The men goods indeed part of An mission. But the target wasn’t Belarus, and they didn’t stand in order from a Russian entity.
They were set up. The 32, come with one another man arrested in Southern Belarus, were targeted of an extensive intelligence service by Ukraine, with the knowledge and supposed support of the United States.
Three former high-ranking Ukrainian military intelligence officials described exclusively to CNN how they organized the extraordinary operation to lure suspected war criminals out of Russia to face persecution for commit atrocities in Eastern Ukraine, where Moscow-backed separatists have fought for year.
First, the Ukrainian agents impersonated a Russian private military company, recruitment for security jobs die above going to pay rate, die offers a lucrative $5,000-a-month contract to protect Venezuelan oil facilities, CNN was told by the men, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak on the sensitive operation.
That bait was grabbed by hundreds of potential Russian contractors who applied for work, the sources said, giving Ukrainian intelligence an unprecedented opportunity to begin identify and roll up in the ones die Become suspicious of war crimes.
“We started met call them and say, ‘Hey, man, okay, tell me something over yourself. Maybe you’re not really a fighter, maybe you’re a plumber of like this like Which,'” one of the former military intelligence officers told CNN of the screening interviews with applicants.
“And then they started things over to reveal oneself, to forward us documents, military IDs and proofs of where they had fought. And we are, like, ‘bingo, we can’ use that,'” the source added.
In other words, according to the intelligence officers, the targets themselves began to steer in proof of who they were, their military experience and even the special battles and incidents in they had been involved in, including ID, and potentially incriminating photos and videos of their exploits in Eastern Ukraine and elsewhere.
One video, shared with CNN by the former military intelligence sources, captures a group of rebel fighters in Eastern Ukraine holding company up the wreck of An military planes that the sources said were just shot down, An crime classified as terrorism in Ukraine.
“There were two who were present when the rocket die MH17 was launched. Four others were members of An group responsible for to shoot down U.S military airplanes and killing at least 70 of U.S best men,” An second former Ukrainian military intelligence source told CNN.
“Identify and Punish These” people used to be of great interest in us,” he added.
It was apparently of also interesting for US intelligence, although US officials deny a direct role. Ukrainian intelligence officials say Ukraine-led operation got hold of US cash, technical assistance and advice from the CIA on how to attract the Russian mercenaries in.
AN senior U.S official told CNN that die allegations are”false.”
He indicated that the American intelligence service was aware of the operation, but denied any involvement. The official, who requested anonymity as he was not authorized to in public speaking, suggested efforts to involve US agencies may include an attempt to: share, of even pass, blame for what was a highrisk Ukrainian operation die went wrong.
CNN spent weeks in Ukraine, verify and review accounts of the operation and the speaking met the men who goods on the inside.
posing like a private military business made feeling — military contractors associated with the Kremlin, have become a well-known feature of life for Russian veterans.
With them website recruiting trick die undetected, Ukrainian intelligence officials die just chosen men with the closest and most controversial ties met Ukraine and offered them the fake Venezuela contracts, the sources said.
They chose 28 Russians die Reportedly in were associated met illegal acts in Ukraine and five more without connections to dispel suspicions, they said.
The Russians were told they would be flown to Turkey for a flight connection to Caracas. The real the plan was to get them to Ukraine where they could be arrested, the sources told CNN.
The coronavirus pandemic threw an unexpected wrench in the plan when Russia closed its borders to stop the spread of COVID-19.
However, Moscow continued to allow travel to its neighbor and ally Belarus. According to Ukrainian sources, the unwitting recruits were sent by bus over land to Minsk, from where they thought soon leave for Venezuela.
But once in Minsk, there was a delay. The recruits were told it would be a few days before they could leave and were transferred to Belorusochka Sanatorium, a discreet Soviet-era spa town. set on a quiet reservoir 15 minutes outside the capital, where, the sources said, it was hoped they could remain unnoticed.
The burly mercenaries in the spa die “comfort and coziness” promises amid the “absence” of city fuss and day-to-day worries” seemed incongruous, if not suspicious, one employee remembered.
“Yes, I remember, I met them,” a security guard told CNN last month. “They brought a few of days here. They did nothing to disturb us’ he said, adding that the arrests were a surprise. ‘People come here because there is a beautiful reservoir on the other side of the sanatorium,” he said.
The delay was long enough for the Belarusian security services to act, just hours for the group had to fly out, according to CNN sources.
Some suspected Russian involvement at the time. In dramatic scenes, broadcast on Belarusian state television, the arrested men were paraded on screen and their identification documents are shown as proof of their Russian military backgrounds.
“We have confirmed information die these Russians had… real combat experience, and actually took part in armed conflict,” revealed an unnamed, heavily disguised Belarusian police commander on state television.
AN former presidential adviser in Belarus told CNN on the condition of anonymity that the Belarusian authorities initially believed that the group had been sent to Belarus by the Russians to destabilize the country before us of upcoming elections.
He told CNN there was confusion in Minsk over what appeared to be aggression from their Russian allies.
The Kremlin seemed caught off guard too, with his spokesman tells Russian media they had not complete information about the incident. The Kremlin later denied that they men interrupt in the internal affairs of Belarus.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also got involved and called for the extradition of the men to Ukraine during a phone call with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko just days after the arrests.
A week on from that call, Russia announced the return of the 32 Russians die in the sanatorium have been arrested. the 33rd man, who was a dual national of Belarus and Russia, remained in Belarus.
President Zelensky of Ukraine has publicly denied that there was any Ukrainian operation, Ukrainian TV reported in June 2021 that his country was “dragged in” issue.
“I understand the idea of this operation was the idea of, say, other countries, certainly not Ukraine,” he said.
Ukrainian officials did not respond to CNN .’s request for An comment for this story.
But according to Ukrainian CNN sources, the failure was a serious blow to Ukrainian intelligence who they say had worked on hook the Russian suspects for almost 18 months.
“If this people would have ended up here in Ukraine, the details of their criminal deeds would have become known around the world” one of That’s what the sources told CNN.
“Ukraine had them to justice and showed that our fight with Russia is serious and we won’t raise our hands in surrender,” the source added.
CNN’s Matthew Chance reported from Kiev and Zahra Ullah reported from Minsk. Katharina Krebs contributed from Kiev.
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