How Ukraine's Top Spies Changed the Nation's Path

By C. J. CHIVERS

New York Times

January 17, 2005

KIEV, Ukraine, Jan. 16 - As protests here against a rigged presidential election overwhelmed the capital last fall, an alarm sounded at Interior Ministry bases outside the city. It was just after 10 p.m. on Nov. 28.

More than 10,000 troops scrambled toward trucks. Most had helmets, shields and clubs. Three thousand carried guns. Many wore black masks. Within 45 minutes, according to their commander, Lt. Gen. Sergei Popkov, they had distributed ammunition and tear gas and were rushing out the gates.

Kiev was tilting toward a terrible clash, a Soviet-style crackdown that could have brought civil war. And then, inside Ukraine's clandestine security apparatus, strange events began to unfold.

While wet snow fell on the rally in Independence Square, an undercover colonel from the Security Service of Ukraine, or S.B.U., moved among the protesters' tents. He represented the successor agency to the K.G.B., but his mission, he said, was not against the protesters. It was to thwart the mobilizing troops. He warned opposition leaders that a crackdown was afoot.

Simultaneously, senior intelligence officials were madly working their secure telephones, in one instance cooperating with an army general to persuade the Interior Ministry to turn back.

The officials issued warnings, saying that using force against peaceful protests was illegal and could be prosecuted, and that if Interior Ministry troops came to Kiev, the army and security services would defend civilians, said an opposition leader who observed some of the exchanges and Oleksander Galaka, head of the military's intelligence service, or the G.U.R., who made some of the calls.

Far behind the scenes, Col. Gen. Ihor P. Smeshko, the S.B.U. chief, was coordinating several of the contacts, according to Maj. Gen. Vitaly Romanchenko, head of the military counterintelligence department, who said that on the spy chief's orders he warned General Popkov to stop. The Interior Ministry called off its alarm.

Details of those exchanges, never before reported, provide insight into a hidden factor in the so-called Orange Revolution, the peaceful protests that overturned an election and changed the political course of a post-Soviet state.

Throughout the crisis an inside battle was waged by a clique of Ukraine's top intelligence officers, who chose not to follow the plan by President Leonid D. Kuchma's administration to pass power to Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovich, the president's chosen successor. Instead, those senior officers, known as the siloviki, worked against it.

Such a position is a rare occurrence in former Soviet states, where the security agencies have often been the most conservative and ruthless instruments of state power.

Interviews with people involved in the events - opposition leaders, chairmen of three intelligence agencies and several of their senior officers, Mr. Kuchma, a senior Western diplomat, members of Parliament, the interior minister and commander of the ministry's troops - offer a view of the siloviki's work.

The officers funneled information to Mr. Kuchma's rivals, provided security to opposition figures and demonstrations, sent choreographed public signals about their unwillingness to follow the administration's path and engaged in a psychological tug-of-war with state officials to soften responses against the protests.

Ultimately, the intelligence agencies worked - usually in secret, sometimes in public, at times illegally - to block the fraudulent ascension of Mr. Yanukovich, whom several of the generals loathe. Directly and indirectly, their work supported Viktor A. Yushchenko, the Western-oriented candidate who is now the president-elect.

Many factors that sustained the revolution that formed around Mr. Yushchenko are well known. They include Western support, the protesters' resolve, cash from wealthy Ukrainians, coaching by foreign activists who had helped topple presidents in Georgia and Serbia, the unexpected independence of the Supreme Court and cheerleading by a television station, Channel 5, which Mr. Kuchma never shut down.

Each influenced the outcome to various degrees. None by itself seems decisive. The full extent of the siloviki's role is unknown, although Oleg Ribachuk, Mr. Yushchenko's chief of staff, called it "a very important element" that aided the opposition "professionally and systemically."

"They were doing this like a preventive operation," he said.

Opposition Inside the S.B.U.

The support did not start with the protests. Long before the election, the siloviki and the opposition opened quiet lines of communication, including General Smeshko's assignment last summer of an S.B.U. general as secret liaison to Mr. Ribachuk.

