Wiping out spy chief highlights Ukraine’s battle to purge Russian operatives

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KYIV, July 18 (Reuters) – The sidelining of Ukraine’s national spy chief on Sunday laid bare Kyiv’s battle far from the front lines to purge its powerful security agencies of Russian aides and operatives .

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has suspended the head of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU), childhood friend Ivan Bakanov, and chief prosecutor Iryna Venediktova, citing dozens of cases of collaboration by members of their agencies in Ukraine occupied by Russia. Read more

Zelenskiy pointed to the case of Oleh Kulinich, a senior SBU official appointed under Bakanov to focus on Russia-annexed Crimea who was arrested on Saturday on suspicion of treason. He had been sacked shortly after the February 24 Russian invasion.

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In his nightly address to the nation, Zelenskiy hailed the operation against Kulinich as part of a process of “self-purification”.

He said 651 cases had been opened for alleged treason and collaboration by prosecutors and law enforcement officials, and more than 60 people from Bakanov’s and Venediktova’s agencies were now working against Kyiv in occupied Ukraine. Russia.

On Bakanov’s exit, Kyiv-based analyst Volodymyr Fesenko said Kulinich’s arrest was likely the last straw after an SBU general’s wartime flight to Serbia and suspicions of treason that had swirled around some of its regional leaders.

“The decision on Bakanov was forced,” he said. “It’s a crisis decision. They need to get their house in order, purge the SBU and look for…agents. Not just in the SBU of course, but the SBU is critically important.”

The SBU is the main agency in charge of counterintelligence and homeland security. The sprawling organization descended from the Soviet-era KGB and has undergone a reform push in recent years.

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An SBU reform bill was drafted in 2020 to reduce its large number of employees and better define its remit, but the effort had already stalled at the start of the full-scale invasion of Russia in February. , said constitutional and political expert Bohdan Bondarenko. .

Bakanov, a security outsider with a background in show business, was appointed head of the SBU in 2019. He was among a range of new faces who rose to prominence after Zelenskiy, a former comedian , won the election earlier that year.

One of the lingering questions from the first phase of the war is why the southern region of Kherson fell so quickly to Russia, unlike the fierce Ukrainian resistance near Kyiv that forced Moscow to abandon its push towards the capital.

“It was obvious that there was betrayal in the Kherson region,” Fesenko said.

“That there were agents is obvious, now there will be a difficult counter-intelligence action and the exit of these agents. That is why the issue of the SBU is so important. Because it is the SBU that should handle counterintelligence… And it turned out there were also Russian agents in the SBU.”

In an address to the nation on March 31, Zelenskiy announced the dismissal of Serhiy Kryvoruchka, SBU regional head for Kherson, and another SBU general.

“Now I don’t have time to deal with all the traitors. But gradually they will all be punished,” Zelenskiy warned at the time.

Bondarenko said the problem of collaborators and agents was most acute in 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and backed a separatist insurgency in the east.

“Now it is certainly smaller, but it remains,” he said, giving the example of the Kherson region.

Bondarenko said he thought Sunday’s policy reshuffle was likely intended to demonstrate to the public that Zelenskiy is taking action against the problem of Russian infiltration and that it would help consolidate his power.

“This information about internal checks and defections… feels like a formal basis to go out to the public and say ‘listen, there’s a problem, and I’m trying to solve it this way,'” he said. .

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Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Max Hunder; Editing by Nick Macfie

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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