Andriy Levus: “A successful post-revolutionary Ukraine would be the collapse of the Russian project”
The Ukrainian Week spoke to the former deputy chief of the Security Service of Ukraine and current MP about Ukrainian partisans in the Donbas, sabotage in Russia, reforms in the SBU and who it worked for prior to the Maidan.
U.W: How has the SBU, Ukraine’s Security Service, changed after the Maidan? Has it?
Several of its top officials contacted me after those bloody events. One was Yaroslav Chernykh, SBU Deputy Chief under Yakymenko (Oleksandr Yakymenko was SBU Chief in 2013-2014 under Viktor Yanukovych as President. He is suspected of state treason and crimes against humanity and is in hiding in Russia – Ed.). In contrast to the rest of SBU officials, he did not flee and took some efforts to solve the conflict peacefully, even when it escalated to the bloodshed on Instytutska Street (the most violent phase of the Maidan where dozens of protesters were shot on February 20 – Ed.). His officers continued to speak to protesters and negotiating guarantees for the withdrawal of both sides. We continued to communicate as we watched the situation spin out of control after the snipers started shooting. He was the one who told us that the snipers were foreign. My first impression when I entered the SBU premises was of the German Reichstag after it was seized. Papers and weapons were scattered all over the place, frightened people were running back and forth chaotically and a stove was burning in the courtyard to destroy documents. Everything was covered in ash and fragments of computers containing databases.
My second strongest impression was on February 27, when I was already appointed to the SBU. A large number of officers started coming to my office; we talked. I felt that there were a lot of good guys among mid-level officers and people of the younger generation, who sincerely love Ukraine, particularly after the annexation of Crimea began. They are trained, disciplined, professional and truly patriotic, something that their actions in the counterterrorist operation area confirm. It was the SBU that has detained most of the Russian saboteurs and militants there.
U.W: AfterUkraine gained independence, SovietsecurityagenciesinUkrainemerelychangedtheirshingles, butthemethods and the apparatus remained. How much of the KGB remains in the post-Maidan SBU?My third biggest impression is red tape. I previously thought that decision making was quick at the SBU in order to deal with various issues. What I realized instead is that the way the mechanism of this system was essentially designed to prevent Ukraine from having no security service whatsoever. In the past 20 years, every effort has been taken to stifle sound initiatives with bureaucracy. Weak signs of reforms were only seen under Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency (2005-2010 – Ed.).
The Security Service has undergone a natural transformation process. After Ukraine gained independence, KGB disciples, particularly senior officers, no longer played a noticeable role in the SBU. The system is made up of people, and they form the environment around themselves. What we had left was the ossified structure, built to serve the interests of the government and to make money. There was also a bureaucracy, the biggest rudimentary organ of the Soviet Union. I later understood that it was not simply a filter. This system stifled everything that was healthy, young and patriotic, so that there would be no development of the SBU. This had the worst effect on the renewal of personnel. The criteria for hiring people to the SBU left no opportunity for the young, educated and patriotic to get in, let alone to get to a top position. The truly patriotic mid-level officers were of Western or Central Ukrainian origin. They saw what was actually going on in the country and with the rule of Yanukovych, so they sided with the revolution on the emotional level.
Bureaucracy at the SBU is designed so cunningly, that everything is stifled by piles of inquiries, interviews, conversations, inspections, special inspections, and authorizations of the most primitive orders. All this enables the system to push the stop button for anyone at any stage.
U.W: How strong was Russian influence in the SBU?
Oleksandr Yakymenko himself was an agent of the Russian special services. So were his henchmen. In fact, under Yanukovych, 90% of those surrounding the SBU leadership were residents of Russia. Moreover, FSB (the Russian Federal Security Service – Ed.) officers worked there on a permanent basis, having their individual offices and separate entrances in key departments. During the Maidan, FSB and Vympel (an elite Russian special force unit under the FSB command – Ed.) people stayed at one of the SBU bases. Russian representatives were also in the SBU headquarters. In other words, the SBU was directly reformatted into a section of the Russian security service. The only functions tasked to the Ukrainian structure, other than to represent the FSB, was to protect Yanukovych and his political class and to destroy the opposition. These tasks came directly from the Presidential Administration. The SBU also ensured seamless financial flows for the Family from corruption, customs, contraband and so on.
Meanwhile, the functions of protecting statehood, fighting with terrorism and counterintelligence were destroyed. All important functions of the SBU were purposefully ruined. When we faced the Crimean crisis, a lot of the blame went to the officials appointed after the Maidan, including Oleksandr Turchynov as Acting President, Andriy Parubiy as Head of the National Security and Defense Council, Valentyn Nalyvaichenko as the new SBU Chief, and Arsen Avakov as the Interior Minister. Many wondered why they didn’t do anything. In fact, they had no one to work with. 90% of the personnel at the Crimean SBU office were Russian agents, some of them having dual citizenship.
U.W: Howhas the SBU been cleaned up so far? Have there been many criminal cases against its officials?
