Vladimir Putin’s regime is not a monolith and neither can his security apparatus – or special services – be described as such. The rivalry between military intelligence and Chekists from Lubyanka has been going on since the Soviet times, and it has not died down in Putin’s Russia. It plays out under many disguises, but when the key state interests are at stake, GRU (military intelligence) and FSB (civil special service) try to act hand in hand. This was the case in Ukraine in 2014. They lost the battle of Kiev but won the one for Crimea. Meanwhile, the conflict in Donbas is still ongoing, and the result remains uncertain, but it very well shows how fierce the rivalry between military and civil forces can be.
The revelations about the GRU colonel Anatoly Chepiga, the assassin from Salisbury, reminded us about the key role that the Moscow’s secret services played during the operation against Ukraine in 2014. According to some sources, Chepiga was behind the mission that transported the overthrown president Viktor Yanukovych to Russia. According to another, Chepiga played an essential role during the annexation of Crimea. One thing is sure: this military intelligence officer was awarded the title of the Hero of the Russian Federation for his service in Ukraine by president Putin. Moreover, the timeline suggests that Chepiga could have taken part in both the GRU operations in Kiev during the crucial days of Maidan, but also in the most critical operations in Crimea. Additionally, it is possible that he took part in a massacre of protesters in Maidan before his unit transported Yanukovych to Russia.
General Oleksandr Skipalski, a former head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, is convinced that the Spetsnaz unit – with Chepiga at its head – took part in the escalation of conflict in Kiev. What he has in mind is a secret group of over 20 Russians who stationed in the SBU Alfa Spetsnaz base, a separate building that could not be accessed by Ukrainians. These Spetsnaz soldiers, supposedly, wore Berkut uniforms and, later, fired at the protesters.
When the revolution in Kiev broke out, Russian services were in quite a comfortable position. Since the beginning of the Yanukovych presidency, they could act freely in Ukraine. The SBU-FSB agreement from 2010 assumed that Ukraine’s counterintelligence stop operations against Russia. In Crimea, Russia’s intelligence had even more freedom.
Additionally, the SBU and the police structures – especially in Crimea and in Donbas – were full of Russia’s agents (the SBU head Aleksandr Jakimenko included). Later, Ukraine claimed that a secret FSB operation “Monolith”, which aimed to subordinate Ukraine to Moscow, began, in fact, in 2007. According to Valentin Nalyvaychenko, the first “post-revolutionary” SBU head, “the first arrests of the FSB groups were registered in the SBU in 2008”. But then Yanukovych came to power…
From the beginning of the Maidan protests, Russia’s services were involved in the events in Ukraine, and subsequent decisions of Ukraine’s authorities were not only consulted with Russia but indeed planned in Moscow.
Protests began on November 21, 2013. Nine days later, the first brutal police raid on a tent camp took place. Two weeks later, Hennadiy Moskal, an opposition MP, declared that many FSB officers arrived in Kiev with the task to forcibly suppress the protests. When it turned out that Maidan was gaining ground, Kremlin ordered two more variants of stifling protests: one by the GRU and one by the FSB. It is not known where the difference between the two plans laid. Or maybe they were supposed to complement each other. Not coincidentally, in the decisive moments, Vladislav Sukrov – an advisor to the president, associated with the GRU – and general Siergey Biesieda – head of the FSB particular unit responsible for the post-Soviet area – were seen in Kiev. It is also known that a former 1st deputy-head of the GRU, who checked in the “Kiev” hotel, took part in the preparation of the special operations of the Ministry of Interior and the SBU.
The first group of the FSB “consultants” (24 individuals) were in Kiev between December 19 and 24. The second one arrived for a couple of days in mid-January. The third tour was on January 26-29, 2014. The guests from Moscow were located in luxury villas on the Kiev suburbs, but the operational headquarters were found in the nearby SBU’s training ground. On the request of Yakimenko, the head of the SBU, all costs related to Russian’s stay were covered by Ukraine, and the guests could use Ukrainian governmental communication channels. General Biesieda was present in every group. Colonel general Biesieda is a trusted officer of Putin and the man responsible for exceptionally sensitive missions. He is the head of the 5th Service (Operational Information and International Relations), which includes a department of Operational Information. Under this enigmatic name, one can find an FSB intelligence unit which operates on the territories of the post-Soviet republics.
The tasks of Russian agents were not limited only to “counsel”. It is known that at least twice – on January 21 and 24, 2014 – through the airports adjacent to Kiev, Russian aircrafts provided Ukraine with a few tonnes of “special resources” that were supposed to help in quelling the Maidan protests.
Between February 18 and 20, Ukraine’s forces tried to suppress Maidan protests. On the latter day, known as “Black Thursday”, a special secret delegation from Moscow arrived in Kiev and was greeted by the Russian SBU general Vladimir Bik who coordinated the suppression. Among his seven guests were Surkov and Biesieda. The delegation spent only a day in Kiev because the next day Yanukovych signed an agreement with opposition forces and then fled the country. As has been later established by Ukraine’s services, on February 20, in Kiev there was a large group of Russian officers associated with three different services. Twelve from the FSB, three from the SVR RF and five from the GRU, among them many colonels and generals. A year after the “Black Thursday”, on February 20, 2015, Valentin Nalyvaychenko, the head of the SBU, stated that Russia’s special services took part in the operation and Surkov oversaw the firing squad, which, supposedly, was composed of the Spetsnaz GRU soldiers. It cannot be ruled out that the man in command was Chepiga. When it turned out that the regime was falling down, the same Spetsnaz soldiers may have secured the evacuation of Yanukovych. We still have too scant information to assess which service – the FSB, or the GRU – played the leading role in Russia’s operation in Kiev. One thing we know for sure: they failed.
