KYIV – The whole world has seen the impact of Russia’s brutal military attack on Ukraine with missiles, drones and artillery shells, but another, more insidious attack has gone largely unnoticed outside the country: it is suspected that in all aspects an extensive network of Russian agents is embedded in Ukrainian life from parliament to television channels.
The former Donetsk governor told The Daily Beast that President Zelensky is not doing enough to free pro-Russian political figures and fears that new efforts to strengthen and streamline intelligence gathering could lead to even more damaging Russian incursions.
“Kiev shone with phosphorus stains that someone had placed on Russian helicopters in the first days of the war,” said Serhiy Taruta, now a lawmaker. He fears that current Russian espionage is more subtle but just as dangerous.
Another lawmaker was arrested by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) in September on treason charges. During a raid on Nestor Shufrych’s property, The SBU said it found a shipment of pro-Kremlin memorabilia. He allegedly had display cases full of dozens of vintage Russian Empire and Soviet-era weapons, as well as military uniforms and patriotic Russian symbols that are banned in Ukraine.
Shufrych, who also owned a television station, is reportedly accused of being a mouthpiece for President Putin works for an alleged spymaster, who until recently was the former deputy secretary of the National Security Council of Ukraine. When war broke out, Vladimir Sivkovich found himself in the inner sanctum of Ukrainian security.
“I’m not sure if the author of the bill is an agent, but the network of agents is large. I demand that lawmakers from pro-Russian parties be investigated.”
— Ivan Pietukhov, deputy chairman of the League of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs
The The US imposed sanctions on Sivkovich last yearHe claimed he had ties to the FSB and “worked with a network of Russian intelligence actors to conduct influence operations,” including attempts to convince Kiev to cede Crimea to Russia and the infamous effort within Ukraine to overturn the 2020 U.S. presidential election to influence in favor of then-President Donald Trump.
Accordingly The Sivkovich State Investigation Bureau had worked with the FSB to set up a spy network in Ukraine.
The Daily Beast spoke to politicians, businesspeople, security insiders and army veterans about President Volodymyr Zelensky’s efforts to rid the Kiev establishment of corruption and Moscow’s influence agents – a persistent and overwhelming problem often likened in Ukraine to the tentacles of a giant octopus .
Since the first days of the Battle of Kiev, Ukrainian intelligence has caught Russian spies on its territory, including members of the Ukrainian Security Service, who are accused of collecting state intelligence and passing it on to Russian representatives and attempting to influence personnel decisions in the security service to take agencies of Ukraine. One of those arrested and charged with treason was Oleh Kulinich, the head of the Crimean Directorate of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). He was arrested in July 2022 on charges of recruiting pro-Russia agents on Moscow’s orders.
A military counterintelligence official working on the war in Ukraine reportedly told Newsweek, “We have managed to identify Russian spies within the Ukrainian government and military, as well as at various other points in the supply chain.”
Yurii Butusov, editor-in-chief of Censor.net, one of the independent media that conducts investigations into corruption and espionage in Kiev, said: “The network of Russian agents is large – before the war we had a whole group of them.”
The opposition Platform for Life, promoted by Putin’s close friend and adviser Viktor Medvechuk, held 44 of 450 seats in parliament until last year.
Butusov said the mainstream media is full of spies and people with ties to the pro-Putin Russian media. “There are a lot of agents in the mainstream television media with their own people,” he told The Daily Beast.
The channels owned by Putin’s alleged puppets Shufrych, Medvechuk and Yevhen Muraiev – who did an interview with The Daily Beast last year when he was named by Britain as a Russian agent –still had a license in May of this year. Worse still, “United News,” a 24-hour newscast on all channels since the start of the war, is put together by a combined team of television producers, including the very people who were employed to spread pro-Russian propaganda on Medvechuk’s networks and Muraiev.
Anti-corruption campaigners agree that Ukraine still has a long way to go before all the tentacles linking the authorities in Kiev to the Kremlin are severed. The director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, Daria Kaleniuk, refused to attend the European Strategic Forum in Yalta, where Zelensky and his first lady were among the speakers, because it was sponsored by the Pinchuk Foundation, headed by Ukrainian Viktor Pinchuk becomes an oligarch and media tycoon. “Oligarchs and their whitewashing would never buy the loyalty of Ukrainian civil society,” she said.
Kaleniuk fears Russia’s influence even at the highest levels of power and referred to Persistent claims in Kiev that Zelensky’s own chief of staff has a pleasant relationship with Moscow. “We have many questions about Russia’s relations with senior officials, including Andrii Yermak, the head of the presidential office,” she said.
Ukrainian-born U.S. Congresswoman Victoria Spartz (R-IN) wrote to President Biden last year asking a series of questions about Yermak’s record including allegations that he passed intelligence information about Belarus to Russia. As Zelensky’s chief of staff, Yermak is believed to be the second most powerful man in Ukraine.
Taruta, who was governor of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine until 2014, said the leader’s office was still far too happy to work with members of parliament who have long been pro-Russian.
“Our society today sees the entire opposition bloc of MPs who visited Putin and tried to appear as pro-Russian figures. But our leadership actively cooperates with these MPs when it comes to voting, and when they say that there is no mechanism to strip these pro-Russian MPs of their mandates, that is pure hypocrisy,” he told The Daily Beast.
“Schufrych [who was arrested last month] was Medvechuk’s close friend and previously headed a parliamentary committee – like many others who hold high offices today.”
Taruta sees an even greater threat on the horizon as Parliament proposes a new law that would give the State Service for Special Communications and Information Protection broad powers to access and control cybersecurity for public and private institutions in Ukraine. The bill reflects the FSB’s extensive control over the Internet in Russia.
“Any attempt to concentrate all power in one institution is dangerous,” he said. “Concentration of power in a few hands without oversight by democratic institutions could lead someone to seek totalitarian control over the information space.”
Ivan Pietukhov, the president of Adamant, one of the oldest internet and telecommunications companies in Ukraine, went even further, telling The Daily Beast that the new law may be intentionally designed to be manipulated and abused by Russian agents operating in Ukraine to become.
“I am not sure if the author of the bill is an agent, but the network of agents is large. I personally demand that lawmakers from pro-Russian parties be investigated,” said Pietukhov, who is also deputy chairman of the League of Russian Federation Industrialists and Entrepreneurs.
“There must be a circle of people who even copy the ideas of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB),” he said. “This is exactly Russia’s approach to evil empire building: the FSB is the one agency that controls information and cybersecurity in Russia, while in the United States and the European Union control is divided among multiple institutions.”
The head of the Lawyers’ Association of Ukraine, Oleg Chernobai, told The Daily Beast that a government department should not be given so much power. “If this bill is passed, the service will have access to the confidential data of criminal defense lawyers’ clients. This bill would just have one agency combining all functions – that’s wrong,” he said.
As Zelensky tries to kill the Russian octopus strangling Ukraine, he may inadvertently help grow its tentacles.