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EXCLUSIVE War in Ukraine

Russia Interfered in Western elections – former head of Ukraine's Military and Foreign Intelligence.

How Russia’s intelligence services are working in Ukraine and abroad to subvert democratic institutions and pursue Moscow’s agenda of weakening the West.

Kyiv Post’s Aleksandra Klitina had an exclusive interview with Lt. Gen. Valeriy Kondratiuk, a former Ukrainian intelligence officer. Kondratiuk was also Head of the Foreign Intelligence Service from 2020 to 2021, Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration of Ukraine from 2016 to 2019, Head of the Defense Intelligence from 2015 to 2016, and Head of the Counterintelligence Department of the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine) from 2014 to 2015.

Kondratiuk explained how Russia began preparations for military operations in Ukraine back in 2005, confirming that Russian intelligence services had built a network of influence in Ukraine that they relied on for preparing a full-scale invasion. He talked about the role of Putin’s close friend Victor Medvedchuk, and what exactly triggered Russia’s full-scale attack.

Kondratiuk confirmed Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections through social media and the participation of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s (head of the Wagner mercenary group) bot farm in St. Petersburg, Russia. He also discussed whether Putin has doubles, and how to distinguish between the original and the “fake Putin.” The former head of the intelligence services also explained how to resist Russian influence, identify Russian agents, what people under pressure from Russian intelligence services should do, and provided an example of a counterintelligence operation in 2014.

When you were the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service in 2020-21, were there any signs that Russia would start a full-scale war?

To answer this question, we need a little bit of history. After our first Maidan (2004) in Ukraine, the course for Euro-Atlantic integration was declared. At that time Putin determined his readiness to conduct a military operation against Ukraine and prevent such a scenario.

In 2005 Russian agents, including Bezler (a lieutenant colonel of the Russian military intelligence, later one of the leaders of the so-called DPR), were sent to Ukraine. Bezler came to Horlivka, Donetsk region, in 2006. He is originally from Simferopol, but for some reason, he went to Horlivka instead of his hometown. There he became a veteran of all military organizations, including paratroopers. He created corrupt connections with the heads of law enforcement agencies in Ukraine and controlled the operational situation. He was a sleeper agent.

What year was that?

In 2006. When Russia gave the command in 2014 to wage a hybrid war, all these sleeper agents woke up, and we saw a seizure of cities: Sloviansk by Girkin-Strelkov and Bezler. In other words, a hybrid war. From that time, a full-scale war was being planned, and the only thing that postponed these plans was the fact that the pro-Russian political leadership returned to power in Ukraine (2010). Putin did not need to achieve his goals militarily because he could implement his decisions through pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine.

It was Yanukovych’s return to power in 2010 that made it possible to adopt the shameful Kharkiv agreements, which extended the stay of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine, and this created opportunities for Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine and, before that, the seizure of Crimea in 2014. Russia had been preparing for armed aggression since 2005.

The seizure of Crimea in 2014 resulted in a strategic mistake – Russia did not consider the supply of water to the peninsula. And the fact that Ukraine cut off the water supply through the Crimean Canal led to a humanitarian catastrophe in Crimea. All attempts by the Russians to solve this problem, to extract water through wells or seawater, had no results.

In 2021, we saw that the volume of water in the reservoirs had reached a critical level of 13%, so the Russians had to either ask Ukraine to supply water to Crimea or to achieve this militarily. The Russians counted on the revanche of pro-Russian forces in Ukraine, and it was Medvedchuk’s party, OPZZh, and pro-Russian TV channels that were supposed to play a big role in this, but it didn’t happen. So Putin responded by launching a military operation against Ukraine in 2022.

If it was so clear and logical that Russia would launch a full-scale invasion, why was Ukraine unprepared?

It is impossible to be 100% prepared for war, we considered possible attack directions, the most threatening ones. While Putin considered many scenarios, we only looked at one – the worst-case scenario. Perhaps we did not have time to do everything as it should have been done, and there were many hopes for a political solution to the conflict and diplomatic pressure. The red lines that the West created for Russia, explaining that the invasion would lead to fatal consequences – severe sanctions not only for the economy but also the lives of ordinary Russians – did not stop Putin.

