Behind Zelenskyy's Security Shakeup
A deep and continuing rot of treason imperils Ukraine's battle against the Russians
When Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale assault on Ukraine in February, he really did believe that his operation to seize Kyiv would last less than a week. That’s largely because Putin has spent decades cultivating Ukrainian officials, oligarchs and political parties to impede Kyiv’s move toward democracy and independence from Russia. But they failed him. Even before the invasion, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had been moving to crush Putin's agents. And in mid-July, he doubled down on his counter-subversion campaign.
One of the parties Zelenskyy moved on was led by Putin’s close ally, Viktor Medvedchuk, who was supposed to take reign of the Ukrainian government had Putin’s plot of assassinating President Zelenskyy succeeded. He was arrested right after the invasion and is under investigation for treason.
Medvedchuk’s ascension would have required Kyiv’s quick capitulation. But that calculation, based on sources Putin had cultivated for decades inside Ukraine’s security services, who were expected to provide the invaders with logistical support and secrets about Kyiv’s defenses, turned out to be off the mark. What Putin and his agents miscalculated was the sheer determination and courage of Ukraine’s military and civil society to fight for democracy, freedom, and their land. But now, as Ukraine enters the sixth month of the war, Zelenskyy is still grappling with the challenge of finding and rooting out domestic traitors.
That became clear on July 17, when Zelenskyy announced the dismissal of Ivan Bakanov, the head of Ukraine’s powerful domestic security service, the SBU, as well as Irina Venediktova, his Prosecutor General.
Zelenskyy said that his decisions were based on the sheer volume of treason cases and cooperation with Russia that had been uncovered. He said that “651 criminal proceedings have been registered in Ukraine on charges of treason and collaboration activities of employees of the prosecutor's office, pre-trial investigation, and other law enforcement agencies. In the framework of 198 criminal proceedings, suspicions were [raised with] the relevant persons.” Zelenskyy added that over 60 employees of the prosecutor's office and the SBU had remained in territories occupied by Russia and were working "against our state."
Bakanov’s dismissal was not much of a surprise, following as it did the arrest of the former head of the SBU’s Crimea branch, Oleg Kulinich, only days before. But Venediktova’s dismissal at the same time was particularly unexpected.
“Both decisions came quite unexpectedly,” said Olena Halushka, a board member of Ukraine’s Anti-corruption Action Centre, or AntAC. “There were rumors of the possible firing of Bakanov due to serious questions about the SBU work, particularly during the first weeks of the war. But Venediktova's dismissal was not preceded by any recent major scandals.”
The reasons behind her sacking remain murky, compounded by Zelenskyy’s subsequent statement that she would remain in the government in a potential diplomatic role. He also emphasized that Bakanov, a childhood friend and longtime associate, was not suspected of committing any crimes.
But the high level shuffle provoked swift criticism.
“These dismissals were done in a political manner, which again reminds us that the process of hiring and firing the heads of such important agencies should be depoliticized,” said Halushka, who is also co-founder of the International Center of Ukrainian Victory, established after the invasion to rally international support for Kyiv’s battle against the Russians. ”So far, only acting heads of both institutions have been appointed, so it is important to follow them with permanent ones.”
A Trail of Perfidy
The SBU has long been mired in scandal and drawn scrutiny from activists calling for reform. Right after the start of Russia’s invasion, reports began surfacing of some SBU agents assisting its troops in capturing towns.
Halushka doesn’t believe that Zelenskyy’s recent SBU firings will lead to major change.
“The president announced a number of dismissals among the senior level leadership in the SBU, but this will hardly lead to any substantial changes or solving the underlying issues of the agency's work,” Halushka told me. “It needs comprehensive reform, which we have been advocating for the last five years and which has not happened yet. It will be back on the public agenda after the Ukrainian victory.”
As for the role the SBU played during invasion, a source privately told me that the “successes by Russia in the early days, to capture Mariupol and Kherson, happened because of Ukrainian officials in key positions assisting them, including SBU agents.”
The July 16th arrest of the former head of the SBU in Crimea, Oleg Kulinich, accused of cooperating with Russian special services in Kherson, sparked new focus on the agency. According to investigators, Kulinich handed Russian intelligence an unspecified state secret.
“Kulinich was a member of a certain criminal organization that was engaged in espionage and subversive activities against Ukraine,” they said in a statement. “The actions of the group harmed the sovereignty, territorial integrity and inviolability, the defense capability [and] the economic and information security of our state,” the SBU added.
Kulinich was head of the SBU Crimea office from October 2020 to March 2022. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the office was relocated to Kherson. Kulinich, who studied at the Academy of the FSB of Russia and did military service in the Federal Counterintelligence Service of the Russian Federation, is suspected of being involved in the Russian military’s rapid capture of the Kherson region, which was launched from Crimea.
