State Security Bureau officer on the early stage of the "Russian spring"
The events that happened in Eastern Ukraine in early 2014 have not been fully investigated yet. The assault of the Luhansk Security Bureau of Ukraine (SBU) building in April 2014 was one of the critical moments in the slew of developments that led to the war in the Donbas. The Ukrainian Week spoke to a SBU field agent who was one of the defenders of the building in Luhansk during the assault. Below is his narrative about how it was captured, why it became the object of the attack, and why separatists are still working in this SBU department relocated to Severodonetsk.
The preparations for the war in Luhansk were underway since the beginning of Maidan protests: the hysteria was whipped up well in advance, already in 2013. Since early January 2014, with the escalation in Kyiv, local elites started taking steps that clearly spoke for their intentions. For example, the so-called "Luhansk Guard" was established, headed by Arsen Klinchayev, a longtime associate of Oleksandr Yefremov (long-time Governor of Luhansk Oblast and one of the most influential people there – Ed.). People were brainwashed with the regional myths: they were said that if Western Ukrainians come to power, we would all be butchered.
Our local SBU management had very close ties with Russians. I am talking about Oleksandr Tretyak, who was the chief of security in the Party of Regions and aspired to head the SBU under Yanukovych. However, Valeriy Khoroshkovsky was eventually appointed SBU Chief, and Tretyak went to Luhansk to earn his fortunes for his grandchildren by covering smuggling, for example. The contacts with the Russian FSB were regular. They came to visit us, and Tretyak with our senior management traveled to Rostov. It got to the point when we had an advertising of FSB-owned holiday resorts hanging on the wall in our department until mid-March 2014! I don't know, maybe someone was surprised by his recent defection to the Donetsk People’s Republic, but not me. He just waited for his renegade son, arrested by our counterreconnaissance, to be exchanged.
In parallel, another very dangerous process was taking place. Russians started to take over control of the smugglers who have always worked on the border. In this way, they got access to all our agents. An especially important situation happened in March 2014, when Tretyak fled and was replaced by the new head, Oleksandr Petrulevych. When he came to the SBU office, he found out that all criminal investigation cases, lists of agents, lots of intelligence information and almost all documents had disappeared. Petrulevych told me that when he summoned the head of the secret unit, he was confused and said that they had burned everything themselves. But when Petrulevych wanted to see the exact place where they burned the documents, he said that it was not in Luhansk, they had burned them in Stakhanov, then he said it was in Krasnyi Luch. In a word, it is clear that Tretyak took the documents to Russia. And it was our agents, whom we surveilled and recruited, who played a significant role in capturing the SBU building.
In fact, during the first half of March Yefremov tried to bargain with Kyiv. It was his people who worked to destabilize the situation. They did not fully understand what they were playing with when they brought here people from the region and from Russia for those rallies. They thought they had everything under control and just used the crowd for their own purposes. And it worked, but only to a certain point. Then, after the annexation of Crimea, Russia switched its attention to Donbas, and the situation changed very quickly.
After Oleksandr Petrulevych was appointed Chief of the SBU in Luhansk on March 13, we started to work for real. I also have to do justice to the central management, which gave us new tapping equipment, so shortly we knew everything that was going on in the region.
We soon realized that Russia was starting to act. But we also saw that at that time it was enough to neutralize Yefremov and his henchmen. So, in early April we executed a large-scale operation to detain separatists. On April 4–5 we detained the "people's governor" Kharytonov and several of his accomplices, and arrested the Major of the Russian GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian General Staff – Ed.). He came to inspect the group of Valery Bolotov, who was to become the first leader of the Luhansk People’s Republic. Unfortunately, we failed to arrest Bolotov himself. According to our intelligence, Tretyak personally warned him that a group had been sent to arrest him, and Tretyak had been informed by his people in the SBU. By the way, there have been numerous reports that before the assault, weapons from all over the region had been brought to the Luhansk Department of SBU. This is nonsense. First of all, in our regional offices we had 10-12 employees armed with Makarov pistols, they had no other weapons. In fact, lots of weapons were really stored in Luhansk, including submachine guns, machine guns and even grenade launchers, but they had been there for years. We mined the entrance to the arms room in a good time, but we used a dummy since we were afraid that one careless movement could blow us all up.
As for the renegades, I can say that our situation at the beginning was a bit better than in Donetsk. There, according to my calculations, over 80% of the staff went over to the enemy. In my department, this figure was something like 60%. But another thing is interesting: how did it happen that the next Chief of Luhansk SBU after Petrulevych, Mykhaylo Grek, returned almost all separatists to their posts? These included Chief Personnel Officer Kremenchutsky, who had worked under Tretyak, former Tretyak's deputy Tushukov, Danylyev and Verbytsky from Tretyak's team, etc. Later, when the department received orders to relocate to Starobilsk in June, all these people refused to move to the Ukrainian territory. They turned up only in August, when it seemed that Luhansk would be liberated in a couple of days, saying that they were ready to serve Ukraine. I personally remember too well that one such cadre, who was given orders to evacuate the families of the SBU staff, refused to do it. When asked directly whether he was ready to serve, he replied: "Serving the people!" "What people?" I asked him. "Well, the people," he repeated. When I insisted, he said through his teeth: "The people of Ukraine so far." All these people still work at the Luhansk Department of SBU. Except maybe for Tushukov, I think he has resigned. But before that, he went on vacation to Crimea this summer, while still in office. These are our special services. I cannot explain this with anything, except for treason.
