Ukraine’s spy problem runs deeper than Volodymyr Zelensky’s childhood friend

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Iryna Venediktova stands in an office - Simon Townsley
Iryna Venediktova stands in an office - Simon Townsley

It is a conversation that has been repeated in Kyiv for months.

"When this is over, there will be questions to answer," one Kyiv resident told me in May. "Questions like: how did they take the South so quickly?"

Those suspicions of treachery burst into the open on Sunday when the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) arrested Oleh Kulinych, its own former chief of Crimean affairs, on suspicion of high treason.

Hours later, Volodymyr Zelensky unceremoniously dismissed Ivan Bakanov, the country's chief spy, and Irina Venediktova, the prosecutor general, citing the large number of staff at both agencies in occupied territories who switched sides to work with Russia.

Their suspensions are technically temporary and, if exonerated, they may eventually return to their posts.

But the dramatic reshuffle - the most significant since the war began - reflects growing frustration in government over the performance of the country's security service and concerns about penetration by Russian spies.

It also exposes long-running, pre-war political tensions that have been largely set aside after the February 24 invasion.

Fatal decisions led to dismissals

Mr Zelensky appointed Mr Bakanov, a childhood friend, to head the sprawling SBU in 2019. Like the president, Mr Bakanov's background was in show business, not espionage, and the appointment was widely criticised as inappropriate.

Ivan Bakanov Ukraine's Security Service head at a security conference - Efrem Lukatsky/AP
Ivan Bakanov Ukraine's Security Service head at a security conference - Efrem Lukatsky/AP

But the SBU had been struck by a series of scandals and there was an argument that someone from outside the shadowy security world would be better placed to act as a new broom.

With around 30,000 agents, the successor agency to the KGB is seven times the size of MI5 and has a vast brief that extends from counter-terrorism to fighting organised crime to running espionage and counter-espionage operations.

It has long had a reputation for unaccountability and penetration by Russian spies, and Mr Bakanov told MPs that he would need three years to reform it.

His dismissal on Sunday for "non-performance of duties leading to human casualties or other serious consequences" reflects a sense in Mr Zelensky's Kyiv office that he failed.

Vasyl Maliuk, the temporary replacement appointed on Monday, is a career security service officer.

High ranking officials charged with treason

Mr Kulinych, the former head of the SBU's Crimea operations, is the latest in a series of high-ranking officers to be charged with treason since the war began.

Mr Zelensky dismissed Andriy Naumov, the head of the agency’s internal security department, and Serhiy Kryvoruchko, the head of the SBU's Kherson office, on March 31.

Mr Naumov, who is accused of fleeing the country hours before the invasion began, was arrested in Serbia on June 7 on suspicion of money laundering. He was carrying hundreds of thousands of euros and dollars in cash and at least two emeralds. Ukraine is seeking his extradition.

Mr Kryvoruchko, who is accused of ordering his men, against Mr Zelensky's orders, to evacuate Kherson as the Russians approached, is in Ukrainian custody. So is Ihor Sadokhin, one of his deputies, who has been charged with handing the Russians a map of Ukrainian minefields and coordinating their air operations even as he drove away from the city in the evacuation convoy.

Russian troops standing guard at a power plant near Kherson, Ukraine - Sergei Ilnitsky/Shutterstock
Russian troops standing guard at a power plant near Kherson, Ukraine - Sergei Ilnitsky/Shutterstock

The role of suspected collaborators in the rapid Russian progress in the south of the country during the first week of the war has been one of the most hotly debated topics in Ukraine.

While Russian armour was held up outside Kyiv in the north and Kharkiv in the east, its southern task force burst out of Crimea almost unopposed and by March 3 had captured Kherson, a strategic city on the Dnipro river.

Speculation has swirled ever since about Russia's apparent prior knowledge of Ukraine's minefields, and Ukraine's failure to fight at the narrow isthmus linking Crimea to the mainland, or to blow up a key bridge in Kherson.

Pre-war political tensions exposed

Followers of Ukrainian politics will note that there are also internal political rivalries at play.

Mrs Vendiktova's replacement as chief prosecutor, Oleksii Simonenko, is seen as close to Andreii Yermak, Mr Zelensky's chief of staff.

Mr Yermak is an often controversial figure who over the years has been accused by civil society activists of a range of misdeeds including stalling anti-corruption reforms, sabotaging a 2020 operation to arrest Russian Wagner mercenaries, and being generally too close to Russia.

No evidence has emerged. But those allegations, many of them years old, were resurrected last week when an American congresswoman wrote to Joe Biden demanding to know why the US was working with him.

On July 8, Representative Victoria Spartz of Indiana, who was born in Ukraine, asked Mr Biden to brief congress on "due diligence and oversight procedures" regarding Mr Yermak and Oleh Tatarov, his deputy for law enforcement and anti-corruption reform.

The letter drew a furious response from Kyiv, with the Ukrainian foreign ministry accusing Ms Spartz of fuelling Russian "propaganda" designed to undermine confidence in the government.

The man appointed to replace Mrs Venediktova, Oleksei Simonenko, is widely accused of stalling an investigation into alleged bribery by Mr Tatarov by the National Anti Corruption Bureau (NABU) by handing it over to the SBU - a move NABU said was illegal.

Hunting traitors and Russian spies is one thing. Navigating Ukraine's infamously fractious domestic politics is quite another.

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