The emphasis was more on secure communications and tradecraft

Tuesday, October 24th, 2023

Since 2015, the Washington Post reports, the CIA has spent tens of millions of dollars to transform Ukraine’s Soviet-formed intelligence services:

The Post vetted key details with multiple sources including Western officials with access to independent streams of intelligence. The CIA declined to comment.


“We never involved our international partners in covert operations, especially behind the front lines,” a former senior Ukrainian security official said. SBU and GUR operatives were not accompanied by CIA counterparts. Ukraine avoided using weapons or equipment that could be traced to U.S. sources, and even covert funding streams were segregated.

“We had a lot of restrictions about working with the Ukrainians operationally,” said a former U.S. intelligence official. The emphasis was “more on secure communications and tradecraft,” and pursuing new streams of intelligence inside Russia “rather than ‘here’s how you blow up a mayor.’ I never got the sense that we were that involved in designing their ops.”


Ukraine’s spies developed their own lines about which operations to discuss and which to keep under wraps. “There were some things that maybe we wouldn’t talk about” with CIA counterparts, said a second Ukraine security official involved in such missions. He said crossing those boundaries would lead to a terse reply from Americans: “We don’t want any part of that.”


The initial phases of cooperation were tentative, officials said, given concerns on both sides that Ukraine’s services were still heavily penetrated by the FSB — the Russian agency that is the main successor to the KGB. To manage that security risk, the CIA worked with the SBU to create an entirely new directorate, officials said, one that would focus on so-called “active measures” operations against Russia and be insulated from other SBU departments.

The new unit was prosaically dubbed the “Fifth Directorate” to distinguish it from the four long-standing units of the SBU. A sixth directorate has since been added, officials said, to work with Britain’s MI6 spy agency.

Training sites were located outside Kyiv where handpicked recruits were instructed by CIA personnel, officials said. The plan was to form units “capable of operating behind front lines and working as covert groups,” said a Ukrainian official involved in the effort.

The agency provided secure communications gear, eavesdropping equipment that allowed Ukraine to intercept Russian phone calls and emails, and even furnished disguises and separatist uniforms enabling operatives to more easily slip into occupied towns.

The early missions focused on recruiting informants among Russia’s proxy forces as well as cyber and electronic eavesdropping measures, officials said. The SBU also began mounting sabotage operations and missions to capture separatist leaders and Ukrainian collaborators, some of whom were taken to secret detention sites.

But the operations soon took a lethal turn. Over one three-year stretch, at least half a dozen Russian operatives, high-ranking separatist commanders or collaborators were killed in violence that was often attributed to internal score-settling but in reality was the work of the SBU, Ukraine officials said.


Even while helping to build the SBU’s new directorate, the CIA embarked on a far more ambitious project with Ukraine’s military intelligence service.

With fewer than 5,000 employees, the GUR was a fraction of the size of the SBU and had a narrower focus on espionage and active measures operations against Russia. It also had a younger workforce with fewer holdovers from Soviet times, while the SBU was still perceived as penetrated by Russian intelligence.

“We calculated that GUR was a smaller and more nimble organization where we could have more impact,” said a former U.S. intelligence official who worked in Ukraine. “GUR was our little baby. We gave them all new equipment and training.” GUR officers “were young guys not Soviet-era KGB generals,” the official said, “while the SBU was too big to reform.”

Even recent developments have seemed to validate such concerns. Former SBU director Ivan Bakanov was forced out of the job last year amid criticism that the agency wasn’t moving aggressively enough against internal traitors. The SBU also discovered last year that Russian-made modems were still being used in the agency’s networks, prompting a scramble to unplug them.

From 2015 on, the CIA embarked on such an extensive transformation of the GUR that within several years “we had kind of rebuilt it from scratch,” the former U.S. intelligence official said. One of the main architects of the effort, who served as CIA station chief in Kyiv, now runs the Ukraine Task Force at CIA headquarters.

