Ukrainian president admits special op to detain Wagner mercenaries existed, tells Ukraine was “drawn in” by other countries

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during the interview where he admitted to busting the special operation. Photo: screenshot from broadcast 

International

In what appears to be a sensational confession during an interview with Ukrainian TV, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy admitted that a special operation to detain mercenaries of the Wagner Private Military Company via a false flag operation in July last year indeed existed but failed. Up till now, Zelenskyy dismissed talk about it as disinformation. But in an interview with Ukraine’s 1+1 channel on 24 June 2021, he casually remarked that Ukraine was “drawn in” to the operation by “other countries” and “warned” Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka about the Wagner mercenaries when they were on Belarusian territory.

Zelenskyy said he was glad that the operation was not carried through, drawing parallels to the international isolation of Belarus following the forced landing of an airplane carrying opposition journalist Protasevich. The operation to detain Wagner mercenaries included a similar plan: to land the airplane carrying them on Ukrainian territory following a faked illness of one of the passengers.

On 29 July 2020, 33 members of this Putin-affiliated “private army,” who have been documented to participate in military conflicts ranging from eastern Ukraine to Africa to Syria, were reported to have been arrested by the Belarusian KGB before boarding a plane destined for Istanbul.

At the time, Ukrainian journalists accused Ukraine’s President’s Office and Zelenskyy personally of disrupting the special operation conducted jointly by the SBU and the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense, who were said to have lured out the militants from Russia into Belarus and spoofed them into boarding a plane which was in fact a false flag operation to bring them to Kyiv. There, the militants would have been prosecuted for fighting on the side of Russia’s hybrid army against Ukraine in Donbas, where a war is dragging on into the seventh year.

A sensational confession

Volodymyr Zelenskyy during the interview where he admitted to informing Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka of the impending operation to arrest the Wagner mercenaries. Snapshot from broadcast

President Zelenskyy was aware of the presence of militants close to Putin’s Wagner PMC in Minsk and handed over the personal data of these mercenaries to Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

As he himself emphasized, he handed over the “complete information about these people.”

“The last time we talked to him [with Lukashenko – Ed] By phone, by the way, since we are talking about the Wagnerians, this is where I was involved in this topic. It was I that called Alyaksandr when the Wagnerians were on the territory of Belarus, warned him and told I was ready to provide the full information about these people. We knew what surnames they had, we understood who they were. I think it was our ambassador who told, I don’t fully remember,” Zelenskyy said.

Russian Wagner mercenaries arrested in Belarus: ‘little green men’ scenario, fighters in transit, or other?

However, the Belarusian ruler, Volodymyr Zelenskyy continued, detained members of Wagner but did not extradite them to Ukraine.

“He told me on the phone, ‘I understand, yes. Dear Volodymyr, you know how I feel about you. You know how much Belarus loves Ukraine. You know I won’t let you down. Not everything is calm here now. I’ll figure it out.’ I was sure he would give us these killers. But then what happened happened, and that was my last conversation with him,” Zelenskyy said.

Belarus is known to have returned the Wagner militants back to Russia.

In addition, Zelenskyy believes that the mentioned special operation in Ukraine was not really necessary and seemed to be imposed by “other countries.” The president did mention which ones, exactly.

According to one version, western partners helped Ukraine’s security services to lure out participants of the Wagner PMC, some of whom had taken part in war crimes in Donbas, to Belarus.

“It was definitely not our operation. I clearly understand that the idea of this operation is the idea of other countries and it’s true that Ukraine was dragged into this issue. The fact that this did not happen, once again drawing parallels with Belarus, thank God, we have demonstrated subjectivity in this important issue,” the president continued.

Moreover, Zelenskyy is convinced that if the operation was completed as expected, an irreparable international scandal would follow, such as the recent situation where a Ryanair flight carrying a prominent Belarusian opposition journalist was forced to land in Minsk.

“You and I saw what happened in Belarus, how the plane landed and how it ended. How such cases end, and what isolation of the country such special operations lead to,” the head of state summed up.