If in Kiev – quite naturally – the FSB had more to say, it was military services that had their say in Crimea.
Although the FSB took part in the annexation of the peninsula (by activating its agents among local forces), the military intelligence played a leading role. It was a military operation, after all. Even at the time when the fate of Kiev’s Maidan was still uncertain, in February, Surkow – a superintendent of the Ukrainian policy of Kremlin and an ally of the GRU – paid two secret visits to Crimea.
Of course, Putin lies by saying that the decision to take over Crimea was taken on an ad hoc basis as a consequence of the events in Ukraine. These plans were prepared much earlier in the tiniest detail. During the famous meeting in the night of February 22/23, 2014, the only decision that was taken was the one to proceed with the plan that had been agreed before. What is important, heads of the FSB (Bortnikov) and the GRU (Siergun) were among Putin’s four guests. The FSB played an important role, as it prepared the ground for the annexation. It infiltrated different Russian organisations in Crimea and recruited agents among the local police and the SBU. In pivotal moments, it helped in staging a performance with a “spontaneous” protest of a local community against “Bandera’s junta” in Kiev and in paralysing the whole Ukrainian state, which turned out to be deprived of its forces in Crimea. However, the leading role was played by the GRU, the fact recognised years later by Putin himself. (“I ordered the Ministry of Defence… to transfer the special GRU units and marines to Crimea to strengthen the protection of our military facilities”).
The transfer to Crimea began on February 26. Russians, approximately 1700 persons in total, were hidden under the decks of the ships of the Black Sea Fleet, which were returning from Sochi, where they protected the Olympic Games. The majority of this contingent included soldiers from the 3rd and 22nd Spetsnaz GRU brigade in Togliatti and in Krasna Polana but also veterans of the former Chechen GRU Vostok battalion. At the same time, unmarked aircraft with Russian Spetsnaz soldiers in unmarked uniforms on board began landing on the airport in Simferopol.
From the port in Sevastopol and the airport in Simferopol, small units of the “little green men” moved across the peninsula and blocked key Ukraine’s facilities and units. It could all happen – thanks to the FSB actions – because of the total inactivity of the local forces and administration.
In the morning of February 27, the two self-proclaimed units of “Crimea citizens’ self-defence force” (in total 120 soldiers in unmarked uniforms) took over the buildings of parliament and government in Simferopol. Without a single shot being fired. Two other key GRU special operations after the takeover of the buildings – a takeover of Belbek airport and disarmament of the Ukrainian marines brigade in Feodosia – were bloodless. Forcibly, Crimea’s parliament voted in favour of the union with Russia, called a referendum (March 6), and declared the independence of Crimea (March 11). On March 16, the “referendum” took place. Next day, Russia recognised the independence of the Republic of Crimea and on March 18, the accession treaty was signed.
The referendum was still miles away when Moscow began to transport groups of the GRU “little green men” to the next front – to Donbas, where the situation closely resembled conditions in Crimea. Local forces were either infiltrated by Russia’s special services or – at best – disloyal to the new authorities in Kiev. It is not surprising that when Russians set in motion the wave of protest in the southern and eastern Ukraine, almost all of the Donbas police and majority of the SBU immediately went over and sided with Russia.
Moscow, however, did not expect the operation to go as smoothly as in Crimea, even despite the weakness of the Ukrainian army. A few thousand of the GRU and FSB agents and Spetsnaz operators were transported over the border. Of course, it was an unofficial operation.
At the time when the conflict in Donbas broke out for good (March-April 2014), Russians “were already there”. GRU soldiers were dispersed and operated in small groups focused on sabotage, exploratory actions and training of units of the local “mass mobilisation”. Quite naturally, they were also accused of shooting down the Malaysian Boeing MH17. Actions of the FSB meanwhile were very similar to those in Crimea: recruiting agents before the war and running an information war in the media. But in the wartime, a dominating role was assumed – quite naturally – by the GRU. Also, after an armistice was declared, it was the military intelligence that began the reorganisation of insurgent units (including by eliminating many chiefs and atamans who did not want to fall in line with the centralised command).
The more time has passed since the end of the open war in Donbas (so-called Minsk Agreement from the first months of 2015), the more the need to gradually demilitarise operations of “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Lugansk became a pressing issue. Also, the never-ending rivalry between FSB and GRU was still the issue, and in Donbas, it had a financial background. Whoever dominated in the occupied territory, could have gained the highest profits from smuggling, or stealing “humanitarian aid” from Russia. With time, Surkow – “people’s republics” superintendent – grew weaker and with the wane of his power, the power of the GRU was weakened. In autumn of 2017, a bloodless coup in Lugansk took place. Igor Plotnicki, Surkov’s protégé, was replaced by the FSB man, Leonid Pasecznyk. Lubyanka did not hide its intent to take over Donetsk as well. Finally, a few weeks ago, Aleksandr Zacharczenko, one of the self-proclaimed leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic, died in a bomb attack.
Only after the “elections” in November, will it turn out which service will gain the upper hand. But the developments in occupied Donbas are a more and more visible example of the conflict between the FSB and the GRU. Its highlight was the recent series of failures of the military intelligence during its operations in the West. For sure, their civil service colleagues – in fact, those residing in Lubyanka – could not hide their satisfaction.
Translation from Polish: Łukasz Gadzała
This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.