The 38,000-member S.B.U. is Ukraine's descendant of the Soviet K.G.B., and has been sullied by its reputation for blackmail, arms trading and links with Russian security services and organized crime. It remains highly factionalized, with cliques loyal to different political camps, and with remnant ties to its old masters in Moscow.

Its previous chairman, Leonid Derkach, was fired under international pressure after allegedly organizing the sale of radar systems to embargoed Iraq. Mr. Kuchma appointed General Smeshko, a generally Western-oriented official and a career military intelligence officer, as S.B.U. chairman in 2003. The general had previously been posted to embassies in Washington and Zurich; the move was regarded as an effort to smooth relations with the West.

Some of the siloviki who worked against the fraudulent election and resisted the crackdown are part of General Smeshko's military intelligence circle and had spent parts of their careers working in Western countries or as liaisons to Western governments.

Mr. Ribachuk said that he ultimately had several S.B.U. contacts, and that they met regularly, sometimes nightly. The officers leaked him documents and information from both Mr. Kuchma and Mr. Yanukovich's offices, he said, and were sources for much of the material used in the opposition's media campaign.

Whether the collaboration was a convergence of political aims, or a pragmatic understanding by the siloviki that Mr. Yushchenko's prospects were rising, is subject to dispute. Yulia Tymoshenko, another of Mr. Yushchenko's closest allies, said many S.B.U. officials, including General Smeshko, merely hedged their bets. "This was a very complicated game," she said.

Mr. Ribachuk saw it differently. "They are clearly our supporters," he said. "They risked their lives and careers."

The officers themselves express several motivations.

One, said Lt. Gen. Igor Drizhchany, head of the S.B.U.'s legal department, was simple. "At all times we talked of our desire to prevent the shedding of blood," he said.

But there are also signs that among some officers a desire to block Mr. Yanukovich was authentic. Having been prime minister for two years, Mr. Yanukovich was well known. Several S.B.U. officers said the premier, who was once convicted of robbery and assault and has close links to the corrupt eastern businessmen who have acquired much of Ukraine's material wealth, was a man they preferred not to serve, especially if he were to take office by fraud.

S.B.U. officials and Mr. Ribachuk also said that roughly a week before the Nov. 21 election, General Smeshko was disgusted enough after a personal meeting with Mr. Yanukovich that he sought to resign, and vowed never to work for the premier.

Mr. Kuchma did not accept the resignation, telling the spy chief that if he left, then a general loyal to Mr. Yanukovich would assume the post, and the nation would risk bloodshed, General Smeshko and Mr. Kuchma said.

It is not clear whether the president was certain of this, or simply outmaneuvered General Smeshko to avoid pre-election turmoil. But the spy chief stayed on.

Sending Signals

The siloviki's unease with Mr. Yanukovich's candidacy deepened on Nov. 21 when early results indicated the premier was winning the election, but through widespread fraud.

The S.B.U.'s leadership met in General Smeshko office. Among them were General Romanchenko, General Drizhchany, Maj. Gen. Oleksander Sarnatskyi, the chief of S.B.U.'s cabinet, and Col. Valery Kondratyuk, chief of liaison to foreign intelligence services.

The group contemplated a public resignation, but decided to try steering the gathering forces from a clash, and to fight from within. "Today we can save our faces or our epaulettes, or we can try to save our country," General Romanchenko and General. Sarnatskyi remember the spy chief saying.

Whether the full extent of the position and activities of the S.B.U. leadership was understood at this point by Mr. Kuchma is unclear; S.B.U. officers said that given the competing factions in their service, and its infiltration by Russian agents, elements of its work were certainly known.

Kiev was tense. As protests began on Nov. 21, the opposition had the money and organization for long-term civil disobedience. General Popkov, the interior commander, said he knew that, and had scheduled an exercise that massed 15,000 troops in the capital and nearby. He sent several thousand to barricades and posts at government buildings, and kept more than 10,000 in reserve.

The government swiftly tried drawing the intelligence chiefs into an image of state solidarity. On Nov. 22, the prosecutor general's office released a statement scolding the opposition for organizing the rally. It said the authorities and the S.B.U. were prepared "to firmly put an end to any lawlessness."

