Government Coup, Failed Operation, or Russian Fake? What We Know About “Wagner” And Ukraine’s Role
25 August, 2020
A still from the recording of the arrest of mercenaries from private military company “Wagner”, near Minsk, Belarus. Photo: Belarusian Television

Belarus returned 33 mercenaries from Russian private military contractor Wagner, (a company linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin – a close confident of Russian president Vladimir Putin) that it had arrested in late July – despite the fact that Ukraine declared them as suspects in taking part in the conflict in the Donbas. Within days, Ukrainians began to seriously consider an alleged ‘operation’ conducted by Ukrainian special services. What supports these allegations and what claims are said by the government and law enforcement – in our article.

Security Service or Intelligence Service?

On August 10, an anonymous Telegram channel, named “Ochky Bakanova” (Bakanov’s Glasses – ed.) published a story about an alleged special operation conducted by Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU), involving mercenaries from the Russian Wagner company. The story claimed that SBU counterintelligence, working with deputy Prosecutor General Hyunduz Mamedov, prepared a complicated operation – to recruit Russian mercenaries and record testimony about their crimes in the Donbas.

“An SBU agent “gathered” people with experience in the Donbas for alleged work in Venezuela. Each of the mercenaries went through a video interview, where they explained their actions in detail. Then plane tickets were purchased for them into Minsk, and from there – to Venezuela. During the flight, over Ukrainian airspace, one of the passengers was supposed to fall ill. Very ill. So ill that the crew would have no choice but to land the plane in a Ukrainian airport, where they would be “taken” by “Alfa,” read an almost unnoticed message.

A post by former National Anti-Corruption Bureau agent Yevhen Shevchenko gained even more views. He also wrote about an SBU operation which was allegedly managed by SBU deputy head Ruslan Baranetskiy and Hyunduz Mamedov.

“Actually, this was a long and carefully planned operation by SBU counterintelligence. An agent of our special services, under cover, gathered a group of people with experience of the war in the Donbas – allegedly for work in Venezuela,” Shevchenko wrote on August 17. According to him, the tickets for the flight Minsk-Venezuela, through Istanbul, alongside the Wagner mercenaries, were also bought by an SBU agent, “who, during the portion of the flight where it was crossing Ukrainian territory, was supposed to have an epileptic fit or something even worse, which would have required an immediate landing in Kyiv for emergency medical aid.” But instead of medical workers, claims Shevchenko, the plane would have been boarded by special operations group “Alfa” who would then detain all the Russian mercenaries.

However, Shevchenko says that the operation was halted on the level of the Office of the President – specifically by Andriy Yermak, the chief of staff, who allegedly said that it wasn’t the time because of an announced prisoner exchange.

“But they couldn’t cancel the operation – the Wagner mercenaries were already riding in a bus towards Minsk. And in the end, Baranetskiy was obliged to obey the president and take Yermak’s position, and they agreed to delay the mercenaries' flights from Minsk for four days (until July 30 – ed.),” alleged Shevchenko.

A second version of the story appeared the next day in a post by Yuriy Butusov, the head editor of media outlet Censor.Net – though this one claimed that the operation was prepared by the Chief Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine.

“There was an operation started over a year ago regarding the search and detention of 28 terrorists, living in the [Russian Federation], with the goal of assisting justice and filling the ‘exchange fund’ for conducting prisoner exchanges which are blocked by Russia. Members of the group that was planned to be detained include two terrorists connected to the destruction of the Boeing airplane flight MH-17 near Torez; one terrorist connected to the destruction of Il-76 in the Luhansk airport; one terrorist, connected to the destruction of AN-26 near Luhansk. Nine terrorists out of 28 were citizens of Ukraine who used Ukrainian passports.”

Both versions agree on the fact that on July 25, the Wagner Mercenaries did not board the Minsk-Istanbul flight, but instead settled into a Belarusian health resort, and the promised prisoner exchange, which allegedly torpedoed the operation, didn’t happen.

They were given new tickets, allegedly for July 30, but on the eve of their flight, Belarusian special services detained the entire group.

On August 5, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy fired the head of the Chief Intelligence Directorate, Vasiliy Burbo. Butusov claims that Burbo had offered to run a polygraph test on chief-of-staff Yermak and first deputy secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, Ruslan Demchenko.

That same day, Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office sent a request to Belarus on the return of those mercenaries, and the day after that, several Russia media outlets, including “Moskovskaya Pravda” and “Komsomolskaya Pravda”, published articles about this alleged SBU operation.