Before Russia’s full-scale invasion, Americans warned us publicly about Russia’s attack. Why did the Ukrainian leadership not believe? Was it a political position?

Not only the Americans had this information, but we also had it.

Yes, Kyrylo Budanov, the head of the military intelligence, also warned the country’s leadership.

Furthermore, the Main Intelligence Directorate had information about the directions and preparation of Russia’s main strikes.

So, it was known that there would be an attack on Kyiv?

Yes, among other regions. In the summer of 2021, the Joint Intelligence Committee considered the possible attack on Kyiv and it was not a surprise. The actions to prepare the Ukrainian armed forces were not public, and since the citizens did not know about the danger it created an explanation vacuum. The uncertainty resulted in not enough effort being put into the preparation.

Why did Russia capture Kyiv and Kherson regions so quickly? Why did they advance so fast?

It was already the strategy of the Ukrainian armed forces to let the Russian military columns that were moving throughout Ukraine pass. Instead, the main efforts were on preventing the capture of Kyiv. That’s where a large group of troops concentrated to stop and crush the assault forces Russia sent to capture Kyiv.

Those Russian military columns coming through Kharkiv and Sumy regions and the east of Ukraine were simply destroyed by our aviation. The Russians suffered the greatest losses in the first days of the war because they did not expect Ukrainian air defense would hold out and remain able to shoot down planes and strike at these Russian columns after the first Russian missile strikes.

What was Medvedchuk’s role? Was he the head of the Russian network of agents here in Ukraine, or was there someone else?

I don’t think Medvedchuk was the head of the Russian network of agents. He was the head of the pro-Russian forces, and the agents gathered information directly about our capabilities in the military-industrial sphere. Still, all these agents worked to promote these pro-Russian forces that Medvedchuk led in Ukraine and bring him to power. Of course, many of these people who supported Russia and hoped for his coming to power were from these pro-Russian parties.

Most people from the occupied territories in the east of Ukraine fell into the Russian network through manipulation and propaganda. If you recall the beginning of the war on Feb. 24, there were many markers for the Russians to aim their precision weapons. People from the occupied territories were confused or misled, sent even earlier as refugees or temporarily displaced persons, who found work near the most important military facilities or critical infrastructure to conduct this reconnaissance. Then during the attack on Feb. 24, they turned on special devices to guide Russian missiles.

However, if Medvedchuk was leading pro-Russian forces and building a network of political influence, were there people in the Ukrainian government who worked for Russia?

Yes, Russia had high hopes for this network, and it created the illusion of an easy victory in Ukraine. This was reinforced by the officials who left Ukraine to Russia in 2014. Yanukovych’s circle, who were dreaming to return to power in triumph with the help of the Russian armed forces in 2022. They created the illusion for the Russian leadership that they had many people under their control here and that Ukraine was incapable of resistance. They led to Putin’s fatal mistake. He’s a dictator, and like all dictators, one mistake and their world, created over the years, begins to collapse.

If Russia built a network of influence in Ukraine and relied on it enough to attack us, then there must still be people in power who work for Russia. How to we fight them? Do employees of the intelligence services take a polygraph, is it mandatory?

Yes, these agents were pro-Russian and were in touch with pro-Russian special services at the beginning of the war. They were waiting, but when they saw that Ukraine did not fall, they got scared. Most of them stopped contacting their case officers, and it’s a big problem for the Russians to restore contact. They will try to put pressure because these recruits are documented, and can be blackmailed through the publication of these materials.

I would like to appeal to those who were deceived and worked with the Russians for various reasons, or were forced to, that it’s never too late to stop. It’s better to come to the security service today than to have it come to you tomorrow. It’s not too late to stop and come back to the side of Ukraine.

Regarding the polygraph, I think that counterintelligence support in Ukraine should grow, and there is a question of reforming the Security Service of Ukraine. I believe that conditions should be set at the legislative level which would make it impossible for pro-Russian people to be in power here in Ukraine. There should be zero tolerance for such people. The state must defend itself, and all means, including polygraph tests, must be used. Today, the use of polygraphs is not regulated by law, it is only recommended. I believe that the use of polygraphs should be mandatory for obtaining access to state secrets. All Ukrainian civil servants should be subject to such a test, among other checks.

