Security Service of Ukraine

Security Service of Ukraine (Служба безпеки України; Sluzhba bezpeky Ukrainy or СБУ; SBU). Since 20 September 1991, successor to, and replacement for, the Committee for State Security (Комітет державної безпеки; Komitet derzhavnoi bezpeky or КДБ; KDB), up to that time a branch of the USSR KGB. Under the law on the SBU passed by the Supreme Council of Ukraine on 25 March 1992, it is one of the law-enforcement bodies of Ukraine, but charged specifically with responsibility for state security. Its broad mandate includes the detection of crimes against the peace and security of the population, terrorism, corruption and organized crime, and other unlawful acts constituting ‘a threat to the vitally important interests of Ukraine’ (art 1). In amplification, the law includes among the tasks of the SBU defense of sovereignty and the constitutional order, of the country’s territorial integrity and its scientific, technological, and military potential, as well as protecting the state and its citizens against subversion by foreigners. Unlike its predecessor, the SBU is required to abide by the law, to respect civil and human rights, to be non-partisan, and to be accountable to the public. Monitoring of the activities of the SBU is shared by the appropriate parliamentary committee, whom the SBU head regularly informs about security matters, and by the president, to whom he likewise submits an annual written report.

The head of the service is appointed by the Supreme Council of Ukraine, following nomination by the president. He is ex officio a member of the Council for National Security and Defense (RNBOU). Yevhen Marchuk was the SBU’s first head (1991–94), followed by Valerii Malikov (1994–95), Volodymyr Radchenko (1995–98 and 2001–3), Leonid Derkach (1998–2001), Ihor Smeshko (2003–4), and others. The present (2020) head of the SBU is Ivan Bakanov. The SBU is a military-style organization, all its officers being designated by ranks.

SBU heads had prominent political careers under President Leonid Kuchma. One former head (Yevhen Marchuk) later served as prime minister, people’s deputy of the Supreme Council of Ukraine, as well as leader of a party caucus; he was a candidate for president, became RNBOU secretary, and in 2003 was appointed minister of defense. His successor (Valerii Malikov) went on to be a prime ministerial adviser, parliamentary consultant, and then an official with the treasury board. Volodymyr Radchenko sat out the interim of his service as SBU head as first deputy secretary of the RNBOU. After his second term as SBU head, he returned as RNBOU secretary. These facts indicate a high level of politicization of the security service, which has persisted from that time to the present.

The central administration of the SBU is divided into numerous functional components including espionage, counterintelligence, military counterintelligence, defense of national statehood, struggle against corruption and organized crime, intelligence collection and analysis, operations, documentation, investigation, and government relations. It also advises the president on security matters and policy. Regional branches of the SBU exist throughout Ukraine, and military counterintelligence units operate in all armed formations. Among the SBU’s responsibilities are: to gather intelligence for the government; to provide counterintelligence protection for diplomatic and defense facilities and to conduct counterintelligence measures against subversives; to safeguard secret and encrypted government communications; and to carry out any ‘other tasks’ assigned it by parliament or the president. In pursuit of these responsibilities the service and its officers have rather wide rights of surveillance, entry into premises, detention, free use of public transport, and carrying weapons. Possible violations of citizens’ rights must be declared to the office of Procurator General up to 24 hours after the fact. The Procurator General of Ukraine is responsible for the overall legality of the SBU’s activities.

Together with the Ministry of Internal Affairs (ie, police), tax police, and procuracy, the SBU is charged with waging war against corruption. One half of criminal cases initiated by the SBU involve economic crimes. Despite impressive statistics reported by the service concerning the interception of such activity, much of it connected to organized and transnational crime, there is suspicion that only ‘small fry’ were caught in the net while larger specimens such as former prime ministers Pavlo Lazarenko and Yukhym Zviahilsky were able to elude capture. The battle against corruption, as with law enforcement in general in Ukraine, is reduced in its effectiveness by a lack of clear delineation of responsibilities among participating agencies, the SBU included. A presidential advisory commission on improving law enforcement was struck at the beginning of 2001, but whether it succeeded remains questionable.

