New revelations in the sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipeline in September 2022 have strengthened the case for Kyiv’s involvement, with a controversial Ukrainian secret agent alleged to have been the brains behind the operation. Although Kyiv continues to deny responsibility, there is little doubt that the Ukrainian intelligence services are playing a very special role in the war against Russia.
New “proof” of Ukrainian involvement in the sabotage of the Nord Stream I and II natural gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea was published by the Washington Post and German magazine Der Spiegel on Saturday November 11. The two publications claimed to have identified the Ukrainian “mastermind” behind the explosive operation.
Roman Chervinsky, a veteran Ukrainian spy, is alleged to have “coordinated” the team of six saboteurs suspected of setting off explosive charges near the Nord Stream pipelines on September 26, 2022, several sources – “both Ukrainian and among the international teams of security experts connected to this case” – told the two publications, according to Der Spiegel.
‘Hothead’ or ‘patriot’?
This 48-year-old expert in “clandestine actions” was a controversial figure even before his name came up in the pipeline affair. Chervinsky has been in pre-trial detention in Kyiv since April 2023, awaiting trial for his involvement in a high-risk operation that ended in disaster for Ukraine’s intelligence services.
Chervinsky is accused of having attempted to recruit a Russian pilot in the summer of 2022 amid a broader campaign to lure potential defectors. It soon became clear that the pilot remained only too loyal to Moscow. Instead of flying to Ukraine as promised, he apparently provided the coordinates of a military airport to the Russians, who wasted no time in bombing it. At that time, Chervinsky had joined the Ukrainian army’s ‘special forces’, specialists in intelligence and sabotage operations.
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This failure pushed the Ukrainian authorities to distance themselves from their spy, claiming that he had gone off on his own and exceeded his prerogatives. Since then, Chervinsky has been seen by some Ukrainians as a “risk-taker” who endangers national security. His defenders, however, hail him as a “great patriot” who pulled off one of the Ukraininan intelligence services’ greatest coups in 2019 after he had succeeded in capturing a “Russian witness” supposedly in possession of evidence showing Russian involvement in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in the skies over the Donbas in 2014.
When contacted for comment by the Washington Post and Der Spiegel, Chervinsky, speaking through his lawyers, accused “Russian propaganda” of trying to frame him for the Nord Stream sabotage. Kyiv, for its part, refused to comment on the “revelations” published by the two Western media outlets.
These new developments are a reminder that behind the trench warfare taking place in Ukraine, a shadow war is also being fought between the countries’ intelligence services. Because, notwithstanding the imbroglio behind Chervinsky’s alleged involvement, the fact remains that, faced with the vast Russian spy machine, Ukraine’s secret agents “have shown themselves to be up to the task”, according to Jeff Hawn, an expert on Russian security issues and a non-resident fellow at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, a think-tank based in Washington, DC.
“Their actions have a strategic impact on the course of the conflict,” he said.
Soviet Union’s long shadow
Hawn said that the Ukrainian intelligence services seemed to have come a long way since their dark days following the fall of the Soviet Union.
“Before 2014, they were really kind of a joke,” he said. “The SBU [Security Service of Ukraine] was used to spy on political enemies – and was corrupt.”
These criticisms apply equally to the two main intelligence agencies, the SBU, the counter-espionage service that reports to the interior ministry, and the GUR, the military intelligence agency, he said.
After the pro-European Maidan revolution in 2014 and Kyiv’s geopolitical slide to the West, the situation changed. The wave of state modernisation that swept the country has not left the intelligence services behind, even if their Soviet heritage – Ukraine had been the KGB’s second-most important centre of operations in the former Soviet republics – has made the task all the more difficult.
One of the main innovations of the past decade has been the addition of a third branch to Ukraine’s burgeoning espionage. In 2016, the army created its own agency, the Special Operations Forces (SSO), supposed to be made up of elite fighters.
Chervinsky’s career shows the extent to which the three services can step on each other’s toes. As Der Spiegel points out, the spy held similar positions in both the SUB and the GUR before joining the special forces.
Since Russia’s full-scale offensive in February 2022, the operations attributed to Ukrainian agents have shown a mode of operations inspired by Western methods combined “with an almost suicidal approach reminiscent of what KGB agents were ready to do to fulfill their mission”, said Jenny Mathers, a specialist in Russian intelligence services at Aberystwyth University in Wales.
For her, the most surprising operation was the August 2022 assassination of Daria Dugina, the daughter of ultranationalist ideologue Alexander Dugin, which the US believes to have been the work of Ukrainian agents.
“It’s kind of a strange use of precious resources to go after someone like Dugina, who isn’t a prime war target per se,” Mathers said.
At first glance, the sabotage operations launched against the Crimean Bridge and the assassination on Russian soil of submarine commander Vladislav Rzhitsky in July 2023, who was accused of having ordered a missile strike on a Ukrainian town that saw more than 20 civilian deaths, seem to be more in line with the war’s objectives.
But “the big picture seems to be that they are dividing their resources between targets that clearly disrupt the war effort … and other targets with a less direct goal”, Mathers said.
“It’s more about demonstrations of force, showing that they can hit close to Putin’s inner circle. A bit of a psychological game with Russia,” she said.
The sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline could be a part of this same logic: proving that the Ukrainian secret services can hit Russian interests, no matter where.
For Mathers, it is still too early to evaluate the impact of all these operations on the course of the conflict. But even if “it won’t be decisive, like a tank breaking the defense line, it will have a strategic effect”, Hawn said: Ukraine’s spies are a constant irritant for the Russians, never letting them forget that the war is also being fought far from the front lines.
This article has been adapted from the original in French.