Russia's unjustifiable war of aggression in Ukraine

‘This is Our Country’​

It was a distinction that grated on the Ukrainians.
First, General Kondratiuk was annoyed when the Americans refused to provide satellite images from inside Russia. Soon after, he requested C.I.A. assistance in planning a clandestine mission to send HUR commandos into Russia to plant explosive devices at train depots used by the Russian military. If the Russian military sought to take more Ukrainian territory, Ukrainians could detonate the explosives to slow the Russian advance.
When the station chief briefed his superiors, they “lost their minds,” as one former official put it. Mr. Brennan, the C.I.A. director, called General Kondratiuk to make certain that mission was canceled and that Ukraine abided by the red lines forbidding lethal operations.
General Kondratiuk canceled the mission, but he also took a different lesson. “Going forward, we worked to not have discussions about these things with your guys,” he said.

Late that summer, Ukrainian spies discovered that Russian forces were deploying attack helicopters at an airfield on the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula, possibly to stage a surprise attack.
General Kondratiuk decided to send a team into Crimea to plant explosives at the airfield so they could be detonated if Russia moved to attack.
This time, he didn’t ask the C.I.A. for permission. He turned to Unit 2245, the commando force that received specialized military training from the C.I.A.’s elite paramilitary group, known as the Ground Department. The intent of the training was to teach defensive techniques, but C.I.A. officers understood that without their knowledge the Ukrainians could use the same techniques in offensive lethal operations.

At the time, the future head of Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, General Budanov, was a rising star in Unit 2245. He was known for daring operations behind enemy lines and had deep ties to the C.I.A. The agency had trained him and also taken the extraordinary step of sending him for rehabilitation to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland after he was shot in the right arm during fighting in the Donbas.
Disguised in Russian uniforms, then-Lt. Col. Budanov led commandos across a narrow gulf in inflatable speedboats, landing at night in Crimea.
But an elite Russian commando unit was waiting for them. The Ukrainians fought back, killing several Russian fighters, including the son of a general, before retreating to the shoreline, plunging into the sea and swimming for hours to Ukrainian-controlled territory.
It was a disaster. In a public address, President Putin accused the Ukrainians of plotting a terrorist attack and promised to avenge the deaths of the Russian fighters.
“There is no doubt that we will not let these things pass,” he said.
In Washington, the Obama White House was livid. Joseph R. Biden Jr., then the vice president and a champion of assistance to Ukraine, called Ukraine’s president to angrily complain.

“It causes a gigantic problem,” Mr. Biden said in the call, a recording of which was leaked and published online. “All I’m telling you as a friend is that my making arguments here is a hell of a lot harder now.”
Some of Mr. Obama’s advisers wanted to shut the C.I.A. program down, but Mr. Brennan persuaded them that doing so would be self-defeating, given the relationship was starting to produce intelligence on the Russians as the C.I.A. was investigating Russian election meddling.
Mr. Brennan got on the phone with General Kondratiuk to again emphasize the red lines.
The general was upset. “This is our country,” he responded, according to a colleague. “It’s our war, and we’ve got to fight.”
The blowback from Washington cost General Kondratiuk his job. But Ukraine didn’t back down.

One day after General Kondratiuk was removed, a mysterious explosion in the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, ripped through an elevator carrying a senior Russian separatist commander named Arsen Pavlov, known by his nom de guerre, Motorola.
The C.I.A. soon learned that the assassins were members of the Fifth Directorate, the spy group that received C.I.A. training. Ukraine’s domestic intelligence agency had even handed out commemorative patches to those involved, each one stitched with the word “Lift,” the British term for an elevator.
Again, some of Mr. Obama’s advisers were furious, but they were lame ducks — the presidential election pitting Donald J. Trump against Hillary Rodham Clinton was three weeks away — and the assassinations continued.
A team of Ukrainian agents set up an unmanned, shoulder-fired rocket launcher in a building in the occupied territories. It was directly across from the office of a rebel commander named Mikhail Tolstykh, better known as Givi. Using a remote trigger, they fired the launcher as soon as Givi entered his office, killing him, according to U.S. and Ukrainian officials.
A shadow war was now in overdrive. The Russians used a car bomb to assassinate the head of Unit 2245, the elite Ukrainian commando force. The commander, Col. Maksim Shapoval, was on his way to meeting with C.I.A. officers in Kyiv when his car exploded.

At the colonel’s wake, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, stood in mourning beside the C.I.A. station chief. Later, C.I.A. officers and their Ukrainian counterparts toasted Colonel Shapoval with whiskey shots.
“For all of us,” General Kondratiuk said, “it was a blow.”
 

Tiptoeing Around Trump​

The election of Mr. Trump in November 2016 put the Ukrainians and their C.I.A. partners on edge.

Mr. Trump praised Mr. Putin and dismissed Russia’s role in election interference. He was suspicious of Ukraine and later tried to pressure its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate his Democratic rival, Mr. Biden, resulting in Mr. Trump’s first impeachment.

But whatever Mr. Trump said and did, his administration often went in the other direction. This is because Mr. Trump had put Russia hawks in key positions, including Mike Pompeo as C.I.A. director and John Bolton as national security adviser. They visited Kyiv to underline their full support for the secret partnership, which expanded to include more specialized training programs and the building of additional secret bases.

The base in the forest grew to include a new command center and barracks, and swelled from 80 to 800 Ukrainian intelligence officers. Preventing Russia from interfering in future U.S. elections was a top C.I.A. priority during this period, and Ukrainian and American intelligence officers joined forces to probe the computer systems of Russia’s intelligence agencies to identify operatives trying to manipulate voters.

