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Opinion A deadly, devious intelligence war unfolds in Ukraine

A Ukrainian serviceman stands at his position at the line of separation between Ukraine-held territory and rebel-held territory near Svitlodarsk in eastern Ukraine on Feb. 23. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)
4 min

Against Russia’s brazen assault on Ukraine, the Biden administration has tried to fight back with aggressive use of intelligence. But beware: Two can play this game, and history shows the Russians are ruthless masters of covert operations in this region.

The Ukraine spy wars, so far, have taken place mostly in what Russians like to call the “information space” — and the performance by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies has been dazzling. They’ve penetrated Russia’s wall of secrecy to expose its military planning, its “false flag” plots and even its plans for targeted killings and kidnappings of Ukrainian leaders.

Heads must be spinning in the Kremlin — and perhaps rolling, too — as Russian President Vladimir Putin sees his state secrets broadcast on the nightly news. These disruptive disclosures have continued up to the eve of what U.S. officials predict will be an all-out invasion.

But Russia plays a very long and devious game in intelligence, and there’s no better example than Ukraine during the Cold War’s first years. The CIA was patting itself on the back for aggressive operations there in the early 1950s — but it turned out they were nearly all penetrated and manipulated by Moscow.

The Ukrainian partisans were seduced back then by unrealistic U.S. promises. “The Ukrainian resistance had no hope of winning unless America was prepared to go to war on its behalf. Since America was not prepared to go to war, America was in effect encouraging Ukrainians to go to their deaths,” John Ranelagh explains in his 1986 history “The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA.”

What makes this spy history relevant now is that support for a Ukrainian insurgency is a little-discussed part of the Biden administration’s plan for combating an all-out Russian invasion. The aim is to make Ukraine an indigestible “porcupine” for Russian occupiers. That sounds good, given Russian and U.S. difficulties in combating insurgencies in Afghanistan and in Iraq. But this strategy has some significant weaknesses that need a frank examination now, before it’s too late.

Let’s start with the urgent problem of how the United States and its allies would protect the Ukrainian insurgents. The Biden administration warned the United Nations this past weekend: “We have credible information that indicates Russian forces are creating lists of identified Ukrainians to be killed or sent to camps following military occupation.” The administration also warned the U.N. that the Russians “will likely use lethal measures to disperse peaceful protests.”

Forewarned is forearmed. So, hopefully, the CIA and other friendly intelligence agencies are reaching out to Ukrainians who would be potential targets of this “kill list” and helping to protect them. But beyond the horrific violence of an all-out invasion, there would be a very dirty war in the shadows.

The biggest problem for Ukraine and its allies is that Russia knows this battlespace well — and undoubtedly has been recruiting a network of Ukrainian double agents. These agents can sow havoc for a resistance movement by revealing its leaders, safe houses, communications and plans of attack. And it gets worse: A trademark of Russian intelligence, for a century, has been its ability to manipulate resistance groups in Ukraine and elsewhere so that they were actually controlled by the Kremlin.

Drawing on a CIA internal history, Evan Thomas describes in his book “The Very Best Men” how the CIA parachuted operatives into Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains, starting in 1949. “These were hopeless missions; the Kremlin’s highly efficient security services rounded up the infiltrators as they crushed the resistance movements,” Thomas writes. He quotes a CIA officer involved in the operation who describes it as “a horrible mistake.”

Tim Weiner, in his 2007 history of the agency, “Legacy of Ashes,” also draws on CIA accounts to explain the grisly consequences: “The CIA dispatched dozens of Ukrainian agents by air and by land. Almost everyone was captured. Soviet intelligence officers used the prisoners to feed back disinformation — all’s well, send more guns, more money, more men. Then they killed them.”

The reason these British and U.S. operations were so vulnerable was that the Russians had “penetrated” two supposed Ukrainian resistance movements, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the National Labor Alliance, according to Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky in their 1990 book, “KGB: The Inside Story.” After the movements were crushed, Soviet operatives tracked down two leaders, the NLA’s Lev Rebet and the OUN’s Stepan Bandera, and killed them with poison gas, in 1957 and 1959, respectively.

Perhaps the Ukrainians will be able to field a strong, prickly resistance movement in the weeks ahead. But history teaches that this porcupine may have internal parasites — and that it will be pursued by a very sharp-toothed fox.