They are waiting on Netflix and are afraid at Bankova. Bellingcat Prepares to Release First Part of Wagnergate Investigation – What Film Is It?
An international group of Bellingcat investigative journalists is preparing to release an investigation into one of the most obscure but important events for Ukraine – the possible disruption of a special operation to detain Wagner PMC militants flying from Russia via Minsk.
NV reminds that it is known about this investigation, which should include a large documentary film, and the reactions to its preparation at the Office of the President of Ukraine.
Background of the Bellingcat movie: why it is so expected in Ukraine
Bellingcat’s investigation should shed light on the July-August 2020 events in Minsk. Then, in the Belarusian capital, more than 30 militants of the unofficial private military company Wagner , controlled by the Kremlin, were detained in one of the sanatoriums near Minsk. At least some of the detainees had previously fought in the Donbass on the side of the “ DPR” and “LPR” .
Minsk initially stated that the goal of the PMC fighters was allegedly to destabilize the situation in Belarus before the presidential elections ( held on August 9, 2020). Contrary to Ukraine’s petition to extradite the militants , the regime of Alexander Lukashenko transferred the mercenaries back to Russia on August 14 . President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy called such a decision unfair and inconsistent with friendly interstate relations.
However, in Ukraine, the story received an unexpected and scandalous continuation. Journalist Yuriy Butusov was one of the first to report that the Ukrainian special services had long and painstakingly been preparing a special operation to arrest this group of militants : they were “recruited” in the Russian Federation under the pretext of hired work to protect oil rigs in Venezuela, and then they organized a transfer from Moscow to Minsk. Further, the recruited terrorists were to be immediately sent on a flight Minsk – Istanbul, then, under a fictitious pretext, urgently land the plane in Kiev and detain the militants.
Similar information in August 2020 was confirmed by the interlocutors of Ukrainska Pravda in the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense and the SBU, as well as ATO veteran Yevgeny Shevchenko, who previously collaborated with NABU. The journalist Yanina Sokolova published the recordings , which, presumably, recorded the negotiations of the mercenaries with the undercover SBU operative who recruited them.
According to Butusov , the operation failed precisely at the “Minsk” stage – after it was decided to postpone its final part at the initiative of the Office of the President of Ukraine. The journalist claims that such a decision was made at a meeting in the OP with the participation of Andrei Yermak.
For more than six months, the Office of the President has categorically denied the version about the disruption of the operation and its existence , calling the story ” fictional from start to finish.” Volodymyr Zelenskyy called this information ” nonsense” and accused the Ukrainian media of duplicating the messages of Russian propaganda. “It is sad that some mass media reprinted the Komsomolskaya Pravda ( it seems Russian), made a sensation out of it in Ukraine. I do not know about any kind of ‘leakage’ of some kind of operation, ”Zelensky said, commenting on the accusations that the special operation was thwarted by the employees of his Office.
“ We are absolutely open and ready for any investigation, because we have a clear conscience, clean hands and an honest position,” Andriy Yermak said in an interview with NV in January 2021. He offered to wait for the Bellingcat investigation to be published and said that ” we have nothing to fear or hide.”
Butusov and Sokolova were interrogated by the SBI in the case of “possible disclosure of data that is a state secret.” The SBI also said that in the case of a possible disruption of the operation, the head of the OP, Andrei Yermak, was also interrogated .
When will the investigation come out and what is said about it on Bellingcat
In December 2020, it became known for the first time that Bellingcat journalists were conducting their own investigation of the events described , according to investigator Hristo Grozev.
According to him, Bellingcat found evidence of the existence of a special operation to detain the ” Wagnerites”, which was prepared by the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine together with the SBU officers. At the same time, Grozev said that the first part of the investigation would be released in the first quarter of 2021 .
“ We will try to do this in two parts. The first is investigative journalism. It will use some of the information collected and interviews. Most likely, it will be in February. And the film itself – a long, high-quality one – will be ready later, within a year, [probably] in autumn , ”Grozev said late last year in an interview with Ales Batsman, editor-in-chief of the online publication Gordon.
Later, in an interview with NV, Hristo Grozev said that Bellingcat investigators had several hypotheses as to why the final stage of the operation was postponed at the last minute ( which is why, instead of immediately transferring to the next flight, the militants stopped in Minsk, where they were detained).
“ The first is that it was a fatal mistake. And second, that it was a deliberate mistake. But be that as it may, this is a mistake, ”said Grozev. He also called the impending seizure of militants ” possibly the most important operation in the modern history of Ukraine.” The journalist said that even if Bellingcat did not establish the motives for its failure, it would prove that such an operation was being prepared.
“ From the very beginning, it was not clear to me that most of the Ukrainian society, even the journalistic community, does not perceive this as a fact. So at least it will be decided – that this fact was, ”announced Hristo Grozev.
After the publication of the investigation, Bellingcat journalists intend to involve other international media outlets to verify the established facts, Grozev reported to NV in January 2021.
On March 10, Ukrainian journalist Dmitry Gordon announced that the first part of Bellingcat’s investigation would allegedly be released on March 15. However, the investigators themselves have denied such statements.
“ Our investigation into [the Wagnergate case] has no target date, and we never set one. The investigation to [create] the documentary is still ongoing and once everything is ready we will let everyone know when it will be released, ”Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins wrote on March 14.
Team member and Bellingcat expert Arik Toler suggested that rumors of a March 15 release were fueled by the drama of the date.
“ I don’t know where March 15 came from as the release date for the Wagnergate documentary, but I believe that someone in the Ukrainian media thought that its publication in the March Ides would be really dramatic,” the investigator said.