Do lawmakers propose any initiatives?

I think many interesting bills will appear to strengthen such capabilities of the state, and one of them is to increase responsibility for treason. I know that the president was instructed to prepare such a bill at the beginning of the war. As far as I remember, they proposed an increase in the penalty for high treason from 8 years to life imprisonment, or at least 25 years. It would make it impossible for the Russian special services to recruit our citizens for pennies, and will undermine their economic opportunities. For example, a person would have to think carefully about whether it’s worth cooperating with Russians for $3,000 at the risk of a life sentence without amnesty. This initiative will also provide an opportunity for counterintelligence, because cooperation with counterintelligence can mitigate the circumstances when sentencing.

How do the Russians offer positions and cooperation? You say they have it documented. Do people sign documents, or are they offered money? How does this happen?

Ukraine has always been open to Russia, and these economic and cultural ties have created economic opportunities to access many processes and key people who played a significant political role in Ukraine. Above all, political corruption was accomplished with money – Russia had billions of dollars allocated for such subversive work and creation of conditions in every possible sphere – political scientists, propaganda, and pro-Russian forces, but the most important thing was the creation of a network of agents in Ukraine, primarily in the government.

I believe that Russian agents in the government appeared not only during Yanukovych’s time, but rather in Soviet times. Our state never treated this issue as responsibly and thoroughly as it should have. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there should have been zero tolerance for Russian agents, former KGB. It should have cleaned out the government and special services.

So Russian agents operate mostly through corruption?

There are many opportunities, and some traitors try to offer their services to Russians themselves. Not all people are committed to the existence of Ukraine. They care only whether their material or other needs have been met. Unfortunately, there have been such people in power, and we hope there will be fewer of them. We will create opportunities to prevent such people from getting into the Ukrainian government.

How does one identify Russian agents? Are there certain signs or behavior?

Secret service work is an art – the art of spycraft. Headhunting. Of course, any person interested in intelligence work is carefully studied, weaknesses and vulnerabilities that can be leveraged are analyzed. However, the most valuable people in the intelligence community are those who never even dreamed of being recruited – the initiators. During the Cold War, the most valuable high-level agents for the Soviet government in the United States or Britain were initiators.

What does it mean to be an initiator?

It’s a person who offers his or her services, and I think there are many of them in Ukraine. The Russians just needed to be here to feel such people out. It’s not a secret.

How do you identify these people?

I want to provide you an example. Counterintelligence has different ways of checking such individuals, opening personal files, and approaching. In 2014, one such operation came under the guise of Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officers. One serviceman of the Armed Forces of Ukraine came out and offered his services. He served at one of the military facilities – a military airfield. A meeting was organized for him in one of the hotels with alleged FSB supervisors. He came, fulfilled the “task,” brought materials, provided information on sensitive issues, such as the movement of top state officials, and he had access to such flight information. He chose a pseudonym, and we congratulated him. “We congratulate you. You have joined the FSB,” and he was so pleased. Then, what happens to any traitor, he was arrested, and immediately he was morally crushed because he realized he had lost his future. He was a fairly young man from the east of Ukraine, an officer of the armed forces with pro-Russian views. He felt his whole life as he’d imagined it to be disappear at once. I want to tell people who have been accidentally drawn into such activities that it isn’t too late to stop.

We talked about Medvedchuk and how Russian special services recruit people in Ukraine, but how do they operate abroad?

Russians influence political processes in Western countries – to undermine their values and democracies, to create situations in which society is torn apart. While the world has been fighting cybercrime – against infiltration, hacking, and information theft, the Russians were the first to go much further, using social media. The Russians spread their influence through social media to Western countries. It’s not necessary to control television, radio stations, or newspapers to create such an impact.

One example is the 2016 U.S. election when one of the candidates’ email accounts was hacked, and all the information that was negative or could be used negatively was spread through these troll factories on social media, which were created by Yevgeny Prigozhin (head of PWC Wagner) himself, among various social groups in the U.S.

