Zelenskyy wants to replace Ukraine’s top spy after security breaches
Some said old friends rarely speak these days, except on government business. Ensuring a smooth transition can be tricky with the war still raging, with an official telling POLITICO that Zelenskyy worries about the optics of firing someone close to him. For now, much of the day-to-day operations of the SBU are handled from the presidential office and people still in the good graces of Zelenskyy and his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak.
Bakanov is a lanky 47-year-old man who has been at Zelensky’s side since the latter went from a scrawny comedian in the south-central industrial city of Kryvyi Rih to a muscular, war-hardened leader famous far beyond the borders of Ukraine. Bakanov’s appointment in 2019 was criticized by opposition parties who said someone from his past was unsuited to head the main intelligence-gathering agency. But as one of the president’s most trusted confidants and business partners, there was little opponents could do to stop the movement.
Now some feel vindicated as Bakanov’s criticism reverberates through the halls of government and parliament. Many in Kyiv say he failed to respond to the February 24 Russian invasion and failed to properly command his giant department of more than 30,000 agents.
“We are very dissatisfied with his work and we are trying to get rid of him,” a senior Ukrainian official close to Zelenskyy told POLITICO on condition of anonymity to speak about sensitive personal issues. “We are not happy with his management, you know, [skills] because now you need… crisis management skills like we don’t think he has.
Zelenskyy’s office, Bakanov and the SBU did not respond to POLITICO’s requests for comment.
The officials and the Western diplomat all said the concern was not limited to Bakanov – it was also about the decisions of several senior agency officials in the early hours and days of the full-scale invasion. of Ukraine by Russia, which could have cost the country valuable territory, including the strategic city of Kherson.
General Serhiy Kryvoruchko, chief executive of the SBU in Kherson, ordered his officers to evacuate the city before Russian troops stormed it, against Zelenskyy’s orders, authorities said. Meanwhile, Colonel Ihor Sadokhin, his assistant and head of the local office’s counter-terrorism center, is accused by the authorities of informing Russian forces heading north from Crimea of the location of Ukrainian mines and of helping to coordinate a flight path for the enemy aircraft. as he fled in a westbound convoy of SBU agents.
Kherson was the first and so far only major Ukrainian city captured by Russian forces since the start of the full invasion. It was occupied by the Russian army on March 3, seven days after President Vladimir Putin launched his new offensive.
Ukrainian officials said Russian troops were able to take Kherson so easily because of the failure of SBU officials to blow up the Antonovskiy Bridge that crosses the Dnipro River, allowing Russian troops to enter the city.
Highlighting the lack of loyalty among the SBU’s top brass, a third former senior official, Andriy Naumov, a brigadier general who headed the agency’s internal security department – a unit whose responsibilities include preventing corruption within the SBU – fled abroad hours before Russian invasion on February 24.
Ukrainian authorities accused the three former SBU officials of state treason. In his late night video address on March 31, Zelenskyy stripped Naumov and Kryvoruchko of their ranks and denounced them as « traitors ».
Sadokhin and Kryvoruchko were arrested by Ukrainian authorities; Naumov was arrested June 7 in Serbia, where law enforcement officers found him with a suspected German smuggler and 600,000 euros, $125,000 and a stash of emeralds. Kyiv is fighting for his extradition to face charges at home.
“There are so many regional SBU managers who have behaved in really strange ways. Some fled. A guy, for example, in Chernihiv, he [burned down] the whole SBU building for no reason, you know, because he said he didn’t have time to get all the documents out,” said the senior Ukrainian official who spoke to POLITICO. Police and other law enforcement agencies in the city successfully removed sensitive documents from their offices, the official said.
Known by its Ukrainian acronym, the SBU is the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB. With over 30,000 staff, the SBU is more than seven times the size of Britain’s MI5 and almost the size of the FBI – which employs 35,000 people – despite Ukraine being 16 times smaller than the United States. While tasked with traditional domestic intelligence and counter-intelligence gathering, the SBU’s activities also go beyond the scope of similar agencies in Western countries; among its functions is the fight against economic crimes and corruption.
With this broad mandate, there have long been accusations of abuse of power and corruption within the agency, including in units meant to tackle these very things, and it has largely proven impervious to change. . Indeed, attempts to reform the SBU have failed.
It is also known to be infiltrated by Russian spies, to the detriment of the country’s security interests and despite efforts to root them out.
Critics of the agency reached critical mass in 2018, when the SBU faked the death of a dissident Russian journalist to allegedly expose a commando hired by Moscow to assassinate high-profile figures in Ukraine. International media watchdogs were outraged and Western governments grimaced.
After Zelenskyy won a landslide presidential vote in 2019, he set out to clean up the SBU and called on his friend Bakanov to lead the charge in a bid to show the newly elected leader’s determination to prove to the West that Kyiv was serious about reforms.
Whether he managed to do so is questionable at best, observers say.
Alex Kokcharov, a London-based country risk analyst specializing in Ukraine and Russia for S&P Global, said a series of scandals in recent years had cast a shadow over the SBU. He said Kyiv had wasted years failing to overhaul the agency amid fears a large-scale Russian attack could occur.
« All these scandals around the SBU involved in the questionable practices regarding their attempts to carry out commercial investigations related to the economy, and the inter-agency infighting between the various security services of Ukraine [led to] not enough preparedness in specific areas like the south and east, which were the most expected Russian targets,” Kokcharov said.
One of the strengths of the SBU, he said, was the agency’s ability to identify saboteurs and collaborators outside its walls, such as civilians who helped direct fire. Russian artillery in the field, often in exchange for money or the promise of a better life under Moscow rule.
But for now, the spotlight is less on the successes of the SBU than on its failures. And Bakanov, except for a few photo ops with Zelenskyy, has kept a low profile since the start of the invasion.
« Hopefully at the end of the day we really have a proper investigation into how this bridge happened. [was not destroyed]said the senior Ukrainian official, noting that the government blames Kherson’s downfall on the SBU’s lack of preparedness.
The capture of Kherson allowed Putin’s forces to gain a foothold in the southern region of the country along the Black Sea coast. For this, the senior official said, pointing to Bakanov, « someone has to suffer. »