Russia’s Recruitment of Ukrainian Spies: Extortion, Threats, Fear, and Traitors

Russia’s Recruitment of Ukrainian Spies: Extortion, Threats, Fear, and Traitors

KYIV — The Ukrainian soldier had been fighting the Russians on the battlefield when they came for his parents in occupied eastern Ukraine. They were taken from their home and tortured, according to Ukraine’s security service. Then, a Russian agent contacted the soldier with an ultimatum: Switch sides and spy for Russia, or his family would suffer more harm.

The soldier eventually agreed to help Russia, according to the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU. Acting on instructions from his Russian handler, the SBU said in a press release, the soldier planned to add a poisonous substance to the water supply of the laundry complex used by senior officers.

The agency said it had thwarted the soldier’s plot to poison the Ukrainian military command in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region after the Russians had threatened his family. He has been charged with treason and faces life imprisonment.

The incident sheds light on a tactic Russia’s security services are using to recruit Ukrainians.

Moscow’s initial plan was to have its agents infiltrate the highest levels of Ukrainian society ahead of its invasion and then seize power from within. But most of those people were either weeded out by Ukrainian law enforcement or fled on their own in the first months after Russia’s invasion.

Now, more than two years into the war, there are fewer Ukrainians with pro-Russian sympathies, especially in positions of influence, willing to help Moscow.

Videos, documents and text message exchanges provided to The Washington Post by SBU officials and Ukrainians contacted by individuals claiming to represent Russia’s special services revealed that in many cases the Russians used extortion to force Ukrainians to work for them — by threatening family members who still live under Russian occupation or who have been taken prisoner.

The Post is not fully identifying the SBU officials or the other individuals because publishing their names could put them in danger, and would also risk the safety of family members in Russian captivity or living under Russian occupation.

While some Ukrainians have access to top officials and valuable information, such as the soldier in Zaporizhzhia, many are just everyday people with no training or experience in espionage. Instructions from the Russian handlers have included reporting on the movement of military equipment or confirming that a missile struck its target.

In a war in which the battle lines have moved little in the past year, any kernel of information can provide an edge.

The Ukrainian soldier — the SBU has not disclosed his identity — communicated with someone from the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, through the Telegram encrypted messaging app. In text messages that the SBU has made public, the FSB agent asked the soldier to provide information on his military unit — what its tasks were, who was part of the command structure and photos of their positions.

“We don’t ask the sort of information we don’t have to know,” the soldier replied in one message. “It can cause suspicion.”

“You don’t have to ask anything,” the FSB handler replied. “Take photos of the materiel your unit has.”

Extortion isn’t a new method used by Russian security services, but it has become more widespread as Russia has occupied roughly 20 percent of Ukraine and taken thousands of prisoners. SBU officials said the Russians will send photos and videos to family members of prisoners of war, sometimes showing the prisoner with a gun to their head.

One victim of such threats was Yana, whose mother was a Ukrainian border guard in the northeast Kharkiv region when Russia invaded. The mother was immediately taken prisoner, but months later, Yana received strange messages from her mother’s phone. At first, the person on the other end was polite, Yana said, promising that her mother would not be harmed. But in exchange they wanted information, and asked if Yana saw any military equipment in her Kharkiv neighborhood.

The tone changed after Yana refused to answer.

“The Russians are angry,” one message said. “There’s one woman, many men,” another said.

Yana then received a call from her mother. She told Yana that she needed to respond to the messages.

“She said her life depended on it,” Yana said.

Yana’s mother was eventually released and no longer lives under Russian occupation after Ukraine recaptured most of the Kharkiv region in September 2022.

In other cases, however, the Russians took Ukrainian prisoners with them as they retreated. One was an elderly man. Months after he was taken captive, his son received a Telegram message from an unknown number with a picture of the old man. The sender deleted the message seconds later. The Post is not identifying the son because his father remains a Russian prisoner.

“He looked so thin, like he’d been in a concentration camp,” he said. “The next message was, ‘If you want your father to live, you’ll work for us.’”

The son stalled, asking for more time to think. But the SBU caught wind of what the Russians were attempting and contacted the man before he could pass any information, a counterintelligence official said. Now, the SBU monitors the son’s communications with the Russians and directs his replies so it seems like he is cooperating.

Had the SBU not intervened, the son said, he would have done what the Russians asked. He lives in fear now, worried that he is being watched and that the Russians will find out that he spoke to Ukrainian law enforcement.

“It was all a shock,” he said. “I didn’t know what to tell them so that they wouldn’t hurt him.”

Even if they are reacting to brutal extortion, Ukrainians who agree to spy for Russia face harsh prison time.

An SBU counterintelligence officer who has investigated such cases said he “feels sorry” for people whose family members are threatened, but said they should contact the authorities as soon as Russian special services make contact, “to make it impossible or minimize the damage from the barbaric actions” of the Russians.

In that case, they will be treated as victims, not traitors. “If a person does not act in this way, he or she should understand that his actions are subject to criminal liability,” the officer said.

Despite Russia’s attacks on peaceful Ukrainian cities, some Ukrainians do not need to be pressured to betray their country. Dmytro Logvinov, 60, had long been a “Russophile,” his father said, despite having been born and living in Kharkiv. In 2009, he even became a Russian citizen.

When the invasion started, Logvinov contacted a cousin, a former Russian military officer in Belgorod, just across the border, and offered to help the invaders. The cousin eventually connected him to “Maksim,” who became Dmytro’s FSB handler. At one point, Dmytro sent Maksim a selfie video talking about the wonderful weather in Kharkiv as a building burned in the background from a missile strike — confirmation for the Russians that their target had been hit.

Another time, Dmytro, who worked as a security guard, said foreigners were living in a Kharkiv hotel, making the site a target.

Dmytro was arrested by the SBU shortly after that. Outside a courthouse in Kharkiv where Dmytro was on trial for treason, his father, Eduard Logvinov, dialed a number for Maksim, the handler. He didn’t pick up.

An SBU counterintelligence official had provided the number. “Maksim’s” real name was Andrei Salitsev, according to the SBU, which also provided The Post a copy of the fake passport with a different surname that the SBU said he used. The FSB did not respond to a request for comment.

Salitsev had assured Dmytro that Russia would protect him even if he was caught, Eduard Logvinov said. But after Dmytro’s arrest, the handler stopped answering.

The SBU officer gave Eduard a number for Salitsev’s mother and encouraged him to call. Maybe she could pass a message to her son, the officer said. She picked up.

“His only way out now is if Russia tries to do a prisoner exchange for him,” Eduard told the woman. “He was working on behalf of Russia, and he was in contact with your son as his agent. Can you tell your son to help move this process along from the Russian side?”

“What is Andrei’s last name?” Eduard asked the woman.

“I won’t tell you that,” she answered. “He gets angry with me — he says I shouldn’t tell that to people.”

“Is it Salitsev?” Eduard asked.

“Well, yes,” she said.

He’s in “a different country,” she said, adding she has barely had contact with him for the past six months.

Less than a week after the call, Dmytro was sentenced to 15 years for treason.

“After those people are arrested, they basically forget about them,” said the SBU officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in keeping with security service protocols. “The Russians just move on to looking for someone else.”

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