On July 25, Russian state media reported that the FSB had foiled a plot by Ukrainian military intelligence to convince Russian pilots to defect with their aircraft. While this was presented as a triumph of Russian counter-intelligence, the true chain of events in question may not be as straightforward as Russian sources claim, even if the circumstances remain murky.
What did the FSB Claim?
According to claims by the FSB’s public relations office published by Russian state news agencies, Moscow “disrupted” an operation supposedly conducted by Ukrainian military intelligence to convince Russian pilots to defect to Ukrainian airfields with cash rewards and promises of citizenship in an EU country. The FSB’s report claimed that Russian pilots were offered as much as $2 million to defect with their advanced aircraft, and were promised special assistance to their wives for them to emigrate to an EU country. According to such reports, the operation was supported by top echelons of Ukraine’s political leadership and had Western support.
To amalgamate its claims of the alleged Ukrainian operation, the FSB produced a video that included what was described as communications between Russian pilots and Ukrainian military intelligence. The video included chatlogs negotiating the defection of pilots to Ukraine, including attempts at photo verification in which Russian pilots would take a picture of their aircraft with a number given to them by their Ukrainian interlocutors. According to the FSB, the disruption of the alleged plan allowed Russia to discern the location of Ukrainian airfields and air defenses.
What is the Truth about the FSB’s Claims?
With such a wide-ranging set of claims, the FSB and Russian state media have attempted to paint a picture of an ambitious operation, which they took down. However, many details of Russia’s claims raise questions about the veracity of the FSB’s reports. In a lengthy Twitter thread on July 25, Christo Grozev, who is the independent investigative outlet Bellingcat’s lead Russia investigator, posted a series of rebuttals to Russia’s claims. Grozev himself was accused by the FSB of being intimately involved in the operation and was labeled an associate of the UK’s MI6.
According to Grozev, the Ukrainian organizers of the scheme to encourage Russian defections weren’t representatives of Ukraine’s civilian or military intelligence at all, but rather were “maverick” Ukrainian ex-operatives who organized the so-called “Wagnergate” project to ensnare Russian mercenaries in Belarus in 2020. However, while the Bellingcat investigator noted that the pilot scheme had approached Russian pilots and even received sensitive photos of Russian aircraft as confirmation, the FSB quickly became involved and attempted to use the operation to its own advantage to gather as much information as it possibly could from the Ukrainian side. While not officially sanctioned, according to Grozev, the scheme to attract Russian pilots was based on a Ukrainian law passed by Ukraine’s Rada in April which established payouts to Russian troops who defect with certain equipment.
So, What Actually Happened?
It does not appear that any Russian pilots actually defected under the scheme, and there is no evidence that any pilots who spoke with operatives on the Ukrainian side moved their defection inquiries beyond the talking stage. Significant questions exist about whether any pilots earnestly inquired about defection independently, or if they were cooperating with the FSB the entire time. If a pilot were to be caught in a defection attempt, his punishment would undoubtedly be harsh, to say the least.
It appears that both sides of the scheme used it to gather information on their adversary, but it is unclear if any of the information gathered would be of practical use. According to Grozev, the information funneled to Russia’s FSB by the plan’s organizers on Ukrainian air defenses and operational airfields was false information, which the FSB nonetheless said was factual in its report.
We may not know for some time what either party intended to get out of its plan once both sides realized that the other saw what was transpiring. While Bellingcat’s planned documentary on the subject will undoubtedly shed some light on the incident, much information on this bizarre back-and-forth between Russia’s FSB and the Ukrainians will likely remain locked away in FSB archives at the Lubyanka for some time to come.
Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill as well as in the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.