The SBU claimed in September 2000 to have averted an attempt on the life of Russian President Vladimir Putin during his visit to Ukraine and a coup attempt in the provinces, but if this was meant to enhance its status, it had the opposite effect. Subsequently, evident bungling of the murder investigation of Heorhii Gongadze aroused a political storm and President Leonid Kuchma fired the head of the SBU as well as the minister of interior in 2001. From that time on during Kuchma’s presidency, the SBU was increasingly drawn into controversy and its reputation for impartiality suffered. Noteworthy developments included the revelation that a security officer had clandestinely recorded meetings held in President Kuchma’s office, which launched the Gongadze scandal. Then there were charges and countercharges between former and retired law enforcement officials concerning high-level interference in the same case. An SBU officer in Germany claimed that the organization had been ordered to spy on opposition politicians, a charge vehemently denied by the SBU head and President Kuchma. Nonetheless, in 2004, Kuchma issued a decree abolishing the placement of security service personnel in top government institutions: the staff of the Supreme Council of Ukraine, the presidential administration, the Cabinet of Ministers, Procurator-General’s Office, the Council for National Security and Defense (RNBOU), and other central agencies.

From the time of his re-election in 1999, and into his second term in office, it was evident that President Leonid Kuchma was not above using the SBU primarily as a weapon against his political opponents. Thus by infiltrating a far-right nationalist party in 2001, the agency was able to neutralize altogether the otherwise vital ‘Ukraine Without Kuchma’ movement. During the Orange Revolution of 2004, however, despite the authorities’ inclination to clamp down hard on the opposition which was orchestrating the demonstration, the SBU remained largely neutral, perhaps even not unsympathetic to the pro-Yushchenko camp. In the second and third rounds of the 2004 presidential elections the non-obstructive role of the SBU was likely due in part to an agreement for it to adhere to strictly legal activities (arranged with SBU head Ihor Smeshko at a dinner where Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned, and confirmed again later), in part to the pro-Yushchenko sympathies of a significant portion of the officer corps.

After the Orange Revolution, Ihor Smeshko was replaced by Oleksandr Turchynov, an ally of Prime Minister Yuliia Tymoshenko. Turchynov probed into the agency’s role in the Orange Revolution events as well as in the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko, but without clear results. He stepped down in September, to head the BYuT election campaign, and was succeeded by Ihor Drizhchanov, a deputy head of SBU in 2004, who in turn was replaced by Valentyn Nalyvaichenko. Nalyvaichenko, a diplomat turned politician who had just served as ambassador to Belarus, retained the post of SBU Chief throughout the rest of President Yushchenko’s term, until dismissed by President Viktor Yanukovych in March 2010.

Politicization of the SBU, and with it Russian penetration, expanded greatly under Yanukovych. In 2010, this was so blatant that both the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the European Parliament issued statements condemning use of the SBU for political purposes. The surveillance of politicians, journalists, and civil society activists, as well as their harassment, was unprecedented. Under its new head, Valerii Khoroshkovsky, the SBU became in effect Viktor Yanukovych’s private army attacking political foes and business competitors alike. As SBU chairman from 2010 to 2012, Khoroshkovsky used his office to eliminate competitors to the TV enterprise Inter, of which his wife was the official owner. He also had links to oligarch Dmytro Firtash, the RosUkrEnergo gas lobby, and the Party of Regions, thus embodying his agency’s location at the intersection of politics, government, and business in Ukraine. Khoroshkovsky stepped down in January 2012 to become finance minister briefly before being appointed first vice-prime minister in February. (He resigned in December, left the country, and went to live in Monaco, but returned to Ukraine in May 2019.) Khoroshkovsky’s successor as SBU chief was Igor Kalinin (February 2012–January 2013), himself succeeded by Oleksandr Yakymenko. The latter, a Soviet and Russian air force officer with a rather opaque biography who seems never to have held Ukrainian citizenship, along with about 15 other top SBU officials, turned up in Russia immediately following the flight of Viktor Yanukovych at the climax of the Euromaidan Revolution in February 2014. During Yanukovych’s presidency Russian influence was so pervasive that the SBU counterintelligence operations against Russia were reoriented instead against the United States, opening the way for the Russian annexation of the Crimea and the Donbas invasion of 2014.

