Article by: Alya Shandra
The Wagnergate affair in Ukraine gains steam as intelligence chief who was in charge of the ambitious operation to detain Russian mercenaries suspected of war crimes in Donbas admits it was postponed based on orders from President Zelenskyy. This confirms the allegations of a recent Bellingcat report dismissed by the President’s Office. The intelligence chief also says the operation could have been blown due to moles leaking information to “the enemy” in Ukraine’s state offices, and that this issue is not being investigated properly.
Vasyl Burba, the former head of the Ukrainian intelligence service who was in charge of the failed sting operation to lure out and arrest mercenaries of the Russian Wagner private military company, stated he indeed received the fateful decision to postpone the ambitious undertaking on behalf of President Zelenskyy.
Speaking on air of the Shuster Live show on 19 November, Burba said that the request was given to him by Head of the President Andriy Yermak on Zelenskyy’s behalf. During a regular report on the operation, he arrived at the President’s Office with his deputy, where they were taken to a meeting with Yermak, who gave an oral command to postpone the final stage on behalf of the president.
This decision to postpone Ukraine’s intricate plan to arrest Wagner mercenaries who were suspected of war crimes in the Russian-controlled conflict area of Donbas was one of the reasons that led to its failure, Burba said.
Other reasons for the failure could be moles working for Russia in government offices, the poor preparation of the operation, or good work of the Belarusian counterintelligence:
“From my analysis and experience, I can say that this is a failure due to people in government offices who, as I see it, leak information to the enemy.”
Burba said that this failure of the operation is only one of a chain of “those failures that have occurred recently.” He said that the officers involved in planning the operation were fired from the ranks of the Armed Forces and their cover documents were confiscated. Thus, now former military employees are a target for Russian special services.
In addition, according to Burba, he was able to secure a meeting with President Zelenskyy only two days before he was fired. The president then agreed on a plan to screen all those involved in the operation and those who knew about it.
In a day or two, Burba was supposed to submit a report but was dismissed from his post by the defense minister.
Burba’s comments confirm a recent report by the Bellingcat investigative team which found that a last-minute decision from the President’s Office to delay the operation in late July 2020 led to its failure – the mercenaries who remained in Belarus for much longer than it was initially planned, were detained by Belarusian special services before they could reach Ukraine to be captured there.
One reason for the order to delay the operation could have been that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had just reached an agreement with Russia for a ceasefire in the Donbas, and the operation could lead to a breakdown of the agreement, former GUR MOU operatives told Bellingcat.
Following the arrest of Wagner mercenaries in Belarus in July 2020, whom Belarusian President Lukashenka accused of being sent to destabilize the situation ahead of presidential elections, several Ukrainian journalists reported that the incident was actually a Ukrainian false flag operation to bring the suspected criminals to Kyiv which failed due to the information being leaked to Russia either by President Zelenskyy, his office’s chief Yermak, or other briefed officials. The journalists and opposition politicians then accused President Zelenskyy and his circle of treason.
After the arrest, Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, dismissed any talk of an operation to detain Wagner mercenaries as disinformation. But in June 2021, Zelenskyy made a sensational confession: the operation actually existed, but Ukraine was “drawn in” to it by “other countries.”
There has been no official reaction to Bellingcat’s report that outlined the details of the ambitious operation that started as early as 2018. But following its release on 18 November 2021, Mykhailo Podoliak, an advisor to President’s Office Head Andriy Yermak, denied that the President’s Office ever interfered in the matter.
He stated that Yermak’s position does not allow him to “even theoretically” manage Ukraine’s intelligence service and that Yermak “never attempted doing it,” as his sphere of responsibility involved only Russia matters and the war in eastern Ukraine. Podoliak also asserted that Bellingcat’s report contained “only words of one person which cannot be verified independently”:
“There were and could not be any orders from any of the President’s Office to cancel or disrupt operational work on the Wagnerians. And if someone tells something about it, then you need to treat it adequately — as mere words. Unproven words, which tell one of the possible versions of events…” Podoliak noted.
But the interview of the then-intelligence chief Vasyl Burba contradicts Podoliak’s denials. In it, Burba clarified that the Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR), which he headed, could not disobey Yermak because the latter was present at all previous reports about the operation and was delegated by the President. As Yermak spoke on behalf of the President, whose approval the GUR needed to conclude the operation, they could not proceed.
Burba clarified that President Volodymyr Zelensky, as the Supreme Commander-in-Chief, could choose a number of people that were present during the regular reports of the military intelligence to him. As of 2019-2020, this list included the head of the President’s Office and his deputy, the head of the intelligence committee, etc.
One day before Burba’s revealing interview, Ukrainian journalist Yanina Sokolova publicized documents she says are reports of the Military Intelligence Directorate about the Wagner operation. These documents also confirm that a decision from higher up led
to the busting of the operation.
Particularly, the purported military intelligence report states that the date of departure of the Wagner mercenaries, who, according to the legend of the special services, were “hired” for work in Venezuela, was postponed after the decision of the “top military and political leadership of Ukraine,” without providing specific names. The report refers to the operation as “Project Avenue,” the same codename indicated by Bellingcat. The details of the operation revealed by the military report also correspond to Bellingcat’s findings.
Despite the fact that the operation failed and Belarus eventually handed over the “Wagnerians” to Russia, the GUR decided to “consider the special operation ‘Avenue’” carried out, and funds dedicated to the project in the amount of UAH 719,382.34 “justified.”
Sokolova says she found these documents on a USB drive near her workstation but believes they are authentic. The State Bureau of Investigation immediately responded they will search for the source of the leak of the documents and verify their authenticity.
But a reaction from the President’s Office indirectly confirmed their veracity. Mykhailo Podoliak, who we quoted earlier as dismissing the Bellingcat report or allegations of Yermak influencing the work of GUR, condemned the publicizing of the documents, stating that they expose the methods, algorithms, and non-public goals of Ukraine’s intelligence and that they are “a very serious and painful blow to [Ukraine’s] capabilities as a state.”