The clean-up began immediately. One of my functions in the Self-Defence of the Maidan was what we called internal security. We knew who exactly of the security agents worked on the Maidan. Now we can talk about it - many of them were detained by the self-defence. We did not make this public at the time. But we learned some useful information from them as double agents.
By then, I already knew the key agents who had to be detained. But the main ones, such as Oleksandr Yakymenko, chief of counterintelligence Volodymyr Bik, as well as a number of his deputies and closest aides who organised all anti-Maidan operations, and some Alpha special force officers. Bik has now been arrested – he was No. 3 on our wanted list. That list contained 13 more people who remained in their positions after the Maidan. They are mainly officers from the K (anti-corruption) department, who were involved in the financing of the anti-Maidan; hiring titushkas – thugs and athletes who attacked, beat and murdered protesters; arranging provocations; ruining the businesses owned by people who provided financial support for the Maidan; working with judges on the mass arrests resulting from the January 16 draconian laws, etc. They were recalled, investigations and criminal proceedings were initiated and five were immediately arrested. Then the gradual cleansing began but it is a long way from being finished.
U.W: How were they punished?
Proceedings against them are on-going. We could, of course, announce some names to calm society somewhat. But this is more of a chess game. We are gradually unraveling more tangled knots. On the Maidan, we intuitively found the provocateurs and neutralised them to the extent possible. However, as I mentioned earlier, the SBU database was destroyed, and it contained information and reports from agents. Some of the data was transported to Crimea. Actually, this was the first thing the security service personnel did when it began to flee. This is where the complications began.
U.W: How has the system been reformatted? We often hear reports of separatists walking around Kyiv freely and no one arresting them. Is this because of a lack of resources or negligence?In the first place, we dealt with people whose actions could be proven. Meanwhile, many are not yet punished and we are often blamed for that. But I cannot reveal all our intentions, because the SBU continues to unravel where and with whom they are connected and what they are doing. We are following connections, and this is more important than to just publish a report. We want to destroy the system.
I have dozens such testimonials. Sometimes they are objective and we must admit our failures. But the SBU consists of humans who make mistakes. Another issue is the priorities that have been set. Right now, it is the anti-terrorist operation area and anti-subversive operations. Accordingly, structural changes are necessary in the SBU for everything to work more efficiently and systematically. But we are operating within the limits of the former law and structure, with minimal changes. I have seen a range of gaps and prepared a draft law on the management of special operations, expanding the SBU’s powers for some operations that are urgently needed today. I submitted it through a Member of Parliament in the previous convocation of the Verkhovna Rada, but only 211 MPs supported it.
It is necessary to change the entire law and take out everything that breeds corruption in the SBU. Corruption and treason often go hand in hand. When a person is corrupt, he or she is easy prey to recruiters from foreign intelligence. These are the aces of intelligence and counterintelligence.
U.W: What happened to Alpha, the special force unit allegedly accused of shooting the protesters? Has it been reformed? Are its fighters engaged in the anti-terrorist operation?
The situation with Alpha was very complex. I don’t want to offend anyone, but in contrast to many special units, these are real professionals. We spoke to some, even during the Maidan. After certain events, they invited people from the Maidan to check their weapons, to see whether the shots had really been fired. Under Viktor Yanukovych, part of Alpha was transformed into private VIP guards. It was people from this section that were involved in the crimes against the Maidan. They acted out of loyalty. Plus, Russian agents were involved. But most of the unit members stood by their oaths during the very first anti-terrorist operation when the Luhansk SBU office was seized, and I saw this with my own eyes.
Today, Alpha is being restructured. Young people, including Maidan protesters, in the rank of officer, are joining, and the unit is performing its basic functions. I think that it will only take a short time for it to become an integral and sound unit. The wounding of Alpha Commander Hennadiy Kuznetsov in the first battle (near Sloviansk – Ed.), simply slowed down the process. In my view, the unit has a good future.
U.W: How far has the SBU progressed in purging Russian agents?
Obviously, some Russian agents are still in Kyiv. But compared to February-May (remember the provocations and attempts to distabilize the situation with rallies on May 9, WWII Victory Day; the rally in front of the Russian Embassy in Kyiv in June after a Ukrainian military cargo airplane was knocked down in Eastern Ukraine killing 49 Ukrainian servicemen; attempts to declare a “Kyiv People’s Republic” near the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra church, and many more), we have definitely pushed them back. The ones that are still here have become more careful and understand that they can no longer simply do whatever they like openly. We have active anti-subversive and counterintelligence protection in place. Thank goodness we did not have a single terrorist attack or a seizure of government offices in Kyiv. Note that the Maidan stood here until mid-summer and foreign agents could well have manipulated even good intents and slogans to fuel new protest sentiments. That is, by the way, what Russian special services were doing. Of course, there have been frequent attempts to destabilize the situation in the oblasts near the anti-terrorist operation area, so foreign agents are present there, but we also see ongoing detentions of them.
U.W: We have seen a rise of guerilla movement in the Donbas recently. Does the SBU have any part in its creation?
