“Wagnergate”: Ukraine’s Response to Ian Fleming

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“Wagnergate”: Ukraine’s Response to Ian Fleming

On July 29th, 2020, international media awoke to reports by Belarusian state media that state security services had arrested 33 alleged members of the Russian "Wagner" private military company (PMC). According to Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the mercenaries – or "Wagnerites" (vahnerivtsi in Ukrainian) – had been sent to Belarus by Russia to support subversive operations against Lukashenka in the lead-up to the August 2020 presidential election. As the security services of Belarus and Russia began questioning the detainees and connecting the dots – concurrently with leaks to Ukrainian media – it emerged that the mercenaries' presence was the result of a botched Ukrainian sting operation. So, what happened, and why is this relevant to us over a year after the event in question?

For context, the Wagner Group is a PMC owned by Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Wagner Group has been deployed in several conflicts – including in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and Central African Republic – in order to conduct military operations while offering the Kremlin a veneer of plausible deniability, as PMCs are illegal in Russia. The group’s mercenaries took part in fighting in the Donbas, supporting separatists and regular Russian units in several key moments of the war, including the Battle of Debaltseve. Needless to say, the news that Ukraine had a chance at arresting some 30 of the mercenaries and failed certainly caused a stir among Ukrainians.

While it has been apparent since August 2020 that there was, in fact, an operation, its precise nature was (and to a large extent remains) unclear due to conflicting Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian narratives. Initially, Belarusian security services seem to have genuinely believed that the mercenaries had been sent by Russia, while Russia – after having debriefed the extradited mercenaries – claimed that it was a US-led provocation in which Ukraine played only a marginal role. For its part, the Office of the President of Ukraine and MPs from the Servant of the People party denied the operation's existence until the summer of 2021, when they admitted an operation did occur but that it was a foreign one. Meanwhile, some members of the Ukrainian opposition claimed the operation was actively sabotaged by members of the President's inner circle (head of the Office of the President, Andriy Yermak, is often the target of such accusations).

Two investigations into the events leading up to July 2020 have been conducted: one by the Ukrainian parliament's (Verkhovna Rada) Ad-Hoc Inquest Commission, which released its first findings on September 10th this year, and one by Netherlands-based investigative journalism website Bellingcat, which released a report on its findings on November 17th.

Bellingcat's report was based on evidence provided by Ukrainian military intelligence (GUR MOU) operatives who led and took part in the operation (and who were dismissed the week after its failure). They were initially reluctant to participate in the investigation but decided to contact Bellingcat due to what they saw as rampant disinformation. The evidence they provided included (among other things) GUR MOU's fake job postings website which was used to lure the mercenaries, logs of communication between GUR MOU's fake contact persona and the mercenaries, mercenaries' job applications, and reservation details for a flight from Minsk to Istanbul. Investigators also interviewed two of the Russian mercenaries who were willing to provide testimonies. The authors of the report wrote that the operatives' and mercenaries' data had to be verified due to the risk of potential conflict of interest. While not all data could be validated to the fullest extent, no evidence of conflicting or demonstrably inauthentic data was found, crediting Bellingcat's findings.

According to the report, what began as a Ukrainian intelligence-gathering operation on mercenaries suspected of committing crimes in the Donbas – including the shooting down of MH17 – developed into a full-fledged sting operation hoping to lure the Wagnerites into Ukraine or another suitable jurisdiction where they could be arrested and tried. First, GUR MOU operatives recruited the mercenaries for a fake assignment in Venezuela protecting Rosneft's oil wells from local armed groups. After that, the plan was to bus the mercenaries into Belarus for a flight to Turkey that would be intercepted mid-flight and grounded in Kyiv, where the targets could be detained. Due to a delay requested by Ukraine's political leadership, however, the mercenaries were forced to stay in Belarus for an extra few days, giving Belarusian authorities enough time to get wind of the operation and arrest them. The only source of information on this decision is the then-director of GUR MOU Vasily Burba, who claims that President Zelensky was unavailable for a situation report and that the order had been given by Yermak, the head of his office and personal adviser. According to Burba, Yermak wanted to delay the operation – due to take place on July 25th – as it might have compromised a ceasefire signed with Russia and Russian-backed separatists, which was to enter into effect on the 27th. Consequently, Yermak (allegedly) wanted to postpone the operation until after the ceasefire.

