Christo Grozev of Bellingcat gained a front row seat to a bungled Ukrainian intelligence operation that left a friendly airfield destroyed and soldiers dead.
His narrative about his role in the plot is filled with holes.
Criminal charges of treason and abuse of power have been leveled against an unspecified number of Ukrainian servicemen by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). In a bizarre plot to seize Russian aircraft and transfer the planes to Ukraine, the accused soldiers disclosed sensitive information that allowed Moscow to strike an important Ukrainian airfield with a Kalibr missile. A commander was killed, 17 airmen were wounded, two fighter jets destroyed, and “significant damage” was inflicted to the airstrip and several nearby buildings.
Will Ukrainian authorities now level criminal charges against members of Bellingcat, the Western government-funded open source investigations collective, for its role in the connivance? Christo Grozev, the organization’s “lead Russia investigator,” was inexplicably granted a front row seat to the chicanery by the individuals who attempted to carry it out.
Once the plot unravelled spectacularly, Grozev attempted to spin it as an embarrassment for Russia, while denying the SBU or Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence Directorate (GUR) played any role in its execution. Instead, he claimed, it was the work of “maverick ex-operatives.” The criminal cases pursued by the SBU validate this narrative:
“These actions of individual servicemen [emphasis added], which led to serious consequences, death and injury of Ukraine’s defenders and harmed the country’s defence capabilities, require an appropriate legal assessment.”
As we will see, Grozev was far from a passive spectator in the scheme. Indeed, his framing of the event gives every appearance of a damage control exercise, shielding Bellingcat and the GUR and SBU from blame. Coincidentally, his Bellingcat website profile notes his interest in “the weaponization of information.”
Read Alex Rubinstein’s report on Christo Grozev’s defense of a terror attack on a St. Petersburg, Russia cafe, and his call for more of such actions.
Bellingcat’s proxy war blunders pile up
Since the war in Ukraine began, Christo Grozev and Bellingcat have played a lead role in disseminating and “verifying” dubious, if not outright fraudulent, material and claims related to the conflict.
Just over a week after Russia’s February 24, 2022 invasion, Grozev confidently declared that Moscow’s war-fighting resources would be spent by March 6th, at which time Russian forces would “collapse.” Over a year later, the gears of the Russian war machine are still churning away.
By the end of March 2022, Bellingcat had fed the Wall Street Journal an entirely bogus tale, asserting that oligarch Roman Abramovich and two Ukrainian negotiators who had been trying to broker peace between their two countries were poisoned.
The finding was the result of an investigation reportedly organized by Grozev, who claimed to have seen the images of the effects of the attack. He further alleged that “too much time had passed for the suspected poison to be detected by the time a German forensic team was able to perform an examination,” accounting for why his assertions could not be verified by authorities.
“It was not intended to kill, it was just a warning,” Grozev falsely declared.
Though Ukrainian and US officials quickly dismissed the story as fantasy, Grozev was not deterred. In late April 2022, while appearing on a charity telethon for Kiev, he claimed to have “personally checked,” and found that Russia had already lost “90%” of the “highest quality, important and essential part of its army, without which it is impossible to conquer key infrastructure facilities.”
For the families of those killed at Kanatove airfield, and the countless conscripts who have lost their lives under Russian artillery fire in Bakhmut, such comments must seem like a sick joke.
Bellingcat’s Grozev spins a cinematic yarn
On July 25th 2022, Moscow’s state-owned news agency TASS reported that Russia’s FSB security agency had thwarted a Ukrainian operation to steal Russian aircraft, “supervised by NATO.”
Intelligence officers acting on behalf of Kiev’s political leadership reportedly approached Russian military pilots in secret, offering them millions of dollars and citizenship of an EU country of their choosing in return for deliveries of aircraft such as Su-24s and Su-34s.
Several pilots appeared to take the bait. And it turned out that Bellingcat’s Christo Grozev had been helping to cultivate the turncoats through a series of exchanges on encrypted messaging apps.
However, the FSB had apparently infiltrated the plot from the outset, and were using discussions over defection to glean sensitive information from the Ukrainians. This yield then helped the Russian air force to “inflict fire damage on a number of Ukrainian military facilities.”
The Russian strike on Ukraine’s Kanatove airfield, and the SBU’s criminal investigation of the incident, tends to confirm that version of events. However, in the wake of the TASS report, Grozev offered a radically different tale: a “crazier-than-fiction story of triple-agents, fake passports and faux girlfriends.”
The Bellingcat staffer claimed that after Kiev passed a law in April offering financial incentives to Russians to surrender and hand over weapons and vehicles, “a team of Ukrainian operatives decided to approach Russian pilots with an offer based on this law.” Bellingcat miraculously “found out about the initiative” and secured a “front seat” to make a documentary about a “brazen operation.”
Grozev and company then watched as Russian pilots were successfully lured into providing “proof-of-access” videos from inside their planes, some of which were “quite detailed and enlightening,” as they prepared to defect. It was only then that the FSB became involved, as the Ukrainians learned later on. At this point, the plot morphed into a “double ‘operational game’ in which both sides were trying to extract maximum information from the other, while feeding them maximum disinfo.”
The Ukrainians peddled the FSB “fake maps of their anti-aircraft deployments, as well as disinfo on the operational airstrips.” They even convinced the security service to send one of the pilot’s wives, “along with a whole FSB tailing team,” to Minsk, Belarus for an in-person meeting. When nobody showed up, the Russians realized they had been “burned,” the Ukrainians realized they were not “getting a real pilot,” and the “mutual-deceit game came to an end.”