Guerrillas are a people’s movement. The only way we can probably intervene is by coordinating its different parts. There is no conventional guerilla movement in the Donbas as we know it: an organised group operating on occupied territory with support, agents, and so on. Instead, what you have there is resistance groups, people who stay on the occupied territory and provide information from there, and action groups that fight with the occupiers. Voluntary anti-subversion detachments work on the newly-freed territory to clean it up from the enemy, reveal the enemy’s connections and networks and get rid of them. There is no massive guerilla movement there.
U.W: Isitpossibletowinthiswar through negotiations and truces?
This is unrealistic. All wars end with truces and some agreements, but the problem lies elsewhere. You have to know who you are talking to. Having a dialogue with puppets like Denis Pushylin (a leader of separatists in Donetsk Oblast, an organizer of pro-Russian rallies in the spring of 2014, self-proclaimed ex-deputy speaker of the Donetsk People’s Republic. In July, Pushylin fled to Moscow and announced his resignation – Ed.) who do not decide anything on their own territory means supporting Moscow’s myth that this is not Russian occupation. But it is exactly that, so Russia should be recognized as the aggressor, Ukraine should turn to the Budapest Memorandum signatories and speak to Russia in that format, not to the Donetsk or Luhanks People’s Republics. As soon as we do all this homework of ours and strengthen our army in the meantime, the world may find itself on the verge of a global conflict but the entire global system of checks and balances will finally start working. If we don’t do our homework, do not fight and keep wearing rose-colored glasses of pacifism, why would someone from Alabama or the UK fight for us?
U.W: Is the latest attack inGrozny, the Chechen capital, somehowrelatedtoUkraine?
We are now seeing a geopolitical domino, and Ukraine is the first piece that can make the line fall. Our task is to ensure that this wave does not stop here. Without articulating our interests in Eastern Ukraine clearly we will not defend Kyiv. Paradoxically, whenever we suggest that we could come to an agreement with Russia about something peacefully, that means that it will definitely grab something from us. If, on the contrary, we declare our claims and geopolitical interests, help the liberation movement of the oppressed nations within the Russian Federation and opt for a proactive position, we can set a higher benchmark in negotiations for the interests of Ukraine. Of course, we have a weaker army. But our people are not as brainwashed as the Russians are, that’s why we should demand more.
Ukraine and its authorities have to articulate these interests and use them as a strategy – then tactics will emerge. We are now discussing how well our checkpoints in Eastern Ukraine are placed all over Facebook and on all TV channels. At the same time, we are missing important things. We are not talking about the consequences of the South Stream termination or the new relations between Russia and China, although this should be of interest to us. We have a natural geopolitical interest in the East confirmed by a thousand years of our history. We colonised it and brought the light of Christianity and civilisation there. Being on the border of Europe and Asia, we have to think in those terms. Only then will we know where the checkpoints should actually be. But while generals spend time thinking about where to put them, Russia will grab another oblast from us. We have to re-orientate ourselves from the strategy of national defence to a strategy of national offensive. This is a key change of the mental paradigm that has to take place in our minds. It would help us deal with many problems effectively.
U.W: Can this happen anytime soon?
That’s what we have come to parliament for. We can keep talking about winter uniforms for the military (which undoubtedly is crucial and our sacred duty), but that will not change anything. We will only develop the right perspective by choosing a different strategy (and what is a strategy? It is a law, which generates a framework for a military doctrine, reform of the army, creation of special operation forces). Ukraine does not yet have this at the level of state administration. Moreover, we lack experience in conducting war. Sun Tzu said that we have to define ourselves and determine what our opponent wants. In my view, Putin is conducting a defensive, rather than an offensive war. A successful post-revolutionary Ukraine would be the collapse of the Russian project. He is defending himself from that, because he understands that he can no longer fool anyone. If he had not interfered in either Crimea or the Donbas, we would have conducted reforms and he would have been got rid of very quickly – within a year. He is conducting a defensive war. This has to be understood and we should not dream about a buffer zone that is kilometres long, but we must already think about how we will rule Tyumen. I may seem emotional, but this is the direction we have to take. We should use all our economic, family and other connections with Russia that Putin is currently exploiting against us in a reverse mode. This is where success lies.
I think that if at least part of the promises on national security and foreign policy are fulfilled, as set forth in the coalition agreement, the current parliament will be a hero. And we have all the preconditions in place to implement them: for the first time in the modern history of Ukraine, we have a constitutional, legitimate, anti-Kremlin and pro-European majority. That could bring us a huge breakthrough. If we waste this chance, I really don’t know what will happen. And that will be a tragedy. I strongly believe that the blood shed by the heroes of the Maidan and anti-terrorist operation will not be wasted. Our victory will be the best commemoration for them. That is why we will win.
Andriy Levus is Member of Parliament in the 8th convocation of the Verkhovna Rada representing Arseniy Yatseniuk’s Narodniy Front (People’s Front). Born in Stryi, a small town in Lviv Oblast, he graduated from the Ivan Franko Lviv University majoring in history. Mr. Levus was a coordinator at civil society movements including Vilni Liudy (Free People) and Opir (Resistance), chief of the Maidan Self-Defence command center. Before he was elected to parliament on February 26, 2014, Mr. Levus served as SBU Deputy Chief