A Conversation with Ukraine’s Counterintelligence Division, the SBU
As the world watches the brutal Russian military action against Ukraine, we are seeing the limitations of the Russian army. Ukrainian forces are outnumbered 5 to 1, but have stopped the Russian action in its tracks. Ukraine is also winning another war against Russia, though: a secret war fought between rival intelligence agencies.
A Corrupt FSB Is Losing the Intelligence War …
The Russian intelligence service, the FSB, was responsible for the invasion of Ukraine. It was the FSB that assured Russian President Putin that a lightning strike would eradicate “Nazis” who were “oppressing” the population, that invading forces would be welcomed as liberators, and that the elected leaders of Ukraine would flee.
It was the FSB that was assigned to appoint a puppet regime to provide political and diplomatic cover for Russian annexation. However, instead of flowers and flags, the Russian military and national guard were greeted with Stingers and Javelins. And Russian mothers grieving the death of their sons have the FSB to blame.
A decorated American intelligence officer specializing in asymmetric warfare, now retired, told me, “The FSB failed, miserably. And it wasn’t just a result of incorrect information – it was because of laziness, waste, and corruption at the FSB. They took the money, the enormous resources provided by Putin, and spent it on themselves. Eventually, they will sell out their Ukrainian sources and spies as well. The SBU has a brilliant record in identifying enemy commanders. Killing a company commander is a huge blow, but killing several regimental and division commanders is unheard of. To be able to identify, locate, and put force on commanding generals is an enormous success for the SBU.”
Putin himself realizes how badly the FSB has failed, and according to USG sources quoted in the Wall Street Journal, he is furious. The sources report that the top FSB commander in charge of the Ukraine “special military operation,” Col. Gen. Sergei Beseda, has been relieved of command and placed under house arrest.
The New York Times reported the detention of a second FSB official related to the Ukraine operation. The FSB is not performing well, and is losing the intelligence war.
… And Ukraine’s Counter Intelligence Service, the SBU, is Winning
Ukraine has an effective counter intelligence organization that fights both organized crime and foreign intelligence, military, and sabotage operations. The Security Service of Ukraine, also known as SBU, is headed by Ivan Bakanov. Before the invasion Bakanov was criticized for his fierce loyalty to President Zelenskiy. While before the invasion this may have raised eyebrows, in wartime Ukraine beset with Russian saboteurs bent on eliminating the Zelenskiy administration, Bakanov’s loyalty is vital to the war effort.
I spoke with a representative of the SBU about the unseen battle between the two intelligence agencies. I observed that one of the key causes of Russian military failures was the failure of the FSB to provide accurate information and prepare the groundwork for the invasion.
Clandestine “battles” between the FSB and SBU have been raging in advance of the invasion. Clearly, the SBU has come out a winner. I asked what measures the FSB has been taking, either on their own initiative or as a reaction to their failures.
Russian Information Warfare Is So Predictable, It Is Boring
“We are seeing lots of information operations trying to cause trouble and turmoil,” the official said. “But they are failing. We know those measures when we see them, and we understand it. We’ve seen it all before. They use the same pattern: unknown ‘experts,’ unnamed Telegram channels, fake news websites and channels. It always looks the same, and becomes very boring, once you know the pattern.”
I noted that we have seen active measures against the Director of the CI Service (SBU), Ivan Bakanov. They have increased commensurate with the rate of failure of the FSB, and look increasingly like attempts by a sore loser (the FSB) to distract from its own incompetence.
“Yes, they are trying to get him dismissed, but they have failed. Before the war, they were trying to undermine Ukrainian society, to create turbulence on more mundane issues, like utility prices, vaccinations, landlords, etc. They wanted to keep people churned up, and to make them feel like it is impossible to know the truth.”
“The more they bomb us, the more united and determined we are.”
“When they failed at that, they resorted to bombs. But the bombs have had a reverse effect. Now 95% of Ukrainians trust Zelenskiy, and about 85% believe that Ukraine will achieve victory. The more they bomb us, the more united and determined we are.
“They are trying now to distract from their failures. But they weren’t the only ones who failed. Even your people – the US intelligence community – failed. So did the UK. You all said that Kiev would fall in three days, and central Ukraine would fall in 5 days. But every day more men are volunteering, and many women also.
“Russians made a core mistake: they completely overexaggerated the role of Russian propaganda, and they believed their own efforts. There may have been people in Ukraine who were pro-Russian, who were telling the FSB what they wanted to hear, for money or for influence.
“But even Russian speaking Ukrainians don’t want to be part of Russia. Those who thought they did before 2014 have changed their minds. They now identify as Ukrainian, and feel more fiercely Ukrainian with every apartment building that is shelled and every child that is killed.”
“Ramzan Kadyrov, we are waiting for you, and you will find how we welcome you.”
I asked the official about Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s vassal ruler of Chechnya. Kadyrov has stated that he is in Ukraine, and can come and go freely as he pleases. Is he in Kiev? Is he in Ukraine?
“He is not in Ukraine. This is a ridiculous claim, and completely fake. He would never fight personally, but always hides behind the walls of his palaces. He fears to fight in person.
“I have a personal message for Ramzan: Where are you? Come to Ukraine – come to Kiev. We are waiting for you, and you will find how we welcome you. Our special services are waiting for you with a special Ukrainian welcome just for you.”
“President Zelenskiy is a lion, and we all are lions.”
I inquired also about the media stories this week that the SBU Director, Ivan Bakanov, is in Germany.
“Again the fake. It’s the same pattern I described earlier: Monday last week, some fake ‘experts’ made this statement. It’s a typical Russian move, put out through the same old Telegram and website channels.
“It’s an easy charge to make, because Director Bakanov has never been a public person. He told the UK government last year, ‘My picture will appear in the papers twice: once when I was appointed, and again when I resign.’ This has been his policy since he started several years ago.
“The FSB knows he will never appear in public, and they are trying to use that to make up stories. He doesn’t do briefings every two hours. We are here, we are working, we’re not hiding. Bakanov is working in the central SBU building in downtown Kiev.
“The real proof that he is here lies in the successes of the SBU. Organizations do not succeed when their leaders are absent. One of the earliest successes of the war was the death of Gen. Magomed Tushaev, commander of the 141st motorized regiment of the Chechen National Guard. This was a success of the SBU Alpha Group, among others. This is the success of leadership, of fighters from the top to the bottom of the command chain.”
“In the same way, Ukraine succeeds because President Zelenskiy is a leader. He is a lion, and we all are lions. We fight like lions. And we will keep fighting like lions to keep our homes and our freedom.”
President Zelenskiy has rallied the Ukrainian military and people to fight Russian invaders. Of equal importance, his decisions prior to the invasion empowered the SBU to counteract FSB preparation for the invasion. This doomed the Russian military to high casualties.
Denial and deception intelligence operations have an outsized effect on casualties. The FSB’s failure and the SBU’s success in this area present a stark study in contrasts. Seeing the FSB desperately deploying active measures, using Ramzan Kadyrov and its fifth column in Germany to attack SBU Director Bakanov, is further proof of Zelenskiy’s success.
Western intelligence should be vigilant, and act decisively against Russian active measures deployed in the West. Just as we send weapons to fight Russian armor in Ukraine’s cities, we should also help Zelenskiy’s clandestine warriors by working with the SBU to fight the information war in all of Europe. It’s not only good for Ukraine; it’s good for Europe and the entire NATO alliance. And Ukraine’s clandestine warriors have earned the right to our respect, and to work with us side by side.