Grzegorz Małecki is the Former Director of the Polish Foreign Intelligence Agency, Agencja Wywiadu (AW), which is the equivalent of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Mr. Małecki is a member of an international team of experts composed of former heads of intelligence services that are supporting the process of reforming the Ukrainian security and intelligence system. Strike Source reached out to him to get his unique perspective on the reported Ukrainian operation to arrest mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group.
Q: There are conflicting accounts of what occurred and whether or not this operation was a bona fide Ukrainian SBU operation to arrest Wagner Group mercenaries involved in fighting in Donbass, Ukraine, some of whom allegedly were witnesses to the downing of Flight MH-17. What is your assessment of whether or not this was a real operation carried out by the Ukrainians?
A: In my opinion, it was a genuine operation by Ukrainian secret services, carried out according to the best standards of special operations. I consider it to be a highly professional, offensive operation that any of the leading intelligence services in the world would be proud to call their own. Both the idea and the execution deserve high marks. It could be said that despite the failure to achieve the ultimate goal- bringing the mercenaries to justice in Kiev, 90% of the goals were achieved.
It is highly probable, however, that some elements of the story about the operation are inconsistent with the facts, especially with regard to the circumstances surrounding its conclusion. There are a number of ambiguities and controversies surrounding how the operation suddenly stopped. This gives room for a lot of speculation.
Q: The SBU is believed to remain heavily penetrated by the Russians, as are other organs of the Ukrainian government. Do you think it would have been possible for the Russians not to learn about this plan and prevent it from occurring?
A: First of all, I think, this operation was conducted by another Ukrainian intelligence service, most likely by HUR- the Ukrainian military intelligence service. One of the indications that could be a clue to this was the unexpected resignation of the head of this service, General Vasyl Burba, on August 5. This most likely was the result of a conflict that arose over the intended end of the operation.
As for the penetration of Ukrainian services, because this problem concerned the entire security apparatus and the armed forces, not only the SBU, it was actually a very serious problem in the period preceding Russia’s aggression in the Crimea in 2014. At that time, I wrote an article dedicated to this issue, “Secret Service – the Achilles’ heel of Ukraine”, in The Copernicus Journal of Political Studies. In the following years, however, the Ukrainian authorities made profound changes in the security apparatus, one of the main goals of which was to overcome this problem, which was a legacy of the difficult history of Ukraine. The authorities opted for a completely new generation of officers who have proven themselves in real conflict with the aggressor, demonstrating their loyalty and professionalism.
In my opinion, the Ukrainians have made enormous progress in this area and today the problem of Russian penetration has been largely overcome, or at least become very limited. This is evidenced by the efficient operation that took place under the nose of the Russian secret services. An operation that simply humiliated them. It also showed that the Russian services are not as efficient and omnipotent as it is commonly believed. They can be defeated even on their own territory, provided that you have adequate, unique knowledge about their mechanisms of operation and the skills that allow you to overcome their defense mechanisms. The Ukrainians proved that they had such capabilities.
Several weeks after the operation to arrest the Wagner Group mercenaries, Russian media aggressively reported on an alleged failed attempt by the SBU to carry out an operation on Russian territory. The reports claimed that the Russian FSB (Federal Security Service) disrupted a Ukrainian SBU operation to kidnap one of the leaders of the ““Luhansk People’s Republic / Donetsk People’s Republic”. The SBU immediately denied this account. Regardless of whether the story was true or false, its publication is seen as an attempt by Moscow to retaliate against the Ukrainian services for the embarrassment they caused the Russian services. This can be considered an indirect confirmation of my assessment that the Ukrainians indeed kept the Russians from becoming aware of their operation to arrest the Wagner mercenaries.
Q: Some have speculated that this whole story is “fake news” made up by Russia and several high ranking Ukrainian officials, including Major General Ihor Huskov of the SBU, have denied that Ukraine ever conducted the operation. It seems this story is embarrassing for the Russians and for Putin in a number of ways: he and his intelligence services would have failed to detect the plot, the mercenaries would have been fooled, and Belarus would have arrested these individuals right when President Lukashenko most needs Moscow’s support. Why then would Russia fake this story? Could doing so possibly benefit Putin?
A: Indeed, there have been many official statements and unofficial comments in the Ukrainian media denying reports about the involvement of Ukrainian services in this matter. The official position was taken by representatives of the highest authorities, including Vasyl Burba, the former director of HUR, and his successor Kyrylo Budanov. However, this is not surprising, because denial in the case of special services operations is a normal practice and it is difficult to imagine the Ukrainian authorities would have handled this any differently. Russia, humiliated by this operation, also joined the fray by initiating a series of publications aimed at controlling the damage to their image.
There is no doubt, however, that the version that the entire operation is “fake news” created by Russia is not credible, because the possible benefits to the Kremlin, in the form of conflict between Ukraine and Belarus, would be insignificant compared to the image losses suffered by the Russian services. Therefore, it should be assumed that the media fuss that has arisen around this matter is being used by both, or actually three parties, to limit their own losses. It is hard to deny that the version of events that was made public also hits some important centers of power in Ukraine and their priority goals of domestic and foreign policy.
Q: We just mentioned how Belarus arresting these individuals at a crucial time, just before the elections in Belarus, could harm Belarus’ relations with Russia. In fact, Russian media outlet Komsomolskaya Pravda stated that this was the goal of the operation from the start. For their part, Belarus accused these individuals of plotting a coup and charged them with organizing terrorist acts before ultimately releasing them back to Russia. Why would Belarus take this action? Why would Lukashenko be concerned that Putin was going to try to remove him from power?
A: In my opinion, Lukashenko arresting the Wagner mercenaries in a guesthouse near Minsk was a reflex, an intuitive and nervous reaction in a situation of surprise and disorientation. I think that he was caught off guard by this action, that is, the unexpected arrival of this group, and his first instinct was to be afraid this was an operation against him by Putin. That is why, upon receiving information about the group’s arrival in Minsk, he ordered their immediate detention, fearing that it was a group that would be used to overthrow him. Only after receiving an explanation, most likely from Putin, that he had nothing to do with their presence in Belarus, did he agree to send them back. We must remember that Lukashenko took over a week to make this decision.
In the context of contemplating the actual authorship of the operation, it is worth noting that Belarus’ refusal to extradite 28 of the detained mercenaries (9 of whom are Ukrainian citizens), as was requested by the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, and instead sending them back to Moscow, provoked an angry reaction from Kiev.
Grzegorz Małecki was the Director of the Polish Foreign Intelligence Agency, Agencja Wywiadu (AW), which is the equivalent of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), from 2015 to 2016. Mr. Małecki enjoyed a 22 year esteemed career in the Polish intelligence and security services and was also the Secretary to the Committee for Intelligence and Security Services in the Prime Minister’s Office. In 2016 Mr. Małecki chaired the NATO Civilian Intelligence Committee. After his retirement in 2017, he became a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Economy and Energy Program in the Casimir Pulaski Foundation and the President of the Board of the Institute of Security and Strategy. Mr. Małecki is an academic lecturer, author of numerous publications, and participant in many conferences devoted to issues of intelligence, national security, cyber security, intelligence systems management, energy security, international relations, control and audit. He is also the head of the representative office of Q Group Global in Poland.