By Matthew Chance, Zahra Ullah and Katharina Krebs, CNN
Ukraine’s ruling party acknowledged for the first time Friday a Ukrainian-led sting operation aimed at luring suspected war criminals out of Russia.
In an exclusive CNN investigation released Tuesday, three former high-ranking Ukrainian military intelligence officials described how they attempted to lure suspected war criminals out of Russia to face prosecution for acts of violence committed in eastern Ukraine, where separatists backed by Moscow have been fighting for years. The operation failed when the Russians were arrested in Minsk last year.
Speaking in Kiev after a closed briefing about the sting, a parliamentarian from Ukrainian President Zelensky’s ruling party, Maryana Bezuhla, confirmed to journalists there was a Ukrainian operation to gather intelligence and arrest suspected Russian war criminals.
“There was a special measure as part of the routine work of intelligence officers to collect information about those who participated in aggression…At the initiative of the SBU [Security Service of Ukraine], the next event was opened to try to pull a certain number of people out of the territory of the Russian Federation,” Bezuhla said.
Bezuhla, who heads a parliamentary commission which investigates “illegal actions” of officials, said there will be an investigation into how the operation became known to Belarusian special services.
CNN’s three sources detailed and provided evidence the Russians arrested in Belarus in July 2020 were the target of an elaborate intelligence sting by Ukraine to capture alleged Russian war criminals, with the knowledge and support of the United States, something US officials deny.
The findings of CNN’s report had a wide-ranging impact in Ukraine. In the Ukrainian parliament Thursday there was a brief scuffle, and rowdy scenes as opposition deputies held up placards accusing government figures of being responsible for the failure of the operation and demanded an immediate investigation into how it failed.
One placard read, “time to name the traitors of Ukraine” and another placard read, “we demand truth.”
On Wednesday, an adviser to the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Mikhail Podoliak, dismissed CNN’s report, questioning the use of anonymous sources.
“As usual, mandatory anonymous retirees — and this is key — confirm something. Another anonymous source denies something. Once again: anonymous, without a surname, without a position and, therefore, sources that have no informational and reputational value,” Podoliak said to Ukrainian state media Ukrinform.
Podoliak also pointed to a statement from Russia’s Federal Security Services (FSB) Wednesday, which said CNN’s report offered “fresh evidence” that Ukrainian secret services interfere in Moscow’s internal affairs.
“When before did the FSB official appear in the media almost instantly to support and praise a report? This is factually a signal for the entire Russian propaganda system, on what to do and how to work. Now they will “disperse” this story with reference to CNN,” Podoliak said.
But speaking in the Ukrainian parliament Thursday, one opposition politician, Iryna Herashchenko, of the European Solidarity Party, accused the Presidential office of mishandling the situation by saying “CNN is spreading lies and deceit, and accusing them of cooperation with FSB.”
“Let me remind you,” Herashchenko added, “Zelensky was at the front lines with this same CNN correspondent. Then it turns out that Zelensky took FSB agents to the front line so they can film information about our military there? It doesn’t match up,” she said.
CNN’s Matthew Chance gained unprecedented access to Zelensky on the front lines in eastern Ukraine earlier this year as Russia massed trips near the border region.
Herashchenko, who is herself a former journalist, accused Zelensky’s office of censorship of CNN’s piece in Ukraine and urged Ukrainian journalists to take note of the story to “honor” the Ukrainian military who she said had been betrayed by the failure of the operation.
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CNN’s Matthew Chance and Zahra Ullah reported in Moscow, and Katharina Krebs in London.