Destroying military aid flowing into Ukraine from the West is ‘goal number one for Russian agents’, according to Ukraine military
By Dominic Nicholls, DEFENCE AND SECURITY EDITOR 1 August 2022 • 6:00pm
Ukrainian forces have been using US-supplied Himars multiple rocket launcher systems in Ukraine CREDIT: Shutterstock
Britain is helping Ukraine hunt Russian spies targeting Western-supplied weapons, the acting head of Kyiv’s military intelligence has said.
Finding and destroying military aid flowing into Ukraine from Western countries is “goal number one for Russian agents”, according to Major General Vadym Skibitsky.
Long-range artillery pieces, such as the US-supplied Himars system, have brought Moscow’s advance almost to a halt and in recent days have rendered bridges in the Kherson region impassable to Russian vehicles, cutting off troops as Ukraine prepares a counter offensive.
Western officials believe Moscow has instructed intelligence agents, possibly including spies from the GRU’s Unit 29155 – deemed responsible for the 2018 Salisbury nerve agent attack and other attempted assassinations – to find the weapons donated by Western partners.
Speaking exclusively to The Telegraph from Kyiv’s heavily fortified government security district, Gen Skibitsky said tracking down the Russian spies searching for the supply lines was “impossible” without help from Britain and other international partners.
“As far as military intelligence is concerned [Britain and the US have provided] almost everything from information to equipment.”
Gen Skibitsky gave no specific details of the support Britain is providing, but said the assistance was “minute-to-minute, real-time information [of] all kinds”.
A significant portion of the lethal aid flowing into Ukraine is originally flown into the Rzeszów-Jasionka airfield in Poland, close to the border.
Russian agents thought to be operating near the airfield are suspected of tracking military flights, passing information to colleagues in Ukraine. It is thought these operators then follow the weapon transfers to find the storage sites.
These locations are then targeted for destruction by Russian long-range weapons such as Kalibr cruise missiles fired from submarines in the Black Sea.
Some Russian spies have been found as far west as Chernivtsi, near the border with Romania.
Russia claims to have destroyed several Himars rocket launchers in recent weeks, including two on Monday. However, Ukraine and Western sources say none have been damaged by Russia.
More Himars arrive in Ukraine
Four more Himars systems arrived in Ukraine on Monday, taking the total in operation to 16.
Gen Skibitsky said: “The cooperation with Poland is also very high as almost 90 per cent of all military assistance comes from there. We are talking about very tight cooperation and joint operations with our partners.”
In the weeks up to the February 24 invasion, Russian “subversive elements” were joined by “reconnaissance groups” to gather information on Ukrainian military intentions, troop locations and logistic sites, Gen Skibitsky said. The first weeks of the war were “very difficult” as a result.
“We had to identify, detect and neutralise them, but we haven’t got rid of all of them.
“These days, collecting data on the military assistance coming to Ukraine from Western partners is goal number one for Russian agents.
“We don’t know how many there are [but] they use all kinds of intelligence: airborne, space, collaborators from the Ukrainian side. Russia has [a lot of] information.
“The movement of people is intense. There is an entire mechanism designed to acquire and neutralise these people.”
Ukraine, a country as large as France with a 2,300km front-line, requires huge resources to find these spies passing into and across its territory.
“It’s not just special forces, but also police and ordinary Ukrainians reporting strangers in their local area. Everyone is working as one body because it’s about the existence of Ukraine,” Gen Skibitsky said.
Kyiv has established hot lines in some areas under Russian control – such as Enerhodar, location of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – for local people to pass information on “collaborators and occupiers”.
Asked how the US-provided Himars multiple-launch rocket systems have so precisely targeted Russian fuel and ammunition depots, as well as battlefield headquarters in eastern Ukraine, Gen Skibitsky said “in this case in particular, we use real-time information”.
US officials are not providing direct targeting information, which would potentially undermine their case for not being direct participants in the war, Gen Skibitsky said.
However, he suggested there was a level of consultation between intelligence officials of both countries prior to launching missiles that would allow Washington to stop any potential attacks if they were unhappy with the intended target.
“I can’t tell you whether [we are directly tasking] British and American satellites, but we have very good satellite imagery,” he told The Telegraph.
“We have very good cooperation with our partners in the UK in this field. We have very good communication with all the sister intelligence agencies.”
Working closely with Britain’s MoD
Ukraine’s military intelligence department is known to work closely with colleagues in Britain’s MoD.
Gen Skibitsky said he was pleased Gen Jim Hockenhull, Britain’s former chief of defence intelligence, has been promoted to be head of the UK’s Strategic Command, responsible for military intelligence, special forces and space-based capabilities.
Increasing Ukraine’s “agent capabilities” inside Moscow has been the priority for Gen Skibitsky’s department since Russia’s 2014 invasion.
“Human intelligence is one of the cornerstones of our activity. This is because in 2015 an ambitious task was set [for] us to get into the decision-making centres of our adversaries.
“For us it’s very easy to work with our adversary – you know the country we are talking about. We used to share the same language, same appearance as people and, until recently, the same mentality. We used to be one country. A lot of Ukrainians used to live or still live in Russia … and have established very good state careers there. There are many Ukrainians in decision-making positions in Russia.
“Obviously it is a covered activity as there is a very intense counter-intelligence effort in Russia.”
This network of informers told Kyiv the invasion was originally planned for February 15, Gen Skibitsky said. The order to postpone the assault to February 24 came from Vladimir Putin personally as he wanted the attack to match the date in 2014 when the war in Crimea started.
Despite the poor performance of his army and strong resistance from Ukraine (a “huge underestimation from the Russian side”), these spies in Moscow are reporting no reduction in Putin’s war aims, Gen Skibitsky said.
“The main strategic goal remains the same – the total destruction of Ukraine as a state. He’s not likely to stop, he has no room for manoeuvre. He understands the resistance from Ukraine will remain very strong, therefore he destroys everything he sees as obstacles to this strategic goal.”
Ukraine’s spy network in Russia is “definitely in demand” from the US and Britain, Gen Skibitsky said. “This is because we’re not talking merely about the situation in Ukraine, but the security of Europe and the eastern flank of Nato as a whole.”
Ukraine’s spies in the Kremlin have been able to comment on recent reports about Putin’s health.
Gen Skibitsky said the Russian leader “is not in good health physically or mentally”.
“He uses a lot of doubles … and sometimes it is difficult to detect if it is the real Putin or someone replacing him.
“Some of his inner circle are panicking about his health and those decisions he is taking at the moment.”