An international scandal followed after the forced landing of the plane with dissident journalist Roman Protasevich. Belarus has essentially been isolated from international air travel as airlines suspended their flights and the Lukashenka regime retaliated.

According to the scenario voiced by Ukrainian journalists after the failure of the operation, at its final stage, the Wagner mercenaries, after staying in a sanatorium on the outskirts of Minsk, were to depart from Belarus for “tasks” in third countries. When the plane would reach Ukrainian airspace, it was supposed to land for some reason at a Ukrainian airport. After that, the Wagner mercenaries were supposed to be detained and with much publicity subjected to a trial, to provide more strong evidence of Russian aggression against Ukraine in the war in Donbas.

Wagner in Belarus: Ukrainian journalists cry treason as high officials suspected of blowing MID special op

President’s Office explains

Mykhailo Podoliak, an advisor to the Head of the President’s Office, explained to BBC that Zelenskyy talked with Lukashenka on 5 August 2020 after the Wagner mercenaries were detained in Belarus, i.e. after the busting of the special operation. Podoliak explained that Zelenksyy warned Lukashenka that Ukraine would not approve any other option than extraditing the Wagner mercenaries to Ukraine.

Answering a question on what countries precisely stood behind the special operation, he said: “Obviously, this story with the appearance of Wagner mercenaries in Belarus could not have happened without Russian special services and people connected to them. Obviously, those who wanted to implement their geopolitical tasks at Ukraine’s expense, particularly – in Belarus, were drawn into this story.”

“Obviously, Ukraine will not play along with Russia in creating legends for special operations, will not get involved in air piracy, and will not go beyond internationally recognized legal procedures,” Podoliak added.

Wagnergate

Following the journalist allegations in August 2020, a scandal ensued, with Zelenskyy being accused of treasonous behavior. Editor-in-chief of the Ukrainian online mediaCensor.net accused Zelenskyy of blowing this special operation run by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) to avoid tensions with Moscow. Journalists Yanina Sokolova and Liubov Velychko confirmed this version. Particularly, on 24 August 2020, Velychko published an interview with one of the alleged coordinators of the operation, who remained anonymous. The following day, the SBU demanded she disclose the identity of her interviewee, Velychko claimed. Sokolova published intercepts she claims reveal how the SBU spoofed Wagner mercenaries into participating to work in Venezuela.

According to some sources, the special operation collapsed because Zelenskyy changed the date of the final stage, allowing the Belarusian security services to apprehend the mercenaries and hand them over the Moscow.

Ukrainian media suspect that people in Zelenskyy’s circle could have leaked information about the special operation to the enemy after the President’s Office was briefed about it. The President’s Office, Security Service, Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine, and the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine denied ever taking part in such an operation immediately after the Wagner mercenaries were arrested in Minsk, calling it an “information provocation to harm Ukraine” and a “Russian fake.”

The Ukrainian online media Ukrayinska Pravda, citing its sources in the SBU and Main Intelligence Directorate (MID/GUR), also corroborated Butusov’s version.

According to the newspaper, the SBU, GUR and War Crimes Department of the Prosecutor General’s Office launched a search and detention operation for terrorists more than a year before the detention.

“The group to be seized included people likely involved in the downing of passenger flight MH-17, which was shot above eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014, and the military aircraft IL-76 and AN-26. 

As part of a special operation, militants were hired under forged contracts to guard oil rigs in Venezuela. During the recruitment, they recorded evidence of their crimes in Ukraine because they thought they were showing their level of “qualification” to the “employer.” The militants were to fly out of Minsk and had even purchased tickets.

The group consisted of 33 people, including 28 militants who were to be detained. 9 of them were citizens of Ukraine, 11 were listed in the Myrotvorets database. Not all mercenaries served in the famous Wagner PMC.

According to the plan, on July 24, the group was to be brought from Moscow to Minsk airport without being delayed in Belarus. On July 25, the group was to fly to Turkey on a flight from Minsk to Istanbul.

According to the plan, during this flight, the plane was to land at one of the Ukrainian airports, as one of the passengers allegedly became ill. This role was to be performed by an SBU agent. Under the guise of paramedics, a group of special forces would board the plane and detain the Wagner mercenaries.