The GUR began recruiting operatives for its own new active measures department, officials said. At sites in Ukraine and, later, the United States, GUR operatives were trained on skills ranging from clandestine maneuvers behind enemy lines to weapons platforms and explosives. U.S. officials said the training was aimed at helping Ukrainian operatives protect themselves in dangerous Russian-controlled environments rather than inflicting harm on Russian targets.

Some of the GUR’s newest recruits were transfers from the SBU, officials said, drawn to a rival service flush with new authorities and resources. Among them was Vasyl Burba, who had managed SBU Fifth Directorate operations before joining the GUR and serving as agency director from 2016 to 2020. Burba became such a close ally of the CIA — and perceived Moscow target — that when he was forced from his job after President Volodymyr Zelensky’s election the agency provided him an armored vehicle, officials said. Burba declined to comment for this article.
The CIA helped the GUR acquire state-of-the-art surveillance and electronic eavesdropping systems, officials said. They included mobile equipment that could be placed along Russian-controlled lines in eastern Ukraine, but also software tools used to exploit the cellphones of Kremlin officials visiting occupied territory from Moscow. Ukrainian officers operated the systems, officials said, but everything gleaned was shared with the Americans.

Concerned that the GUR’s aging facilities were likely compromised by Russian intelligence, the CIA paid for new headquarters buildings for the GUR’s “spetsnaz” paramilitary division and a separate directorate responsible for electronic espionage.
The new capabilities were transformative, officials said.

“In one day we could intercept 250,000 to 300,000 separate communications” from Russian military and FSB units, said a former senior GUR official. “There was so much information that we couldn’t manage it ourselves.”

Troves of data were relayed through the new CIA-built facility back to Washington, where they were scrutinized by CIA and NSA analysts, officials said.

“We were giving them the ability — through us — to collect on” Russian targets, the former GUR official said. Asked about the magnitude of the CIA investments, the official said: “It was millions of dollars.”

In time, the GUR had also developed networks of sources in Russia’s security apparatus, including the FSB unit responsible for operations in Ukraine. In a measure of U.S.-Ukraine trust, officials said, the CIA was permitted to have direct contact with agents recruited and run by Ukrainian intelligence.

The resulting intelligence windfall was largely hidden from public view, with intermittent exceptions. The SBU began posting incriminating or embarrassing communications intercepts, including one in which Russian commanders were captured discussing their country’s culpability in the 2014 shoot-down of a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet.

Even so, officials said the intelligence obtained through the U.S.-Ukraine cooperation had its limits. The Biden administration’s prescient warnings about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s determination to topple the Kyiv government, for example, were based primarily on separate streams of intelligence Ukraine wasn’t privy to initially.

In some ways, officials said, Ukraine’s own collection efforts fed the skepticism that Zelensky and others had about Putin’s plans because they were eavesdropping on military and FSB units that themselves were not informed until the eve of the war. “They were getting an accurate picture from people who were also in the dark,” one U.S. official said.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    The defining example of the work of Ukrainian intelligence is the murder by car-bombing of Darya Dugina. No doubt this murder was a consequence of CIA training and influence.

    Of course, the CIA, while incompetent regarding humint, is really good at killing civilians: Lumumba, Hammarskjöld, JKF, RFK…

  2. VXXC says:

    Intelligence is a function and arm of war.

    Begin there and consider the implications.

    One implication being that if you are collecting intelligence against someone or conducting any intelligence at all: They become THE ENEMY.

    Which is why until the 20th century Intelligence was kept in Militaries, putting them in suits and assigning under the Civil Service *simply created new armies*.

    Nothing changed and that’s how we’ve come under shadow gendarme rule, except they don’t rule, they dabble.

  3. Jim says:

    To manage that security risk, the CIA worked with the SBU to create an entirely new directorate, officials said, one that would focus on so-called “active measures” operations against Russia and be insulated from other SBU departments.

    Active measures, you say…

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