General Smeshko said he was furious and called the prosecutor to tell him not to speak for the S.B.U. "It was a falsification," he said. The S.B.U. countered with a statement saying that it disagreed with the prosecutor, that citizens had the right to exercise political freedoms and that political problems could be solved only by a peaceful path.

It was a public crack in Ukraine's law enforcement bodies, and an omen.

On Nov. 24, when the election commission met to certify Mr. Yanukovich's nominal win, Kiev was so fully blockaded that Mr. Kuchma was unable to work in his office.

He called for a meeting outside the city, where his government celebrated its win and several politicians declared that if crowds continued to block the government, troops should disperse them, three people in the meeting said.

As General Smeshko sat quietly, his spy agency was delivering a shadow blow.

Even as the election commission deliberated over Mr. Yanukovich's victory, Ukrayinska Pravda, a news Web site, posted transcripts of conversations from among members of the Yanukovich campaign.

The officials were discussing plans to rig the election, including padding the vote. One conversation, recorded on election night, was between Yuri Levenets, a campaign manager, and a man identified as Valery.

Valery: "We have negative results."

Mr. Levenets: "What do you mean?"

Valery: "48.37 for opposition, 47.64 for us."

Valery later added: "We have agreed to a 3 to 3.5 percent difference in our favor. We are preparing a table. You will have it by fax."

Mr. Yanukovich won by 2.9 percent. In an interview, Mr. Ribachuk said he gave the transcripts to Pravda after receiving them from the S.B.U., which had bugged the Yanukovich campaign.

General Smeshko refused to discuss the tapes in detail. "Officially, the S.B.U. had nothing to do with the surveillance of Yanukovich campaign officials," he said. "Such taping would be illegal in this country without permission from the court. I will say nothing more."

A member of the siloviki, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the taping was illegal, acknowledged the surveillance but said it was too delicate for General Smeshko to confirm. "Those who did this, they did not intend to become heroes," the officer said. "They wanted only to prevent a falsified election."

Not long after Pravda posted the transcript, General Smeshko left the meeting with Mr. Kuchma and headed to a S.B.U. safe house in Kiev for a secret liaison with Mr. Yushchenko, the opposition leader.

The meeting had self-evident ironies. Mr. Yushchenko, nearly incapacitated after being poisoned by dioxin in the summer, a crime that remains unsolved, had publicly linked the poisoning to a meeting with General Smeshko and another S.B.U. general.

Now he wanted another talk. The group met in a tiny room, behind a drawn yellow curtain, and ate fruit. Present were General Sarnatskyi, General Smeshko and General Romanchenko, as well as Mr. Yushchenko, Mr. Ribachuk and another Yushchenko ally.

Two agreements were struck, both sides say.

Mr. Yushchenko requested more security for his campaign. General Smeshko agreed to provide him eight specialists from the elite Alpha counterterrorism unit - a highly unusual step - and to arrange former S.B.U. members to guard the campaign.

Then the group also agreed that the S.B.U. must publicly show that it was on the side of the law, not a candidate - an implicit message that the agency was unwilling to abuse power for the premier.

As the meeting ended, Mr. Yushchenko, who is an amateur artist, gave General Smeshko one of his landscape paintings. The spy chief and the opposition leader embraced.

Back at the S.B.U. headquarters, General Smeshko and the siloviki decided that to send a signal to the public they would send officers to read a statement to the protesters. Mr. Yushchenko appeared the next night, Nov. 25, with five members of S.B.U.

Their statement was indirectly but clearly pro-opposition. It said concerns about the election were valid, and addressed the Supreme Court, which had just announced that it would review complaints of electoral fraud. The officers urged the judges to work objectively.

Then they addressed police officers and soldiers. "Do not forget that you are called to serve the people," their statement said. "The S.B.U. considers its main assignment is to protect the people, no matter the source of the threat. Be with us!"

It was a rare moment for officers used to anonymity and reflected how deeply opposition sentiments had reached into Ukrainian society. In interviews, two officers from the stage, Lt. Gen. Oleksander Skibinetsky, a reservist, and Lt. Gen. Oleksander Skipalsky, who is retired, were asked if their families influenced their decisions.

"Both of our wives were in the square," General Skibinetsky said.

