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The intel on Zelensky’s troubles with Ukrainian intelligence

The timing and circumstances that led to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s decision to relieve Ivan Bakanov, chief of Ukraine’s domestic security service, the SBU, was more likely driven by internal political considerations than counterintelligence revelations. That’s not to say that challenges concerning Ukraine’s counterintelligence environment are not cause for concern. Ukraine reports at least 1,234 individuals were being investigated for high treason and collaboration with Russia, a statistic that includes government officials. 

Given America’s intelligence support to Ukraine, where does this internal reshuffling leave the U.S. intelligence community in the face of vulnerabilities that Zelensky himself acknowledges?

The SBU has been a particular problem for Zelensky and Western governments whose civilian security services normally engage an equivalent counterpart. Questions long have persisted over the SBU given it’s a service structured along the lines of the Soviet Union’s KGB that has been slow to evolve to Ukraine’s direction as an open society. SBU cadre often looked nostalgically upon Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, even after the 2004-2005 Orange revolution, and possibly until the Maidan protests of 2014.

The SBU is not the U.S. intelligence community’s primary counterpart, according to American officials who say that, instead, it’s the GUR — Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence Agency. The GUR is Ukraine’s lead intelligence agency in prosecuting the war and enjoys a better reputation than the SBU among foreign partners. And the GUR has made a more deliberate effort to refashion itself for the times and circumstances, which includes an active social media profile and online footprint.

Bakanov was unable to advance the progress sought by the Ukrainian parliament and Western observers in reforming the SBU from its Soviet KGB model. Toward that goal, Ukraine’s parliament passed a National Security framework law in 2018 which aims to redefine and limit the SBU’s authorities and create more effective oversight structures, though some of the target dates were as distant as 2025. While Bakanov might have had Zelensky’s loyalty as his childhood friend and former campaign manager, his success was impaired by not having been a professional intelligence officer or career public servant who came into the SBU as an outsider.

Rumblings that Zelensky ultimately lost confidence in Bakanov had been emerging for weeks. The SBU chief was increasingly a political liability given criticisms of him and other senior Ukrainian officials for poor decisions in the opening hours of Russia’s Feb. 24  offensive. Among their complaints, Ukrainians blamed the SBU for Russia’s expeditious seizure of the strategic southern city of Kherson, for failing to blow up the Antonovsky Bridge spanning the Dnipro River in order to impair Russia’s advance.

But Ukraine’s counterintelligence challenges precede Russia’s invasion. The SBU was not well disposed toward Western intelligence partners, despite playing a contributing role in the Orange Revolution. But SBU attitudes were not unique among those living in the Soviet Union’s former republics whose security services, along with other public institutions, long remained largely staffed and managed by former Soviet-era functionaries. Although that SBU generation continues to move on, many of its successors had their outlooks similarly shaped by the greater visibility, continued training, and influence of Russian FSB liaison contacts.

I witnessed the “better the devil you know” dynamic first-hand while serving in the former Soviet republics. Russians weren’t necessarily liked by the locals but remained a known commodity. As my local counterparts used to tell me, there was a certain degree of comfort in being able to predict how Russians might act, versus Americans, who few had even met and for whom they had been indoctrinated to suspect.

The FSB was all that the Ukrainian security services, especially the SBU, had ever known. But the FSB was also Russia’s lead agency for intelligence collection and covert activities against Ukraine, as well as the other former Soviet republics following the empire’s collapse. And that in itself is rather revealing about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s perspective. It was Putin’s decision to assign those responsibilities to the FSB, an internal security organization primarily focused on counterintelligence and subversion, rather than Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, known as the SVR. Putin, after all, still views the former Soviet republics as very much part of Russia.

And it was the FSB’s Fifth Service, also known as the Foreign Intelligence Branch, that was the everyday face to the SBU and other Ukrainian agencies. The Fifth Service’s official liaison duties provided it the means and access to prosecute its espionage and covert influence functions. FSB personnel leveraged their officially sanctioned work to spot and recruit agents and collaborators across the circles within which they operated.

The Fifth Service was long directed by Colonel-General Sergei Beseda, who was reportedly in Kyiv during the February 2014 protests. Russian insiders contend that in addition to keeping Putin apprised of developments, Beseda was there to urge former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to crush the Maidan uprising. Beseda, along with his deputy Anatoly Bolyuk, was reportedly removed from his position and placed under house arrest — or worse, according to some accounts — for failing to accurately forecast the realities of Ukraine’s resistance.

More recent reports suggest that Beseda since has been seen in public, but that Putin reassigned the FSB’s responsibilities in Ukraine to Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU. While there was most likely a purge of those within the FSB who Putin held responsible for Russia’s early failures (as well as the rest of Russia’s military, intelligence and security services), just because Moscow claims to have cleaned house and reassigned the FSB’s duties to the GRU, I remain skeptical.

The GRU did not acquit itself well in the conflict, having, like the FSB, similarly miscalculated Ukrainian resolve and Russian military effectiveness. But perhaps more importantly, as a career Soviet-era KGB officer and the FSB’s first director, Putin’s innate mistrust and contempt for the Russian military likely would not move him to increase his reliance on it. Putin’s attitude is the product of KGB conditioning to view the Russian military as a target on which to spy and not to be trusted, and that would lead him to look down on its spy service.

These counterintelligence considerations notwithstanding, the U.S. intelligence community is equipped to maintain robust collaboration while mitigating risk with even the most questionable partners. Possibly the most significant consequence of 9/11’s reforms was the U.S. intelligence community’s development of processes to avert replicating its original sin of sitting on intelligence that impacted life and death outcomes over concerns about protecting sources and methods, or turf.

Enter the “tear line.” It’s a process that the CIA long has used to share “actionable intelligence” with other U.S. government agencies or foreign partners. But such sharing and transparency became the default, rather than the last, option given 9/11’s consequences. The tear line is a means to provide crucial details from classified reporting that separates the substance from the operational details explaining its acquisition and thereby less source revealing. 

The U.S. also can work with foreign partners to further mask its role by restricting the foreign users who are aware that U.S. intelligence was the source, or even the existence, of an official cooperative relationship. In some cases, that decision is driven by the foreign partner, rather than the U.S., concerned at the internal political optics from cooperating with U.S. intelligence, or over the fidelity of its personnel.

Still, any reflection that you’re aware of what your adversaries deem to be secret threatens the sources and methods behind its collection. When it comes to intelligence, there’s never a perfect solution, but rather degrees of risk management. Where there are sources and methods involved, namely human lives, it’s a situationally dependent calculus of potential gain against worst-case loss. America’s national security interests at times will require passing reporting to a foreign partner whose vulnerabilities, like Ukraine, or political agendas, such as “frenemies” like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, poses a calculated risk.

Ukraine’s counterintelligence challenges are nothing new and pose risks that what the U.S. provides can fall into the hands of our adversaries, compromise capabilities, or at a minimum, focus Russia’s attention to targets against which we’re collecting. But there’s evident impact from U.S. support for Ukraine’s successful prosecution of key Russian targets identified via good intelligence. In the end, like the considerations associated with the increasingly sophisticated arms the U.S. is providing, intelligence decisions are a risk versus gain calculus done with open eyes. 

Douglas London is the author of “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.” He teaches Intelligence Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and is a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. A Russian-speaking operations officer, he served in the CIA’s Clandestine Service for over 34 years, mostly in the Middle East, South and Central Asia and Africa, including three assignments as a Chief of Station. Follow him on Twitter @DouglasLondon5.

Tags intelligence community intelligence sharing Russian invasion of Ukraine Ukraine war Volodymyr Zelensky

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