However, the plan failed to materialize.

On July 24, Deputy Head of the Security Service of Ukraine Ruslan Baranetsky and Chief of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense Vasyl Burba reported on the final stage of the operation in the President’s Office. The report was attended by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Head of the Office Andriy Yermak, First Deputy Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, Chairman of the Intelligence Committee Ruslan Demchenko, Deputy Chairman of the Defense Ministry Roman Mashovets, Secretary to the President Maria Levchenko.

After the report, Yermak asked to postpone the special operation. He referred to talks with Russian presidential aide Vladimir Putin and that the operation could disrupt the exchange of prisoners being prepared at the time and the beginning of a truce as part of the Minsk process. The operation was postponed for several days.

Intelligence officials said the militants were already on the road and registered for the flight, and that stopping the operation could lead to failure. Law enforcement officials claimed that the detention of the Wagner mercenaries had nothing to do with the Minsk process, as they were wanted and of interest to the Dutch judiciary, which was considering the case of the downing of flight MH-17.

But President Zelenskyy supported Yermak and ordered the operation to be postponed to July 30.

Ukrainian intelligence suspects that afterward, this information was leaked to Russia’s Federal Security Service. The result was the detention of mercenaries in Minsk and their subsequent transfer to Russia.

On July 25, 33 members of the group who had checked in for the flight did not show up for it. They settled in one of the sanatoriums with an order to wait for a new departure, scheduled for July 30.

However, on the eve of the flight, on July 29, the special services of Belarus detained the whole group. Two days later, the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine sent a request to Belarus for the extradition arrest of the detainees. Ukraine did not receive an answer.

On August 3, Zelenskyy convened a meeting again. Chief of intelligence Burba said that the operation failed and the reason for this is a betrayal. Burba demanded to start checking everyone who knew about the operation. 

Zelensky did not make any decisions on the inspection. An investigation into the failure was not launched.

In addition, after these events, Zelensky fired Burba and appointed a new head of the GUR, and Baranetsky went on indefinite leave.

The President of Ukraine held talks with Oleksandr Lukashenko, the acting President of Belarus, on the extradition of at least nine terrorists who are citizens of Ukraine. At the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin also agreed with Lukashenko to extradite the entire group to Russia.

On August 14, Belarus stated that all detainees had been transferred to Russia.”

On 9 September 2020, a Kyiv court obliged the SBU to open an investigation into the possible state treason of Zelenskyy’s Chief of Office Andriy Yermak. Yermak dismissed this step as “political PR.” On 28 September, journalists Yanina Sokolova and Yuriy Butusov informed that the State Bureau of Investigation summoned them for questioning in relation to the special operation.

The Wagner topic has also gotten the international investigative collective Bellingcat interested. They are preparing a film about the operation, the release of which has been postponed until autumn. On 1 March 2021, Yuriy Butusov informed that Bellingcat journalist Christo Grozev came to Kyiv with his team to film interviews for the film, talking to journalists, officials, MPs and the fifth Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Butusov said that Andriy Yermak asked Bellingcat to record interviews with officials who would represent the position of the President’s Office for the film, but refused at the last moment.  On 6 March 2021, the Ukrainian daily Zn.ua, citing its own sources, wrote that the President’s Office attempted to coax the British MI6 Secret Intelligence Service to prevent the release of Bellingcat’s film. MI6 responded by saying that they cannot influence the journalists, who are free to exercise freedom of speech.

Later in April, Yermak told in an interview that the Wagnergate story contains “lots of fantasies and wishful thinking.”

In September, the Ukrainian State Bureau of Investigation launched several investigations into the alleged busting of the operation, supervised by none other than Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova herself.

The ‘Wagner Affair’ in Belarus and its implications for Ukraine

A previous version of the headline read “Ukrainian president admits he busted special op to detain Wagner mercenaries in Belarus.” It has been changed to more accurately reflect the content of the interview. This piece has also been supplemented with additional information about Wagnergate and clarification of the President’s Office.

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