This narrative contrasts with that of the Ad-Hoc Inquest Commission, which claimed that there was no sanctioned special operation for a forceful landing of the flight to Istanbul and that although the option was on the table, it did not make it into the plan for fear of international backlash and tensions with Turkey. Instead, the plan was allegedly to detain the mercenaries once they had landed in Turkey, albeit without the participation of the Turkish authorities. The Commission also claimed that Russia caught wind of the operation much sooner than earlier assumed, and that Ukrainian operatives delayed the operation because of this in order to assess the risks of continuing as planned.

Several (admittedly circumstantial) points of evidence give cause for concern about this narrative. For one thing, Belarusian security services' seemingly sincere belief that they were dealing with coup plotters and Russia's confused reaction to the arrests does not seem to corroborate the Commission's claim that Russia and Belarus were aware of the operation beforehand. The mercenaries stated that they had been doggedly interrogated about whether they knew Syarhey Tsikhanousky and Mykola Statkevich – Belarusian opposition activists – while as late as August 3rd, the Kremlin denied Belarus' allegations and insisted that the men were members of a private security company "on the way to a deployment to a third country." Moreover, it seems strange that Ukraine would avoid grounding the plane mid-flight for fear of international backlash but would support a special operation in a foreign airport without coordinating with local security services.

Additionally, skeptics of this narrative point out that the Commission consists of only Servant of the People MPs, that it did not call on Zelensky or Yermak to testify in a hearing despite their alleged involvement in the operation, and that it barred opposition MPs from attending the meeting presenting the preliminary results of the investigation on September 10th. Such procedural concerns – as well as the Office of the President's lack of transparency on the matter – do not necessarily invalidate the Commission's findings, but they do represent potential conflicts of interest.

Debate continues to rage concerning several aspects of the operation, such as whether there was a leak from the Office of the President – for which there does not seem to be any concrete evidence – or if the delay and failure were a result of plain incompetence. There is also disagreement concerning whether the operation should have gone ahead or not. For instance, the journalist and chief editor of the Censor.net online publication Yuri Butusov claims that the operation would have garnered the respect of Ukraine's international partners and would not have broken international law as it targeted terrorists. Meanwhile, Bellingcat's report mentions that the operation's planners knew that grounding the plane mid-flight would have been in contravention of international law, and sought to get around this by staging a fake bomb threat.

However, the issue which has arguably concerned pundits the most is that of informal political power. At the moment, there is still no concrete evidence as to who had ordered the delay of the operation. While other claims made by Burba and GUR MOU operatives have been verified by cross-checking different types of data, claims about Yermak's involvement in the operation can only be confirmed by the three participants of the alleged meeting in question – Burba, then-head of the Ukrainian security service (SBU) Ruslan Baranetsky, and Yermak – of which only the former has been willing to testify. If Yermak did give the order to delay the operation – which he does not have the formal authority to do – then this points to a worrying trend of increasingly concentrated and opaque informal power in the Office of the President. As I've covered in a previous essay on the closure of the Kyiv Post, this power can be (and has been) wielded to muzzle critical media, circumvent parliamentary procedure, and pursue political opponents under the cover of the 'oligarch law'.

How, then, should we judge the operation? Was it a success, or an unmitigated failure? On the one hand, the management of the operation leading up to the arrests in Belarus is a testament to the growing maturity, competence, and professionalism of Ukraine’s intelligence services. Although the affair did not ultimately result in the arrest of the mercenaries, it did produce a wealth of information about the Wagner Group’s activities in Ukraine – including admissions of crimes committed in the Donbas by individual members – and has provided Ukraine with a better understanding of the group than ever before. On the other hand, Wagnergate is also a story of the inept and unaccountable behaviour of Ukraine’s political leadership. In order to salvage what's left of its approval ratings – not to mention the principles of open and liberal government – Zelensky's Office would do well to be more transparent about the operation, and to frame its failure as a mistake which the President's team now sincerely hopes to put right. In all likelihood, however, it will be up to Ukraine's journalistic body and civil society to insist on accountability.