But let's go back to the assault. As soon as we sent to Kyiv the arrested Klinchayev, Kharytonov, the GRU Major and the others, they decided to act. The thing is that those arrests had disrupted their plan, which was to arrange simultaneous assaults of Oblast State Administrations in seven regions of the prospective "Novorossiya." The exact date varied and was changed several times. But they wanted to start later than they did. So I believe that the SBU of Luhansk was instrumental in wrecking the plans. And the fact that we were the first to be stormed in the country is just another proof of this.
So, the events unfolded as follows. In the early morning of April 6 we learned that we would be assaulted. We started asking the police for help, because the entire staff of our department was only 60 people. According to intelligence reports, about 5,000 people were to arrive shortly to storm us. Among them, we clearly identified right away a group of militants, which included our former converted agents and several GRU emissaries. But in front of them, there was a crowd of extras: drunken proletarians, women and even children brought from the region.
We asked the police for help, but they sent us a couple of dozen young men with shields. They were so quickly swept away from the building that we didn't even notice it. And then the standoff begun that lasted nearly six hours. First they tried to climb to the second floor. There we repelled them and even took a few of them captive. We talked to them and let them go. At the same time, we continued to seek help from the cops. But Huslavsky (the then chief of the Luhansk police – Ed.) kept saying that he didn't have people, even though we could see a bunch of cops hanging out around the corner, smoking and talking with the protesters.
The situation deteriorated further when Huslavsky, without consulting anyone, ordered to release from custody those we had detained the day before. Those whom we didn't have time to send to Kyiv or Kharkiv. They immediately joined the assault and even led it. This is the answer to the question whether it was worth doing it and whether it could have prevented the subsequent events. I remember perfectly well that we called several times to Kyiv, personally to the then Chief of SBU Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, who in turn called MIA Minister Arsen Avakov and yelled at him, asking for help. He promised, but nothing was done.
We fought back as best we could, using fire hoses, and even Petrulevych himself stood with us in the doorway, trying to fight back. Did we have weapons? Of course we did, we had submachine guns with ammunition. But we didn't open fire, because in a similar situation in Khmelnytskyi a month earlier, when SBU officers legitimately opened fire on a crowd that came to capture the SBU building, they were held guilty. We realized that if we opened fire, we would much rather end up in jail than be awarded decorations of the Heroes of Ukraine. We also had intelligence reports that they already had weapons. If we opened fire, they would have started shooting in the crowd, among the ordinary people.
Eventually, they were able to push us aside from the door and immediately rushed to the arms room. Judging from how they rushed, they obviously knew where it was. Our staff immediately put on balaklavas, melted into the crowd and pretended they were among the protesters. They even tried to drive people away from the arms room, saying that it was dangerous. Petrulevych was taken captive and dragged somewhere to the upper floors. First we hoped that they would make him sign his resignation and let him go. But when we saw the contingent that crowded the building – and those were by no means the drunks behind whom the militants were hiding – we realized that everything was serious. We received orders from Kyiv to evacuate our people and equipment. Well, we had already sent away all the equipment before the storm, and we also evacuated all our people from the building. A couple of hours later, after getting out of the building, we still tried to persuade Huslavsky to send the police to take back the building, before the attackers consolidated their defense. But he refused again.
A few days later, Valentyn Nalyvaychenko arrived to Luhansk with Alpha squad. We were ready to storm the building, we had a plan and waited in full combat gear. Huslavsky again got in our way. He was requested to just cordon off the building and the district, because how can you start the storm when someone might be shooting in your back? But he refused again, saying he had no people for this. In a few hours, intelligence reported that seps had found out our location and were on their way to us. We had to cancel the assault, and then Alpha and Nalyvaychenko left. The time was lost.
For over a month after that, I lived with an assistant at a safehouse, trying to fulfill tasks. Then we moved to the Ukrainian territory and went to the war. But that's another story...
Serhiy Zakharov is an artist from Donetsk known for his plywood caricatures of “Novorossia” leaders installed on the city streets in 2014. The installations resulted in his captivity in Donetsk that year. In his interview with The Ukrainian Week, Serhiy speaks about his complex relations with his city and the attitudes of the creative crowd to politicians
The Ukrainian Week talked with Acting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy on the act of aggression in the Kerch Strait and the military assistance to Ukraine.