Kiev, Ukraine and Minsk, Belarus (CNN) – Security forces broke the early morning calm at the Soviet-era tourist complex outside Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to detain 32 Russian mercenaries.
It was less than two weeks before last year’s Belarusian presidential elections and authorities suspected that foreigners had been sent from Russia to interfere.
Indeed, the men were part of a mission. But the target was not Belarus, and they were not under the orders of any Russian entity. They had been set up. The 32, along with another man detained in southern Belarus, were the subject of an elaborate intelligence operation by Ukraine, with the knowledge and alleged support of the United States.
Three former senior Ukrainian military intelligence officials exclusively described to CNN how they orchestrated the extraordinary operation to remove suspected war criminals from Russia to stand trial for atrocities in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow-backed separatists They have been fighting for years.
First, the Ukrainian agents posed as a private Russian military company, recruiting for security jobs that paid above the prevailing rate, offering a lucrative $ 5,000-a-month contract to protect Venezuelan oil facilities, according to The men, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told CNN because they are not authorized to speak about the delicate operation.
Hundreds of would-be Russian contractors took the bait and applied for the job, the sources said, giving Ukrainian intelligence an unprecedented opportunity to begin identifying and luring war crime suspects.
“We started calling them and saying, ‘Hey, okay, tell me something about yourself. Maybe you’re not really a fighter, maybe you’re a plumber or something,'” one of the former military intelligence officers told CNN about the calls from inquiry to applicants.
“And then they started to reveal things about themselves, sending us documents, military IDs and proof of where they had fought. And we, we thought, ‘bingo, we can use that,'” added the source.
In other words, according to intelligence officials, the targets themselves began to send evidence of who they were, their military experience and even the specific battles and incidents they had participated in, including identity documents and potentially incriminating photos and videos of his exploits in eastern Ukraine and elsewhere.
A video shared with CNN by the aforementioned military intelligence sources captures a group of rebel fighters in eastern Ukraine holding the wreckage of a military plane that, according to the sources, had just been shot down, a crime classified as terrorism in Ukraine. .
Other applicants are linked to the attack on MH17, the Malaysian Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur that was shot down in July 2014 over Ukrainian territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists. All 298 people on board the plane died. A team of international prosecutors led by the Netherlands said the plane was shot down by a missile brought from Russia and fired from a town controlled by the separatists. Russia has denied any involvement in the event.
“There were two who were present when the missile that shot down MH17 was launched. Four others were members of a group responsible for shooting down our military plane and killing at least 70 of our best men,” a second former source told CNN. Ukrainian military intelligence.
“Identifying and punishing these people was of great interest to us,” he added.
It appeared to be of interest to US intelligence as well, although US officials deny having played a direct role. According to Ukrainian intelligence officials, the Ukrainian-led operation received cash, technical assistance and advice from the CIA on how to attract Russian mercenaries.
A senior US official told CNN those claims are “false.”
He indicated that US intelligence was aware of the operation, but denied participation. The official, who requested anonymity for not being authorized to speak publicly, suggested that efforts to implicate US agencies may be an attempt to share, or even pass on, the blame for what was a high-risk Ukrainian operation. that went wrong.
CNN spent weeks in Ukraine, checking and reviewing accounts of the operation and speaking with the men inside.
Masquerading as a private military company made sense: Kremlin-linked military contractors have become a well-known aspect of Russian veterans’ lives.
CNN has previously tracked down Russian mercenaries operating in Libya, the Central African Republic, Syria and Mozambique, among other countries. Soldiers for hire often work for Wagner, a major private military company allegedly linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, though Prigozhin denies connections. The announcement of the arrests in the Minsk tourist center by the Belarusian authorities said that the detainees worked for Wagner.
With his recruiting ruse going undetected via the web, Ukrainian intelligence officials simply picked the men with the closest and most controversial ties to Ukraine and offered them the bogus Venezuelan contracts, the sources said.
They chose 28 Russians allegedly linked to illegal acts in Ukraine and five more without connections to dispel any suspicions, they said.
The Russians were told they would fly to Turkey to connect with a flight to Caracas. The real plan was to take them to Ukraine, where they could be detained, the sources told CNN.
The coronavirus pandemic was an unexpected turn in the plan when Russia closed its borders to stop the spread of covid-19.
However, Moscow continued to allow its neighbor and ally Belarus to travel. According to Ukrainian sources, the involuntary recruits were transported overland to Minsk by bus, from where they thought they would soon depart for Venezuela.
But once in Minsk, there was a delay. They were told it would take a few days for them to leave and were transferred to the Belorusochka Sanatorium, a discreet Soviet-era health center located in a quiet reserve 15 minutes from the capital, where, according to sources, they were expected to go unnoticed. .
The burly mercenaries on the reservation promising “comfort and convenience” amid the “absence of city fuss and everyday worries” seemed out of place, if not suspicious, an employee recalled.
“Yes, I remember, I met them,” a security guard told CNN last month. “They spent a couple of days here. They didn’t do anything to upset us,” he said, adding that the arrests were a surprise. “People come here because there is a beautiful reserve on the other side of the sanitarium,” he said.
The delay was long enough for Belarusian security services to act, just hours before the group was due to fly, according to CNN sources.
At the time, some were suspicious of Russian involvement. In dramatic scenes, broadcast on Belarusian state television, the detained men paraded on screen and their identity documents were displayed as proof of their Russian military background.
“We have confirmed information that these Russians had actual combat experience and had participated in armed conflicts,” an unnamed and heavily disguised police commander revealed on state television.
A former Belarusian presidential adviser told CNN, on condition of anonymity, that the authorities initially believed that the group had been sent to the country by the Russians to destabilize the country before the next elections.
The adviser told CNN that there was confusion in Minsk over what appeared to be an attack by his Russian allies.
The Kremlin also appeared to be unprepared, and its spokesman told Russian media that they “did not have complete information” on the incident. The Kremlin later denied sending the men to interfere in Belarus’ internal affairs.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky also got involved, calling for the men to be extradited to Ukraine during a telephone conversation with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko a few days after the arrests.
“I hope that all those suspected of carrying out terrorist activities on the territory of Ukraine will be transferred to us for prosecution in accordance with current international legal documents,” Zelensky said, based on a reading of the phone conversation.
A couple of days later, Lukashenko rejected that request. He spoke with Putin and both leaders “expressed their confidence that the situation would be resolved”, according to a Kremlin statement.
A week after that call, Russia announced the return of the 32 Russians detained in the sanitarium. Number 33, who had dual Belarusian and Russian nationality, stayed in Belarus.
Ukraine’s president has publicly denied that there was an operation by his country, stating on national television in June 2021 that his country had been “drawn” into the matter.
“I understand that the idea of this operation was the idea of, say, other countries, definitely not Ukraine,” he said.
Ukrainian officials did not respond to CNN’s request for comment for this report.
But, according to Ukrainian CNN sources, the failure was a severe blow to Ukrainian intelligence, which they say had worked to hook the Russian suspects for about 18 months.
“If these people had ended up here in Ukraine, the details of their criminal acts would have been known around the world,” one of the sources told CNN.
“Ukraine could have brought them to justice and show that our fight with Russia is serious and that we will not raise our hands in surrender,” added the source.
– Matthew Chance reported from Kiev and Zahra Ullah reported from Minsk. Katharina Krebs contributed from Kiev.