When the first armoured vehicles of Russia’s invading army reached the heart of Chornobyl nuclear plant on the afternoon of Feb. 24, they encountered a Ukrainian unit charged with defending the notorious facility.
In less than two hours, and without a fight, the 169 members of the Ukrainian National Guard laid down their weapons. Russia had taken Chornobyl, a repository for tonnes of nuclear material and a key staging post on the approach to Kyiv.
The fall of Chornobyl, site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, stands out as an anomaly in the five-month old war: a successful blitzkrieg operation in a conflict marked elsewhere by a brutal and halting advance by Russian troops and grinding resistance by Ukraine.
Now a Reuters investigation has found that Russia’s success at Chornobyl was no accident, but part of a long-standing Kremlin operation to infiltrate the Ukrainian state with secret agents.
Five people with knowledge of the Kremlin’s preparations said war planners around President Vladimir Putin believed that, aided by these agents, Russia would require only a small military force and a few days to force Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s administration to quit, flee or capitulate.
Through interviews with dozens of officials in Russia and Ukraine and a review of Ukrainian court documents and statements to investigators, related to a probe into the conduct of people who worked at Chornobyl, Reuters has established that this infiltration reached far deeper than has been publicly acknowledged. The officials interviewed include people inside Russia who were briefed on Moscow’s invasion planning and Ukrainian investigators tasked with tracking down spies.
“Apart from the external enemy, we unfortunately have an internal enemy, and this enemy is no less dangerous,” the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said in an interview.
At the time of the invasion, Danilov said, Russia had agents in the Ukrainian defence, security and law enforcement sectors. He declined to give names but said such traitors needed to be “neutralised” at all costs.
Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation is conducting a probe into whether the National Guard acted unlawfully by surrendering its weapons to an enemy, a local official told Reuters. The State Bureau of Investigation didn’t comment. The National Guard defended the actions of its unit at the plant, pointing to the risks of conflict at a nuclear site.
Court documents and testimony, reported here for the first time, reveal the role played by Chornobyl’s head of security, Valentin Viter, who is in detention and is being investigated for absenting himself from his post. An extract from the state register of pre-trial investigations, seen by Reuters, shows Viter is also suspected of treason, an allegation his lawyer says is unfounded. In a statement to investigators, Viter said that on the day of the invasion he spoke by phone with the National Guard unit commander. Viter advised the commander not to endanger his unit, telling him: “Spare your people.”
One source with direct knowledge of the Kremlin’s invasion plans told Reuters that Russian agents were deployed to Chornobyl last year to bribe officials and prepare the ground for a bloodless takeover. Reuters couldn’t independently verify the details of this assertion. However, Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation has said it is investigating a former top intelligence official, Andriy Naumov, on suspicion of treason for passing Chornobyl security secrets to a foreign state. [Continue reading…]