One of Kulinich's aides, Ihor Sadokhin, assistant and head of the local office’s Anti-Terrorist Center, was detained in March on charges of treason. There is evidence that Sadokhin gave the Russian forces a map of minefields and helped coordinate a flight path for Russia’s aircraft, while he fled in a convoy of SBU agents going west. A month later, his boss, Kherson’s top intelligence officer, General Serhiy Krivoruchko, was stripped of his rank, Aljazeera reported. It was alleged Krivoruchko had ordered his officers to evacuate Kherson against Zelenskyy’s orders, before Russian troops stormed it.
Zelenskyy’s focus on SBU began in March, shortly after Russia’s full-scale invasion, when the president announced the firing of two of Ukraine’s top security officials for being “traitors.”
“Regarding antiheroes,” he said in a speech. “Now, I do not have time to deal with all the traitors. But gradually they will all be punished. That is why the ex-chief of the Main Department of Internal Security of the Security Service of Ukraine, Andriy Olehovych Naumov, and the former head of the Office of the Security Service of Ukraine in the Kherson region, Serhiy Oleksandrovych Kryvoruchko, are no longer generals.”
In mid-June, news surfaced of Andriy Naumov’s arrest in Serbia, after fleeing Ukraine on the eve of Russia’s full-scale invasion. Sources told the Ukrainian media outlet Obozrevatel that Naumov, along with a German citizen, were detained on June 7 on the border between Serbia and Northern Macedonia for attempting to smuggle a large amount of undeclared currency and gems across the border.
War Crimes Urgency
The Deputy Head of GolosZmin party, Inna Sovsun, told me that the role of the Prosecutor General’s office is more crucial than ever in the investigations of Russia’s war crimes.
Its “core mission now is of course putting forth its best effort in investigating Russian war crimes and being efficient in giving powerful evidence during international investigations and trials,” she said. “The Russian occupiers committed awful crimes—killing, torturing and raping thousands of Ukrainians. There are no other words other than genocide to describe what has already happened and what it still going on.”
Halushka doesn’t believe the firing of Venediktova will have an impact on the war crimes investigations. But she said it “will depend on whether there will be any personnel changes in the departments responsible for war crimes investigations. At the moment there have been no changes.”
Venediktova’s replacement, Oleksiy Symonenko, may be in for some hard times. A parliamentary deputy from the European Solidarity party, Volodymyr Ariev, essentially accused him of political corruption. Others have publicly complained that Zelenskyy’s removal of the two top officials is not enough. One parliamentarian demanded he “deal with all the rats in power…”
Vitaly Shabunin, head of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, was also critical of the reshuffle and wrote that “the President explains the dismissal of Venediktova and Bakanov by a large number of traitors in the SBU and UCP (Office of the Prosecutor General).” But he said Zelenskyy should also have fired Oleh Tatarov, head of the national crime-fighting State Bureau of Investigation, who has been holding up key appointments to several anti-corruption agencies.
Meanwhile, in the United States, a Ukrainian born Republican member of Congress, Rep. Victoria Spartz of Indiana, raised eyebrows recently when she publicly demanded Zelenskyy fire his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, accusing him of being a Russian agent.
In a letter addressed to President Joe Biden and posted on social media, Spartz demanded Biden provide Congress with information on Yermak to "confirm or deny various serious allegations" surrounding him. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), leader of the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus, dismissed Spartz’s accusations as "wild narratives" and said she was “playing into Putin’s hands.”
Spartz received the same reaction in Ukraine, where many voiced concerns that the congresswoman was spreading Kremlin propaganda. An advisor to Zelenskyy, Igor Novikov, called Spartz’s claims a mix of "hearsay and urban legends and myths." In response, Spartz doubled down, calling on Yermak to quit and accusing him of launching a “smear campaign” against her.
Now, with the Russian invasion is entering its sixth month, rooting out subversives is critical to Ukraine’s chances for survival. Yet the success of the endeavor largely falls on the shoulders of an agency that itself has been shown to be infected by spies. It’s imperative, says the GolosZmin party deputy leader Inna Sovsun, that Zelenskyy put the SBU in safe hands.
“I hope the President understands very well the importance of all these issues now,” she told me, “and that there won't be any aspects other than the highest professionalism and competence when choosing the best candidates” as replacements for the traitors.
Olga Lautman is an analyst and researcher focused on the Kremlin, organized crime, intelligence and Eastern Europe, She is also a Senior Fellow at The Center for European Policy Analysis and Co-Host of the Kremlin File podcast.
SpyTalk is a reader-supported publication. To support our work, please consider becoming a free or, even better, a paid subscriber.