For example, one group associated with the black population was presented from one angle, and another group from another angle. It was in Philadelphia. Information appeared on social media, a young black man was detained by the police and tortured. Immediately, the black population reacted by saying let him go free him, but the local church’s pastor said he didn’t know about it, checked person’s last name, and so on. Then, when we looked at where this message came from through a VPN, it turned out that it was from St. Petersburg, where the Prigozhin-Putin troll factory was located.

With the help of such means, the Russians supported a particular public opinion and spread fakes. They were among the first to interfere in the electoral processes, not only in Western Europe, but also in those countries they considered essential for undermining democracy and promoting more convenient pro-Russian candidates.

Was it Prigozhin who did this?

Yes, one of these troll factories was Prigozhin’s.

How many people worked there?

Most of the people there have been identified and are wanted for interference in the elections.

I remember that scandal in the U.S. Does Russia continue this activity?

Yes, Russia has not stopped its activities to undermine Western democracies. They do not stop, and neither does Ukrainian counterintelligence work.

I wanted to ask you about flight MH17, which was down by Russian forces in eastern Ukraine in 2014. There are trials and certain decisions approved in international courts. Are Ukrainian special services cooperating with the Hague court? 

The court decision that was issued several months ago confirmed that it was the Russian military. A Russian proxy downed this plane, despite Russia’s disinformation about Ukraine’s involvement. Also, Russian propaganda said that the Ukrainian security service could not release evidence four hours after the crash. I was the head of Ukrainian counterintelligence at the SBU at that time.

It was a lot of work that was done by our employees in order to gain operational capabilities, and when the plane was shot down, we already had records of negotiations of the leaders of Russian gangs discussing the location of the Buk complex, what decisions they made, and most importantly, the circle of people involved. We didn’t fully understand who they were because they used nicknames, i.e., Khmury and Bez (Bezler) and all the rest, but the materials that the Ukrainian security service had were transferred to the Dutch special services for study, and, with the help of international support, each of the perpetrators and people involved in this terrorist act were identified.

The head of the military intelligence, Budanov, said that Putin might not be Putin. What do you think? Does Putin have any doubles?

A person who has been in power for a long time, any tyrant, tries to take additional measures for his own security. In order to prevent terrorist acts during public events, such as visiting public places or meetings, he often uses doubles. The real Putin is where he meets with the defense minister at a large table, where the distance between him and Shoigu is far enough. When he stands near the people at some events, awards – this role is played by doubles to reduce the risks of any assassination attempts.

Is it possible that Putin was replaced by a puppet?

It is the madman Putin who is behind this war, and he is personally responsible for the amount of grief and tragedy that has occurred because of his decisions. I don’t think any double would be as crazy and support it. If Putin is gone, then it’s crazy to support this war.

I don’t even see anyone in Putin’s environment who would be interested in continuing his policy. My opinion is that today everyone in his inner circle understands that the sooner Putin leaves, the sooner they will return to their business with the Western countries and restore their frozen savings. They have made money with Putin, and they definitely don’t want to lose it. Nor do they want to lose their and their families’ lives.

Is Putin losing his support?

Yes, this question is already relevant. If you look at the protest moods in Russia over the past ten years, Russians have never come out for democracy or freedom of speech, nothing. Although compared to Belarusians, where the situation is the same, they are a more peaceful nation. Belarusians came out to protest not for democratic values and not against Russia during the presidential elections in Belarus, but because they are tired of the long rule of one person, and the same is in Russia. Today, the waves of forced mobilization, where people are essentially pulled off the streets, are essentially creating a unified protest mood in Russian society.

It unites business people and peasants living in small villages across Russia. Women’s protests are the most effective because they are mothers, daughters, sisters, and relatives of those mobilized who were forcibly sent without equipment, without clarifying their health status. Persons who served 10 years ago. For example, a mobilized person has a chronic illness, and his survival rate at the front is not high. Many remained disabled or returned in coffins from Ukraine’s territory or were burned in crematoria or left on the battlefield. Their relatives received a message that they were missing. Of course, this mood is growing with further waves of mobilization. The changes announced by Shoigu in the Russian army – increasing the number of troops to one and a half million servicemen – will require additional waves of mobilization. It will amplify the protest mood in Russia.

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