General Skipalsky said: "My wife. And my daughter, too."

The signal seemed to have had its desired effect. The next morning, cadets from the Interior Ministry's academy joined the opposition, marching to the barricades to try to convince the officers on duty to join them. A few carried flowers.

The Battle for Kuchma

The state was leaking power. The next day, Nov. 27, Mr. Kuchma summoned General Smeshko to a meeting at Koncha Zaspa, a government sanitarium outside Kiev.

In a conference room were Mr. Yanukovich and politicians from eastern regions supporting him, with the head of the Interior Ministry, or M.V.D., Mykola Bilokon, one of Mr. Kuchma's loyalists, who made no secret of his support for the premier.

Mr. Yanukovich confronted Mr. Kuchma, asking if he was betraying them, according to four people in the meeting. Then came demands: schedule an inauguration, declare a state of emergency, unblock government buildings.

Mr. Kuchma icily addressed his former protégé. "You have become very brave, Viktor Feyodovich, to speak to me in this manner," he said, according to Mr. Bilokon and General Smeshko. "It would be best for you to show this bravery on Independence Square."

General Smeshko intervened to offer the S.B.U.'s assessment of the situation, warning the premier that few of Ukraine's troops, if ordered, would fight the people. He also said that even if soldiers followed an order, a crackdown would not succeed because demonstrators would resist. Then he challenged Mr. Yanukovich.

"Viktor Feyodovich, if you are ready for a state of emergency, you can give this order," he said. "Here is Bilokon," he continued. "The head of the M.V.D. You will be giving him, as chairman of the government, a written order to unblock the buildings? You will do this?"

Mr. Yanukovich was silent. General Smeshko waited. "You have answered," he continued, according to people in the meeting. "You will not do it. Let us not speak nonsense. There is no sense in using force."

Mr. Kuchma left the room to take a phone call, then returned with a state television crew. Mr. Yanukovich slammed down his pen and left.

The government's position was set: there would be no martial law. It was formalized the next day, on Nov. 28, when the National Security and Defense Council voted to solve the crisis through peaceful means.

"This was the key decision," Mr. Kuchma later said. "I realized what it meant to de-block government buildings by force in these conditions. It could not be done without bloodshed."

Fighting a Crackdown

Although there seemed to be a consensus at the council, a crackdown remained possible, either as a response to opposition provocation, or by secret, unexpressed agenda.

Emotions had been rising and falling in Kiev, and within hours of the council meeting, they surged again when Ms. Tymoshenko, a Yushchenko ally, warned demonstrators that there would be an effort to unblock the government buildings. She urged more people to defend them.

General Popkov, the commander of interior troops, said he was notified of Ms. Tymoshenko's words and the crowd's restlessness, and ordered the alarm. The mobilization began.

Precisely what followed, and why, remains unclear, as does who gave the order, and by what means. General Popkov insists that he alone was engaged in a calculated bluff, and thus made certain his signal would be seen instantly.

Holding up his mobile phone, he said, "I deliberately gave the order on this phone, which is bugged."

Whether General Popkov's phone was bugged is not publicly known. But General Romanchenko said his agents in the interior units watched the preparations; simultaneously, S.B.U officers said, their agents in the Interior Ministry's communications center heard radio traffic about preparations to march. Bedlam, and battles of nerves, ensued.

Reports of the alarm were relayed to the S.B.U. command, which notified the opposition, its officers on Independence Square, and then the American Embassy.

The opposition called the American ambassador, John E. Herbst, who called Viktor Pinchuk, Mr. Kuchma's son-in-law, to find out what was happening, Mr. Pinchuk said.

Mr. Pinchuk said he called Viktor Medvedchuk, chief of Mr. Kuchma's administration, who called the interior minister at home. Mr. Bilokon said he did not know what was happening. "I was really worried," Mr. Bilokon said, in an interview. "How, without my knowledge, was this order given?"

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell soon telephoned Mr. Kuchma, who did not take the call.

