Kyiv thinks traitors helped the Russians take Kherson and Chernobyl early in the war.
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Ukraine is deepening a purge of double agents in its spy service, saying top-level traitors laid the ground for last year’s Russian invasion by helping enemy forces seize the southern city of Kherson and Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the north.
Tetiana Sapian, spokesperson for the state investigations bureau of Ukraine, said Russia’s FSB intelligence operatives had infiltrated both Ukraine’s SBU security service and local government, undermining Ukraine from within with help from fugitive pro-Moscow Ukrainian officials, who fled the country after the Maidan uprising in 2014.
Sapian suggested that revelations to date could prove to be only the tip of the iceberg.
“The network is much wider and the investigation is engaged in finding out all the circumstances and actions of individual persons that caused the rapid capture of a part of the south by the troops of the aggressor from the territory of the annexed Crimea,” she said.
At the beginning of this month, the state investigations bureau of Ukraine, working with the SBU, concluded an investigation into Oleh Kulinich, former head of the Crimean department of the SBU, based in Kherson. Law enforcers suspected Kulinich of working as an FSB mole, who burrowed into the highest-level security meetings in Ukraine with help from fugitive pro-Russian officials and a former lawmaker sanctioned by the United States.
“In the first hours of the invasion, Kulinich deliberately blocked any attempts to inform the leadership about the real situation in the region (Kherson). He didn’t take any measures to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty. He instructed the personnel to leave their place of service. Later, he issued regular weapons to people who had nothing to do with the SBU. He left his post and left for Kyiv on February 24,” Sapian said at a briefing.
Kulinich was arrested last July and has been charged with treason. If found guilty by the court, Kulinich faces life in prison. The investigations bureau and the SBU published wiretappings between Kulinich and his alleged collaborator, Ukraine’s former Deputy Defense Secretary Volodymyr Sivkovych, who fled from Ukraine to Russia in 2014. It is not yet clear how he will plead.
In January 2022, the U.S. slapped sanctions on Sivkovych for cooperation with a network of Russian intelligence officers to conduct influence operations aimed at gaining support for Ukraine’s official transfer of Crimea to Russia in exchange for the withdrawal of Russian-backed forces from the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. At the beginning of 2020, Sivkovych also engaged in a disinformation campaign against the 2020 U.S. presidential election, according to the U.S. Treasury.
Vasyl Malyuk, head of the SBU, said Kulinich received his orders from the political office of fugitive Ukrainian officials in Moscow — the “so-called intelligence mole farm looked after by the FSB’s 5th department.” Malyuk described Kulinich’s case as “self-cleansing” by the SBU and said the security service was continuing the anti-FSB push.
Sapian said Kulinich studied in the FSB Academy in Moscow with Andriy Derkach, another fugitive pro-Russian lawmaker sanctioned by the U.S. for his cooperation with FSB and interference in U.S. elections. Kulinich allegedly lobbied for the appointment of Andriy Naumov to the post of deputy head of SBU, investigators said. Naumov now faces extradition to Ukraine from Serbia.
Naumov left Ukraine several hours before Kremlin’s full-scale invasion. He allegedly aided Russians to seize Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in February last year. Russian media website The Insider reported Russia offered asylum to Naumov in return for “testimony against [President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy.” Naumov is also a suspect in money laundering. He denies the allegations against him.
“One of Kulinich’s main duties was to undermine the work of central government from within, infiltrate it with enemy agents, unbalance its work,” Sapian said. According to her, at least since May 2019, Kulinich got access to top state secrets. He informally curated the counterintelligence department.
“On Sivkovych’s instructions, Kulinich appointed people to some management positions in the SBU. He was primarily interested in regional units in Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, and other border regions,” Sapian said. “He also regularly misinformed the leadership about the real intentions of the Russian special services.”
Zelenskyy fired Kulinich in March last year. However, the Ukrainian news website RBC reported that even after that Kulinich used to work as an advisor to the former head of the Security Service of Ukraine Ivan Bakanov. The SBU has conducted an internal check into Bakanov, but the results are secret, Artem Dehtiarenko, SBU spokesman, said at a briefing on April 5. And Sapian said that the investigations bureau had not found anything criminal in Bakanov’s actions.
However, last year, a day after Kulinich’s arrest, Zelenskyy fired his friend Bakanov from his post. The reason: too many collaborators were busted on his watch.