In one joint operation, a HUR team duped an officer from Russia’s military intelligence service into providing information that allowed the C.I.A. to connect Russia’s government to the so-called Fancy Bear hacking group, which had been linked to election interference efforts in a number of countries.
General Budanov, whom Mr. Zelensky tapped to lead the HUR in 2020, said of the partnership: “It only strengthened. It grew systematically. The cooperation expanded to additional spheres and became more large-scale.”
The relationship was so successful that the C.I.A. wanted to replicate it with other European intelligence services that shared a focus in countering Russia.

The head of Russia House, the C.I.A. department overseeing operations against Russia, organized a secret meeting at The Hague. There, representatives from the C.I.A., Britain’s MI6, the HUR, the Dutch service (a critical intelligence ally) and other agencies agreed to start pooling together more of their intelligence on Russia.
The result was a secret coalition against Russia — and the Ukrainians were vital members of it.

March to War​

In March 2021, the Russian military started massing troops along the border with Ukraine. As the months passed, and more troops encircled the country, the question was whether Mr. Putin was making a feint or preparing for war.
That November, and in the weeks that followed, the C.I.A. and MI6 delivered a unified message to their Ukrainian partners: Russia was preparing for a full-scale invasion to decapitate the government and install a puppet in Kyiv who would do the Kremlin’s bidding.
U.S. and British intelligence agencies had intercepts that Ukrainian intelligence agencies did not have access to, according to U.S. officials. The new intelligence listed the names of Ukrainian officials whom the Russians were planning to kill or capture, as well as the Ukrainians the Kremlin hoped to install in power.

President Zelensky and some of his top advisers appeared unconvinced, even after Mr. Burns, the C.I.A. director, rushed to Kyiv in January 2022 to brief them.
As the Russian invasion neared, C.I.A. and MI6 officers made final visits in Kyiv with their Ukrainian peers. One of the M16 officers teared up in front of the Ukrainians, out of concern that the Russians would kill them.
At Mr. Burns’s urging, a small group of C.I.A. officers were exempted from the broader U.S. evacuation and were relocated to a hotel complex in western Ukraine. They didn’t want to desert their partners.

No Endgame​

After Mr. Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, the C.I.A. officers at the hotel were the only U.S. government presence on the ground. Every day at the hotel, they met with their Ukrainian contacts to pass information. The old handcuffs were off, and the Biden White House authorized spy agencies to provide intelligence support for lethal operations against Russian forces on Ukrainian soil.

Often, the C.I.A. briefings contained shockingly specific details.
On March 3, 2022 — the eighth day of the war — the C.I.A. team gave a precise overview of Russian plans for the coming two weeks. The Russians would open a humanitarian corridor out of the besieged city of Mariupol that same day, and then open fire on the Ukrainians who used it.
The Russians planned to encircle the strategic port city of Odesa, according to the C.I.A., but a storm delayed the assault and the Russians never took the city. Then, on March 10, the Russians intended to bombard six Ukrainian cities, and had already entered coordinates into cruise missiles for those strikes.
The Russians also were trying to assassinate top Ukrainian officials, including Mr. Zelensky. In at least one case, the C.I.A. shared intelligence with Ukraine’s domestic agency that helped disrupt a plot against the president, according to a senior Ukrainian official.
When the Russian assault on Kyiv had stalled, the C.I.A. station chief rejoiced and told his Ukrainian counterparts that they were “punching the Russians in the face,” according to a Ukrainian officer who was in the room.

Within weeks, the C.I.A. had returned to Kyiv, and the agency sent in scores of new officers to help the Ukrainians. A senior U.S. official said of the C.I.A.’s sizable presence, “Are they pulling triggers? No. Are they helping with targeting? Absolutely.”
Some of the C.I.A. officers were deployed to Ukrainian bases. They reviewed lists of potential Russian targets that the Ukrainians were preparing to strike, comparing the information that the Ukrainians had with U.S. intelligence to ensure that it was accurate.
Before the invasion, the C.I.A. and MI6 had trained their Ukrainian counterparts on recruiting sources, and building clandestine and partisan networks. In the southern Kherson region, which was occupied by Russia in the first weeks of the war, those partisan networks sprang into action, according to General Kondratiuk, assassinating local collaborators and helping Ukrainian forces target Russian positions.
In July 2022, Ukrainian spies saw Russian convoys preparing to cross a strategic bridge across the Dnipro river and notified MI6. British and American intelligence officers then quickly verified the Ukrainian intelligence, using real-time satellite imagery. MI6 relayed the confirmation, and the Ukrainian military opened fire with rockets, destroying the convoys.

At the underground bunker, General Dvoretskiy said a German antiaircraft system now defends against Russian attacks. An air-filtration system guards against chemical weapons and a dedicated power system is available, if the power grid goes down.
The question that some Ukrainian intelligence officers are now asking their American counterparts — as Republicans in the House weigh whether to cut off billions of dollars in aid — is whether the C.I.A. will abandon them. “It happened in Afghanistan before and now it’s going to happen in Ukraine,” a senior Ukrainian officer said.
Referring to Mr. Burns’s visit to Kyiv last week, a C.I.A. official said, “We have demonstrated a clear commitment to Ukraine over many years and this visit was another strong signal that the U.S. commitment will continue.”

The C.I.A. and the HUR have built two other secret bases to intercept Russian communications, and combined with the 12 forward operating bases, which General Kondratiuk says are still operational, the HUR now collects and produces more intelligence than at any time in the war — much of which it shares with the C.I.A.
“You can’t get information like this anywhere — except here, and now,” General Dvoretskiy said.
 
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