KYIV—The whole world has seen the impact of Russia’s brutal military onslaught against Ukraine via missiles, drones and artillery shells but another, insidious attack has gone largely unnoticed outside the country: a sprawling network of Russian agents is suspected to be embedded in all aspects of Ukrainian life from parliament to the television networks.
The former governor of Donetsk told The Daily Beast that President Zelensky is not doing enough to extricate pro-Russian political figures and fears that new efforts to empower and streamline intelligence gathering might lead to even more damaging penetration by Russia.
“Kyiv was shining with phosphorus marks that somebody put down for Russian helicopters during the early days of the war,” said Serhiy Taruta, who is now a lawmaker. He fears current Russian espionage is more subtle but just as dangerous.
Another lawmaker was arrested by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), in September after treason accusations. During a raid on the property of Nestor Shufrych, the SBU said they found a haul of pro-Kremlin memorabilia. He allegedly had display cases full of dozens of vintage weapons from the Russian empire and Soviet eras, plus military uniforms and patriotic Russian symbols, which have been banned in Ukraine.
Shufrych, who also owned a television channel, is reportedly accused of being a mouthpiece for President Putin as well as working for an alleged spymaster, who was until recently the ex-deputy secretary of Ukraine’s National Security Council. Vladimir Sivkovich was right inside the inner sanctum of Ukrainian security when the war broke out.
“I am not sure if the author of the bill is an agent, but the network of agents is big, I demand lawmakers of pro-Russian parties to be investigated.”
— Ivan Pietukhov, vice-chair of the League of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs
The U.S. sanctioned Sivkovich last year, claiming that he had FSB ties and “worked with a network of Russian intelligence actors to carry out influence operations” including efforts to convince Kyiv to cede Crimea to Russia as well as the infamous efforts from inside Ukraine to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential elections in favor of then-President Donald Trump.
According to the State Bureau of Investigations Sivkovich had been working with the FSB to create a network of spies in Ukraine.
The Daily Beast spoke to politicians, businessmen, security insiders and army veterans about President Volodymyr Zelensky’s efforts to cleanse the Kyiv establishment of corruption and Moscow’s agents of influence, a persistent and suffocating problem that is often compared in Ukraine to the tentacles of a giant octopus.
Ever since the first days of the battle for Kyiv, Ukrainian intelligence have been catching Russian spies on their soil, including members of the Ukrainian security services accused of collecting and passing state secret information to Russian representatives and for trying to influence personnel decisions in the security agencies of Ukraine. One of those arrested and accused of treason was Oleh Kulinich, the head of the Security Service of Ukraine’s (SBU) Crimea directorate—he was arrested July 2022 on accusations of recruiting Russian-friendly operatives on orders from Moscow.
A military counterintelligence official working on the Ukraine war reportedly told Newsweek: “We have been successful in identifying Russian spies inside the Ukrainian government and military, and at various other points in the supply chain.”
Yurii Butusov, the editor-in-chief of Censor.net, one of the independent outlets running investigations into endemic corruption and espionage in Kyiv, said: “The network of Russian agents is big—before the war we had the whole party of them.”
The Opposition Platform for Life, which was sponsored by Putin’s close friend and adviser, Victor Medvechuk, held 44 of 450 seats in parliament until last year.
Butusov said the mainstream media is full of spies and people with links to the pro-Putin Russian media. “There is mass of agents with their own people in television mass media,” he told The Daily Beast.
The channels that belonged to Putin’s alleged puppets Shufrych, Medvechuk and Yevhen Muraiev—who did an interview with The Daily Beast when he was named as a Russian agent by Britain last year—still had licenses as recently as May this year. Worse still, “United News,” a 24/7 rolling news broadcast shown by all of the networks since the war began, is put together by an unified team of TV producers including the very people who were employed to pump out pro-Russian propaganda on Medvechuk and Muraiev’s networks.
Corruption fighters agree that Ukraine has a long way to go before all the tentacles connecting the authorities in Kyiv to the Kremlin are severed. The director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, Daria Kaleniuk, refused to attend Yalta European Strategy forum—where Zelensky and his first lady were among the speakers—because it was sponsored by the Pinchuk Foundation, which is run by Victor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch and media magnate. “Oligarchs and their white washing would never buy loyalty of Ukraine’s civil society,” she said.
Kaleniuk fears Russia’s influence even within the very top levels of power, referring to persistent claims in Kyiv that Zelensky’s own chief of staff has a cosy relationship to Moscow. “We have many questions about Russian ties to high level public officials including Andrii Yermak, the head of the presidential office,” she said.
Ukrainian-born U.S. Congresswoman Victoria Spartz (R-IN) wrote to President Biden last year raising a series of questions about Yermak’s record including the allegation that he leaked intelligence to Russia via Belarus. As chief of staff to Zelensky, it has been suggested that Yermak is the second most powerful man in Ukraine.
Taruta, who was governor of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine until 2014, said the leader’s office was still far too happy to work alongside Members of Parliament (MPs) who had long pro-Russian track records.
“Our society today sees the entire Opposition Block of deputies who have visited Putin and tried to play along as pro-Russian figures. But our leadership actively cooperates with these MPs when it comes to vote and when they say there is no mechanism to deprive these pro-Russian MPs of their mandates—that is just hypocrisy,” he told The Daily Beast.
“Shufrych [who was arrested last month] was Medvechuk’s close friend and until now he has chaired a parliamentary committee—as have many others who today occupy high posts.”
Taruta sees even greater danger on the horizon with proposed new legislation in parliament to grant huge powers to the State Service for Special Communications and Information Protection in accessing and controlling cyber security for both public and private institutions in Ukraine. The bill echoes the vast control of the internet granted to the FSB in Russia.
“Any efforts to concentrate all the power in one institution is dangerous,” he said. “The concentration of power in one pair of hands without checks by democrat institution might result as somebody’s efforts for a totalitarian control of the information space.”
Ivan Pietukhov, the president at Adamant, one of the oldest internet and telecommunications companies in Ukraine, went even further, telling The Daily Beast that the new law may be deliberately designed to be corrupted and misused by Russian agents operating in Ukraine.
“I am not sure if the author of the bill is an agent, but the network of agents is big, I personally demand lawmakers of pro-Russian parties to be investigated,” said Pietukhov, who is also vice-chair of the League of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs.
“There must be a ring of people copying even the ideas from the Russian Federal Security Service, FSB,” he said. “This is exactly Russia’s approach to building up the evil empire: FSB is that one agency controlling the information and cyber security in Russia, while in United States and European Union the control is shared among several institutions.”
The head of Ukraine’s association of lawyers, Oleg Chernobai, told The Daily Beast that one government department must not be granted so much power. “If that bill gets adopted, the service will get access to the confidential data of defense lawyers’ clients. By that bill just one agency would accumulate all functions—that is wrong,” he said.
While Zelensky tries to slay the Russian octopus strangling Ukraine, he may be inadvertently helping its tentacles to grow.
The post Kyiv May Be Accidentally Helping Russian Agents Penetrate Ukraine appeared first on The Daily Beast.