“While Russia is presenting today this as a coup for its counter intelligence, in fact the operation was a serious blunder for the FSB, disclosing unintentionally identities of dozens of counter intel officers, their methods of operation, and their undercover assets,” Grozev boldly declared.
After pushback, Grozev changes his story
The narrative Grozev spun out was marred by several obvious problems. How did Bellingcat learn of a secret Ukrainian operation? Why were outsiders – particularly ostensibly independent journalists – encouraged by the plotters to film a documentary on the operation as it was being conducted? Why did Grozev wait for the FSB to get the first word, if the plot was such a stunning success for the Ukrainians?
Perhaps most pertinently of all, if Bellingcat played no active part in the connivance and were simply observers, how did the Russians learn of their presence, to be able to falsely accuse Grozev of involvement?
Even if Grozev’s version of events were true, it provides numerous indications that Bellingcat assisted the so-called “Ukrainian operatives.”
For example, one of the pilots sent the Ukrainians a photo of his “lover,” whom he wished to take with him when he defected. Grozev boasted that it took him “about five minutes” to discover that the woman was in reality “an FSB girlfriend-for-hire.” Did he keep this information siloed from the “operatives”? Would Grozev really not share this revelation with the supposed subjects of his “documentary”?
While many took Grozev’s unbelievable fable at face value, several of Bellingcat’s normally deferential mainstream boosters began asking if the organization’s involvement with “Ukrainian operatives” placed it in direct quarters with the SBU and GUR. At this point, Grozev felt compelled to issue a clarification. He claimed neither agency was involved, and if either had been, “there’d be no way we would – or want to – get access to it.”
Instead, Grozev contended the Ukrainians in contact with Bellingcat had been “maverick ex-operatives” who he met during a previous investigation, and that they were acting independently of the government and security services. As such, he claimed the FSB’s counterintelligence wing was “fighting tooth and nail against a bunch of, essentially, volunteers.”
Grozev’s clunky narrative raised far more suspicion than it allayed. It is inconceivable that such a sensitive attempt to secure defections during wartime would be conducted without state authorization or knowledge. This is particularly the case if defections are sought under the terms of a dedicated government program providing financial incentives for switching sides and handing over military hardware.
Offers of money and EU citizenship for the pilots and their “lovers” would have necessarily needed to be approved by Kiev. Even if the Ukrainian “ex-operatives” ultimately intended to betray the defectors and not provide what they promised, the Ukrainian military would have by definition needed to agree to the pilots’ arrival, and their planned flightpaths, in advance. Otherwise, their jets would be shot down before they landed.
In any event, not providing the pilots with what was offered would inevitably deter any further defections from the Russian side, therefore sabotaging the government’s high-profile incentive scheme outright.
Bonfire of security officials suggests state involvement
In a curious twist, just hours after Grozev deployed a blizzard of excuses, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky fired the First Deputy Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, Ruslan Demchenko, and Special Operations Forces (SSO) commander Hryhoriy Halahan. Both positions are directly related to clandestine operations, such as attempts to facilitate Russian military defections.
The firings followed the surprise canning of Zelensky’s childhood friend and close confidante, Ivan Bakanov, as SBU chief on July 17th 2022. Bakanov was officially dismissed under Article 47 of the Disciplinary Statute of the Armed Forces of Ukraine: “non-performance (improper performance) of official duties, which caused human casualties or other serious consequences or created a threat of such consequences.” The grounds for his termination echo the charges faced by the unnamed Ukrainian servicemen.
It is not hard to imagine the righteous fury that would have erupted in Mariinskyi Palace if Zelensky were told the FSB had stitched up a plot to recruit Russian pilots and their cutting-edge fighter jets. Public confirmation on July 25 that the conspiracy had been a setup all along would have provided ample grounds for the firing of Demchenko and Halahan.
This March, Yahoo News published a lengthy investigation supporting Grozev’s claims that the Ukrainians involved were mere “volunteers,” and that Russian pilots had indeed been planning to defect, only for the FSB to catch them and step in. However, the report also revealed that substantial amounts of money had been sent to the pilots to convince them to defect. The sums were so high, it is almost inconceivable Kiev did not pay them, reinforcing the interpretation that the mission was state-approved.
While basing its story exclusively on testimony and material supplied by an unnamed “volunteer,” Yahoo News nonetheless acknowledged at least one of the pilots may have been working for the FSB all along. Moreover, it claimed some of the pilots could still be active in the Ukraine war, which obviously would not be the case if they had ever seriously intended to defect.
Did careless disclosures from the “volunteer” to Yahoo News play any role in triggering the SBU’s sudden move to prosecute the individuals involved? It would by definition silence them, killing off any and all suggestions the cataclysm was Kiev’s own doing. Alternatively, with Western military aid running out and the Pentagon and mainstream media alike acknowledging Russia’s air force will soon fly effectively unopposed in Ukrainian airspace, it may be necessary to find people to blame.
Grozev has remained eerily silent about the SBU’s criminal investigation. It would be reasonable to expect a “documentarian” with such a candid, insider view of what went down to be a suspect, or at least a witness, in such a probe. Should he and his fellow laptop jockeys not be charged with assisting reckless actions of “individual servicemen” that cost lives, it would strongly suggest Bellingcat enjoys some degree of protection from Ukrainian security and intelligence services.
While Bellingcat and Christo Grozev seek to downplay their role in a high-level Ukrainian intelligence operation, their website continues to refer to their organization as “an independent investigative collective.”