Where’s the Proof?

Volodymyr Ariev, an MP from the European Solidarity party headed by former president Petro Poroshenko, published the Wagner mercenaries documents on Facebook. He claims that law enforcement spent two years documenting the ones that had fought against Ukraine, that had destroyed Ukrainian helicopters and planes, and then received government awards from Russia. He called on Parliament to create a temporary investigatory commission to judge the possible strength of the operation.

Journalist and blogger Yanina Sokolova published a YouTube video that contains audio recordings, allegedly between SBU representatives and the Wagner mercenaries. One of the recordings seems to be a conversation between one of the mercenaries – Sergey Shcherbakov, about how he became a witness to the destruction of a Su-25 helicopter. An SBU officer is allegedly speaking to him.

But Major-General Ihor Huskov of the SBU, who has been investigating the Wagner mercenaries for years, says that the SBU had no relation to the operation, if it was even real, and that the video was made by people who either had no relation to the Wagner private military contractor (PMC), or who knowingly did everything they could to lower their profile.

“The video knowingly changes the text, where it talks about PMC Wagner. Shcherbakov very clearly states where he underwent his training – in Molkino (a training camp for PMC Wagner – ed.). In the text this information is missing. If this video was made by the SBU, we would have stated “Sidorov Alexander Mikhailovich”, knowing his name, patronymic, and personal number, but here is just a name and surname. There’s no photo. Why? He absolutely had to send it. I think that this video could have possibly been made by the [Russian Federation], knowing that the SBU has yet to identify them,” said Huskov, also adding that the word “sand”, which in Wagner mercenary slang stands for Syria, was in the text marked as the Ukrainian ‘Pisky’ (a village in the Donetsk region).

"Shcherbakov twice talks about the fact that he was awarded government honors by Russia: the first for destroying a helicopter in Ukraine, and the second – “for southern operations in the sands.” Exactly a minute later, returning to this topic, Shcherbakov [offers] even more details – the first honor for destroying a helicopter in Ukraine, and the second – for an operation in Palmyra (Syria – ed.),” noted Huskov, who also believes that the recordings hold no value without an expert voice analysis.

Новопризначений керівник ГУРу Кирило Буданов спростував причетність СБУ до цієї операціїNewly appointed head of the Chief Intelligence Directorate (GUR), Kirill Budanov, denies SBU involvement in this operation. Photo: Press Service of the President of Ukraine.


For a few days after this story broke, the government stayed mum. But then the newly appointed head of the GRU, Kirill Budanov, in a comment to Ukrinform denied the SBU’s involvement in this operation, called that information a Russian fake, and added that only an ignorant person could believe in the fairytale that “naive” soldiers could be somehow tricked into coming to Minsk:

“Russian special services published a very detailed fake in Russian publication “Komsomolskaya Pravda” on August 6, about the alleged involvement of the SBU in the appearance of those Wagner mercenaries in Minsk. That is, after an entire week following the detention of the mercenaries by Belarusian security forces and public accusations pointed at Russia from the Belarusian authorities’ side, about interference in the internal affairs of Belarus and attempts to influence the election results.”

Budanov says that this story was seized on in Ukraine by several political technologists and social media, which can be confidently called pro-Russian. He also believes that the Russians had prepared this fake about the SBU’s involvement much earlier.

But these denials focus solely on the SBU – not a word has been said about the possible preparation of this operation by the GUR. And the second version, put forward by Butusov, was specifically focused on that. Hromadske has sent an inquiry to the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine asking whether the GUR had prepared an operation regarding the detained Wagner mercenaries, and whether Burbo’s firing was connected to this operation. However, we did not receive a response by publication. Hromadske was verbally told, over a phone call, that there would be no comment on our question, as their leadership had already voiced whatever information they felt was necessary.

Андрей Ермак отвечает на вопросы журналистов на одной из пресконференций в Офисе президентаAndriy Yermak answers journalist’s questions at one of the press conferences at the Office of the President. Photo: EPA / SERGEY DOLZHENKO

On the morning of the third day, chief-of-staff Yermak finally came out with a reaction. In a comment to publication “Left Bank”, Yermak noted that this is a part of a disinformation attack, the goal of which is to “divide Ukrainian society.”

