Ukrainian and Russian intelligence services clashed over a Ukrainian operation to entice Russian fighter jet pilots to defect with their planes, a journalist from open-source investigation outlet Bellingcat, Christo Grozev, explained in a Twitter thread on July 25.
On July 25, Russia’s FSB spy agency announced that it has foiled a Ukrainian plot to steal Russian fighter jets. Moscow alleged that Ukraine’s military intelligence was recruiting Russian pilots to land their planes at Ukrainian air fields – in exchange for a hefty reward and “EU citizenship.”
Russian propaganda also claimed that Grozev was personally involved in the plot, helping to find “couriers” to deliver cash incentives to a Russian pilot. The alleged turncoat pilot seemingly planned to drug his co-pilot in the process.
Grozev told Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty that he did not work with any intelligence services. He explained that Bellingcat was producing a video report of their investigation into the ongoing contest between Russian and Ukrainian spies. The investigation will be published soon, Grozev said.
He also elaborated on the details of “one of the wildest counter-counter-intelligence operations in history.”
“Using a traditional mix of forged ‘evidence’ and loosely interpreted facts, the FSB also accused me personally of being involved in the plane-hijack-ing plot [on screen: totally forged message, I never had a UK number, obviously],” Grozev wrote.
According to the journalist, the whole ordeal was a major blunder on FSB’s part, as it has inadvertently revealed the identities of several dozen of its counter-intelligence officers and undercover agents.
Back in April, Ukraine passed a law which entitles enemy defectors to monetary compensation for any military equipment they surrender. Grozev said that Ukraine’s intelligence services decided to use this legislation to reach out to Russian fighter jet pilots and try to entice them to defect. It was at this point that Bellingcat became aware of the operation, and started making a documentary about it.
After being approached, several Russian pilots were receptive, and even sent video “proof of access,” filmed from inside the cockpits of their planes. Grozev noted that FSB now presents these videos as “controlled leaks,” part of the counter-intelligence operation of their own.
The conversations between Russian pilots and their Ukrainian handlers quickly took a sharp turn in their tone, suggesting they started being coached by FSB operatives, Grozev writes. One such instance became ap-parent, he said, when one pilot said he now wanted to flee Russia with his mistress, instead of spouse.
It reportedly took Grozev five minutes to figure out that the “mistress” in question was in fact an FSB asset – something the Ukrainian side also picked up on. Grozev was also able to establish that the very same “mistress” was in communication with FSB’s military counter-intelligence units the whole time, as her “boyfriend” was negotiating with the Ukrainians.
“At this point, it became clear to me that the original luring operation was over – and had turned into a double ‘operational game’ in which both sides were trying to extract maximum information from the other, while feeding them as much misinformation as possible,” Grozev said.
He said that from that point on, Ukraine fed inaccurate data on the country’s anti-air defenses to the pilots, who, in their turn, were sending fake flight plans. Kyiv even managed to convince the FSB to send the wife of one of the pilots for a “clandestine meeting” in Minsk, Belarus. She was tailed by a team of FSB officers. Their entire party loitered around Minsk for four days, but their efforts were part of a Ukrainian disinformation campaign, and their wait was fruitless.
Grozev concluded that the whole charade came to an end when the FSB finally realized that none of their proposed meetings would happen, with Ukraine realizing they won’t be able to establish genuine contact with any pilots.
“We’re still going to finish this wild documentary of ours, despite its abrupt ending (at least, for now),” said the journalist.