By Matthew Chance, Zahra Ullah and Katharina Krebs, CNN
Ukrainian opposition politicians are demanding an immediate investigation into how a special operation to lure alleged Russian war criminals failed after Belarus arrested the men in Minsk last year.
The new calls follow an exclusive CNN investigation in which former high-ranking Ukrainian military intelligence officials described attempts 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.
CNN’s sources detailed and provided evidence that Russians arrested in Belarus last year were the target of this elaborate intelligence sting, with the knowledge and support of the United States, something US officials deny. But the Russians were never ultimately sent to Ukraine.
In the Ukrainian parliament on 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.
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) on Wednesday, that 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 on Thursday, one opposition politician, Iryna Herashchenko, of the European Solidarity Party, accused the Presidential office of mishandling the situation by saying that “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 frontlines 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.