“This looks like a well thought out and planned disinformation campaign. And it’s very surprising that a few Ukrainian citizens have publicly shared specifically this version of events. One can assume that some internal forces have also decided to use this disinformation campaign against Ukraine for their own benefit a few weeks before the elections. And it’s possible that someone really wants to destroy the ceasefire in the Donbas, which has continued from July 27, and for all this time we haven’t lost a single soldier in any military actions,” said the chief-of-staff, who also denied rumors that he had asked to move the operation’s date because of some planned prisoner exchange, adding that he doesn’t know if Burbo asked everyone who was allegedly involved in this operation to pass a polygraph test. “But I’m sure that this also doesn’t correspond to reality,” he said.

Hromadske also contacted the deputy Prosecutor General, Hyunduz Mamedov, who allegedly managed the operation from the Prosecutor General’s Office, and sent an official inquiry to the SBU. But we have yet to receive any replies. The SBU published an official statement that notes that the operation allegedly conducted with their involvement is a Russian fake, and that not a single SBU official had any sort of connection to conversations with the mercenaries or their recruitment.

Hromadske’s own sources in Ukraine’s special services noted that it is possible that the operation was prepared with the help of Western agencies. “Butusov writes about the fact that allegedly during a planned meeting on August 3, Yermak expressed discontent that the information about the fiasco had appeared with our partners from the U.S. This can be explained by the fact that the operation was jointly done with the CIA. And especially because there were MH-17 witnesses. This is a massive failure, and actually similar failures are never exposed to the public. But when the danger to the public from the silencing of this failure is higher than the harm from its disclosure – it’s necessary,” claimed our source, emphasizing that sabotaging an international investigation into crimes against humanity is tantamount to complicity.

Боевики ППК «Вагнера» рассказывают свою версию событий журналисту российского телеканалаSoldiers from PMC Wagner explain their version of events to Russian TV journalists. Photo: TV Channel Russia-1

What has Russia said?

According to Russian media, Ukrainian special services created a fake project in which they, acting as employees of Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft, and another Russian private military contractor MAR, recruited 180 Russian citizens to defend property in Venezuela – including those who had fought in the Donbas.

“This whole SBU operation, it seems, wanted to kill several rabbits with a single shot – the omnipresent and awful PMC Wanger, though the ricochet is not enough to hurt Rosneft, as one of the largest Russian companies, but the main hit, certainly, would have been on Russian-Belarusian relations,” writes Komsomolskaya Pravda on August 6.

Later, a video interview was published with the freed mercenaries, already back in Russia, who spoke about their recruitment and their alleged contract with the MAR company. The piece claims that the plane tickets for the Wagner mercenaries were bought in Ukraine by people with fake names – Larysa Mykolayivna and Serhiy Petrovych.

“We never saw her. Larysa Mykolayivna represented herself as logistics and did logistic work – from Moscow to Venezuela,” claimed one of the freed mercenaries, Artem “Shaman” Milaev, in a comment to Russia-24.

Meanwhile, Rosneft published a statement alleging provocations and emphasized that the people named in the article did not work for them.

Independent Russian outlet Meduza, in their analysis of the Wagner mercenaries detention, reached the conclusion that if there was a special operation and that there was a recruitment, then it was done by people who the mercenaries trusted absolutely. The publication notes that the company that allegedly selected the mercenaries – MAR – was, according to the SPARK-Interfax database, liquidated in 2018. Meduza’s sources insist that no Wagner veterans (the core of the Minsk group) would have decided to take on a long-term contract from MAR. That’s because two of them, who had tried to work with MAR in Russia, stated that MAR are scam artists, and others admitted that they haven’t heard of a single successful mission organized by MAR. At the same time, MAR’s founder, Aleksey Marushchenko, has denied any MAR involvement in the Wagner operation.

What else?

Ukrainian political movement ‘Movement Against Capitulation’ has published a letter addressed to Volodymyr Zelenskyy, which asks that the President remove Andrey Yermak and Ruslan Demchenko from their respective roles, and from law enforcement – to open an investigation on charges of “high treason” and “obstructing the work of a state body.” They promised to ask the president about the letter on Independence Day. On social media, they also have also considered the possibility of creating a temporary investigative commission in Parliament in order to look into any possible crimes against the state from the Office of the President.

Our sources in Ukraine’s special services believe that the question isn’t about the person of Andriy Yermak, but in the connection of state interests to the practical loss of charges against those who fought in the Donbas and were witness to the tragedy of flight MH-17.

Meanwhile, Andriy Yermak insists that“Ukraine will always do everything it can to ensure that the war crimes of these and other people are punished.”

/By Victoria Roshchyna, translated by Romeo Kokriatski