Hristo Grozev said back on March 11 that the group is not commenting on the release date of the film or its essence, including the hypotheses about the details of the investigation published in the Ukrainian media.
“ I see a lot of speculation in the Ukrainian media about our ongoing investigation. Please note that most of these messages are incorrect and based on false information or wishful thinking. Yes, we are working on many investigations at the same time, but we do not know their outcome until [such investigations] are completed, ”Grozev wrote on Twitter.
Separately, he asked Ukrainian journalists not to contact Bellingcat for comments until the film was released.
Nevertheless, on March 15, Dmitry Gordon publicly announced a new probable release date for the Bellingcat investigation – according to him, the first results may be released approximately on April 5 “ give or take a few days.”
What else is known about the content of the Wagnergate investigation
In addition to members of the Bellingcat team, Ukrainian media and journalists shared their information about the essence and progress of the investigation – Yuriy Butusov ( gave a comment to the investigators), Dmitry Gordon ( published a special interview with Butusov about Wagnergate), as well as the portals Ukrainskaya Pravda and ZN.ua.
From this information such facts became known.
1. Bellingcat was interviewed in preparation for the investigation ( among other speakers):
- two high-ranking officers of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense ( took part in a special operation to capture the Wagnerites),
- the fifth president of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko ( it was he who allegedly authorized the start of the special operation),
- veteran Yevgeny Shevchenko who collaborated with NABU ( one of the first to write about the failure of the special operation),
- MP Mikhail Zabrodsky ( in December 2020, he invited to a meeting of the parliamentary committee on defense issues the commander of the special forces of the GUR MO, who told the deputies about the course of the operation and its failure).
2. The investigation will indeed be released in several parts, with the film at the end of the year : “The first part is planned for the end of March, the exact date has not been determined, the work continues. This will be a short version of the investigation. The second part – it will be a big documentary for the Netflix network, there is still a lot of work, most likely, the work can be completed this fall, ”says Butusov. Gordon also announced a slightly different plan: the first part will be released allegedly in early April, the second – in August-September. And for Netflix, he said, they will shoot a ” feature film” based on high-profile events.
3. Bellingcat investigators hoped to record the position of the President’s Office, but to no avail
In March 2021, Hristo Grozev specially came to Kiev to conduct part of the additional filming and record the commentary of representatives of the President’s Office. According to ZN.ua , it was because of this that they decided to postpone the publication of the first part of the investigation. Similar information was confirmed by Butusov and Gordon – moreover, according to the editor-in-chief of Censor.net, the initiator of such a comment was Bankova ( Andriy Yermak allegedly offered Grozev a meeting in Kiev , and also asked to record an interview “ with statesmen who will present in the film the position of the President’s Office “).
“ However, Yermak without explanation canceled the meeting with Grozev and canceled interviews with any speakers,” Yuri Butusov said.
The President’s Office said that none of Bellingcat’s representatives came to Bankovaya and did not communicate with the OP staff.
Asked British intelligence to influence Bellingcat? How Bankovaya reacts to the upcoming ” premiere”
The response of the President’s Office to the Bellingcat investigation is one of the most controversial issues in history.
Answering a question from NV in January about what the OP would do if Bellingcat confirmed its allegations of the existence of a special operation with facts, Andrei Yermak said that Bankova ” has great respect for Bellingcat and all independent and honest journalists in the world.” … Commenting on the investigation, he suggested that we are talking about ” some fragmentary interviews of some people, on the basis of which this entire informational narrative was created.”
“ The only thing I would like to warn you not to draw conclusions from individual statements that have begun to spread through the Russian media. Truth is such a thing that sooner or later makes its way and puts all the dots on the i, ”said the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine.
However, there has been ample evidence in the Ukrainian media that the President’s Office is truly alarmed by the Bellingcat investigation .
“The second floor [where the office of the head of the OP is located] was frightened and transmits nerve impulses to the fourth [where the office of the President of Ukraine is located],” one of the interlocutors of ZN.ua described the situation on Bankova .
In addition, according to the publication, representatives of the OP at least twice tried to discuss the possible blocking of the release of the Bellingcat film at meetings with representatives of the British intelligence service MI6.
Both cases occurred in late February, when MI6 Deputy Head Lee Lawrence visited Ukraine. The publication writes that during a meeting at the headquarters of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense, the head of the GUR, Kirill Budanov, and the deputy head of the President’s Office, Roman Mashovets, tried to convince Lawrence that MI6 would influence Bellingcat and prevent the film from being released. However, their requests were rejected.
“ A day later, a high-ranking British intelligence officer, this time in company with the British Ambassador to Ukraine Melinda Simmons, who was invited to the meeting, had to listen to Bankova’s urgent requests from Budanov and Mashovets for the second time,” writes ZN.ua. Later, Yuri Butusov said that ” the President ‘s office continues to try to influence the content of the film by appealing to the British government.”
In addition, ZN.ua and Butusov released information that at the end of February the ex-head of the Main Intelligence Directorate Vasily Burba , who testified about the failure of the operation to capture Russian terrorists by Wagner PMC in Belarus. The president’s office allegedly insisted that Burba refuse to be interviewed or cooperate with Bellingcat investigator Hristo Grozev.
Sources of Ukrainska Pravda confirmed that the investigation provoked fears at Bankova, because they do not know in what light President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the head of the OP Andriy Yermak will be shown in the film.
However, according to sources of the UP, there is no talk of Yermak’s resignation yet – they will try to ” somehow sort out the situation in a PR somehow, not for the first time.”
“ In general, according to the situation – if Yermak was really involved in something, then he would not have been in the OPU for a long time. Diplomacy does not work through films, you understand that, ”the UE interlocutor said.