after Shaitanov’s apprehension, the FSB reported on the arrest of a new group of “Ukrainian terrorists” (Fsb.ru, April 15). The supposed spy ring consists of Ukrainian citizens and a Russian military servicewoman; but as in previous cases, the Russian authorities presented scant evidence. Nonetheless, the announced arrest likely had three major objectives: to serve as a reprisal for the Ukrainian counter-intelligence operation, to manipulate public opinion in Russia (including in occupied Crimea), and to create a reserve for future prisoner exchanges. The incident once more underscores that Moscow sees all Ukrainian nationals on Russian territory (including in occupied Crimea and Donbas) as essentially hostages, to be used at any time to put pressure on the Ukrainian government. Former SSU officer Yagun believes the Kremlin will do what it can to ensure Shaitanov is included on a future prisoner exchange list in order to bring him under Russian custody.
The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, lacks individuals it would be willing to swap. The last exchange, which occurred on April 16, raised many questions and even criticism domestically (Ukrainska Pravda, April 16). Without prisoners it can release to Moscow, Kyiv is increasingly facing the prospect of having to accept some serious political compromises in order to free additional Ukrainian citizens from Russian detention. One frequently cited step would be to resume water supplies to occupied Crimea. The idea came up multiple times in recent months: notably expressed by Ukrainian parliamentary members Yuri Aristov (from the president’s Servant of the People party), who proposed selling water to Russia (Krym.Realii, February 1), and David Arachamia (also from Servant of the People), who called for exchanging water for some Russian concessions on Donbas (Pryamyi TV, February 11), as well as newly appointed Prime Minister Denys Shmygal (1+1 TV, March 6). The proposals seemed to bear out earlier predictions from Russian opposition politician and economist Vladimir Milov, who stated that the Kremlin would use the Donbas conflict as leverage to force Kyiv into resuming the water supply (Radio Liberty, July 14, 2019).
Most hardline Ukrainian opposition parties or movements, including “Ruh Oporu Kapitulyazii” (“Movement Against Surrender”), strictly resist the move, and they planned protests against turning the water supplies back on (Facebook.com/vilnilyudy, March 7). But ongoing coronavirus quarantine measures in Ukraine preclude large public gatherings of any kind, worrying many activists that the government will use this situation to undertake some unpopular decisions without risking renewed street protests.