When the revolt against Viktor Yanukovych and his regime erupted on the Maidan in Kyiv in November 2013, there had been no opportunity for developing contacts between opposition and government as in 2004. Due to the extraordinary degree of politicization of law enforcement agencies repressions against the rebellious citizenry was noticeably harsher than during the Orange Revolution. SBU Head Oleksandr Yakymenko invited Russian FSB experts to advise on dispersing protesters; tear gas and aerosols were recommended. In February 2014, the SBU placed its anti-terrorist units on alert, ready to be used against the protesters, hitherto labelled ‘extremists’ or ‘fascists,’ but now upgraded to the universally dreaded ‘terrorists.’ Enforcing the current anti-terrorism legislation would entail: limiting individuals’ freedom of movement; closing businesses; detaining individuals without due process; searching premises and persons without warrant; using live rounds of ammunition to control crowds; entering premises without warrant; curtailing press freedom; and limiting the use of communications devices. The SBU announced it was opening pretrial investigation into the activities of unnamed politicians planning to seize power, obviously intended to intimidate the leaders of the Euromaidan Revolution. At the climax of the uprising, on 18–20 February, according to a leaked plan, the authorities would clear the square using 20,000 regular police, 2,000 Berkut riot police, and 224 SBU Alfa Group officers, including seven snipers. President Yanukovych himself reportedly gave the order to open fire on the demonstrators, and a hundred protesters died.

That the SBU subsequently appeared uninvolved in preventing the operations by Russia in the Crimea and the Donets Basin was therefore understandable, but demonstrated a total failure in its basic responsibility as a security intelligence body. Its infiltration of the Euromaidan Revolution protest movement against the Yanukovych government, on the other hand, was visible, well-documented, and potentially highly embarrassing politically. A raid on the SBU headquarters in February 2014, presumably ordered by President Viktor Yanukovych, resulted in a massive loss or destruction of documents, computer hard drives, and flash drives, as well as data on some 22,000 officers and informants. When Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, reappointed SBU head on 24 February, reported for work he found his building empty of files and weapons, having been thoroughly infiltrated by spies from the Russian Federation. He later claimed that the anti-terrorism operation on the Maidan took place with the participation of FSB agents from Moscow and that the Alfa Group snipers were in the Crimea. The capture of the Crimea was made possible, according to Nalyvaichenko, by a network of GRU agents and their recruits established over the previous two or three years; in Donetsk oblast, a hundred Russian military intelligence officers were directing operations there. Altogether three Russian GRU officers had been arrested and were being interrogated in Kyiv, along with 21 of the network’s members. At the end of 2014, following the arrest of 235 Moscow agents and the launching of treason charges against an unspecified number of SBU officers, Naylyvaichenko stated rather optimistically that ‘all traitors’ had been purged. New, inexperienced personnel were being recruited and trained in the wake of the Euromaidan Revolution.

Valentyn Nalyvaichenko was sacked by President Petro Poroshenko as head of the SBU in July 2015, whereupon he resumed his career as an elected politician, and was replaced by Vasyl Hrytsak, a career intelligence officer. In May 2019, newly-elected President Volodymyr Zelensky appointed the head of his Servant of the People party, Ivan Bakanov, a businessman with no legal, law enforcement, or intelligence background, but associated with the president as head of the Kvartal 95 TV Studio, as Hrytsak’s first deputy head. Shortly thereafter, Hrytsak departed on an extended vacation while Bakanov performed his duties. In October, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) initiated criminal proceedings against Hrytsak involving charges of ‘treason, espionage, abuse of office, misappropriation, and embezzlement.’ In May 2020, it was revealed that Bakanov, in contravention of the anti-corruption law, was manager of a construction and real estate company registered in Spain, but Zelensky insisted that ‘there has never been a more honest SBU chief’ than his childhood friend.

The SBU has never been reformed. Domestic as well as foreign experts agree on its problems: overmanning; inappropriate law enforcement mandate; militarized structure; human rights and freedom of expression violations; politicization; corruption growing out of its duty to police corruption and economic crimes; general incompetence; and lack of accountability. In the autumn of 2020, a bill initiated by President Volodymyr Zelensky was before the Supreme Council of Ukraine which would initiate the process of reform. Under bill number 3196, the SBU would concentrate on key activities: counterintelligence directed against threats to state security; fighting terrorism; cybersecurity; defense of state sovereignty and territorial integrity; and safeguarding state secrets. It would disengage from functions alien to a security agency such as law enforcement, pursuit of economic crime, and fighting corruption. It will be responsible for the safety of critical infrastructure, politically independent, and demilitarized. Its personnel would be gradually reduced from 31,000 to 15,000; its notoriously ineffective anti-corruption and organized crime special department ‘K’ would be abolished; it would become pro-active instead of re-active; and it would submit to parliamentary, financial, and oversight and accountability. In regards to the latter, the agency had previously lobbied successfully for an exemption from the e-declaration reporting system, conveniently shielding its officers from scrutiny of their financial assets.

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Security Service of Ukraine official website:

Bohdan Harasymiw

[This article was written in 2020.]

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