Outside, the S.B.U. was mobilizing. Several hundred intelligence officers were already among the protesters, S.B.U officials say. Some were pretending to be demonstrators themselves. Concealed surveillance teams were videotaping the crowd. Snipers peered down from roofs. Counterterrorism teams huddled in nearby apartments and unmarked trucks. Groups in vehicles roamed the roads to Kiev, trying to determine the direction of the troops' advance.

Among the protesters' tents, an S.B.U. colonel who had spent the week as a liaison to the demonstration organizers alerted the organizers that troops were on their way.

His next mission was to meet the troops as they drew near, he said, to warn their officers that a crackdown without written orders was illegal. He said he also planned to warn them that the S.B.U. had surveillance units watching Kiev, and all actions would be videotaped for use as evidence later.

The fear, he said, was intense. Some intelligence officers thought of China's crushing of the pro-democracy protesters in 1989 in Beijing. Others thought of the Romanian revolution in 1989, when, after troops fired on demonstrators, the people fought back, eventually capturing and killing President Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife.

"We could not believe it could occur to somebody to draw the first drop of blood, which would have been the detonator of a big explosion," said the colonel, a deputy chief of Ukraine's counterterrorism forces, who by Ukrainian law is forbidden to have his name published. "It could unleash a civil war in our country. Absolutely, sincerely, we were prepared to do everything in our power to stop it."

While all sides pressed for information and advantage, a group of the siloviki and Ms. Tymoshenko met at the headquarters of the military intelligence service, the G.U.R.

Among them were Mr. Galaka, the G.U.R. chief, General Drizhchany, Colonel Kondratyuk and General Romanchenko, who said he called the S.B.U. headquarters for instructions. "Chairman Smeshko told me to call General Popkov, and find out why the alert had been called," he said.

An extraordinary exchange followed. The counterintelligence chief called the troop commander, whom he had known for years, and asked what were the grounds for the alert. "He said it was his decision," General Romanchenko said. "I said to General Popkov that he had to have a written order to raise troops on full alert, and since he did not have this order he would have to call back the troops."

Simultaneously, from his office at S.B.U. headquarters, General Smeshko called Mr. Bilokon, who sought assurances the opposition would not seize buildings, both men said. General Smeshko called him back and gave that assurance, shifting responsibility to himself if buildings were overrun.

Other officers said that after about an hour, Col. Gen. Oleksander Petruk, the army chief of staff, arrived at the military intelligence service's office. The intelligence officer pressed him for help. He said the army would not deploy inside Ukraine. "He said it would not be done," Colonel Kondratyuk said. General Petruk's staff did not return phone messages seeking an interview.

Ms. Tymoshenko said she watched with amazement as the siloviki and then General Petruk made calls and warned the Interior Ministry "that they are on the side of the people, and will defend the people, and that the M.V.D. will have to deal not only with unarmed people and youth if it comes to Kiev, but with the army" and the special forces inside the intelligence agencies.

Eventually, General Popkov folded. "He said he was carrying out orders and he was not a key figure," Ms. Tymoshenko said. First the trucks stopped on the shoulder of the road. Then the alarm was called off.

General Drizhchany, and others, said it that because so many calls were made that night by and to so many people, it was impossible to tell which calls were decisive. More likely, he said, was that the calls had a cumulative effect.

While different accounts of the mobilization agree on many points, they clash on critical questions. Who ordered the alarm? Who called the troops back?

General Popkov said both decisions were solely his. This is the official version, which the siloviki, the opposition and the Western diplomat dismiss as absurd. "What he did was not a drill," said Mr. Galaka.

Only three people, they say, had authority to give such an order: Mr. Kuchma, Mr. Yanukovich and Mr. Medvedchuk. Mr. Kuchma denies a role. Mr. Yanukovich and Mr. Medvedchuk did not reply to requests for interviews.

Ms. Tymoshenko said she witnessed a turning point. Once the siloviki thwarted the alarm, the administration learned that it did not have sole influence over the last guarantor of power: the men with the guns.

After a peaceful uprising in Georgia in 2003 deposed President Eduard Shevardnadze, in part with help from the authorities, she said she was jealous of a country with officers willing to resist corrupt power.

"I had always thought that all of our generals were very loyal to Kuchma and were pragmatic," she said. "All of a sudden I made this discovery. We had generals on the side of the people."