At first, the Russian pilots all thought it was a scam. But they agreed to go along with it anyway, especially after the initial payments came through.
Last summer, a group of Ukrainian volunteers, working closely with their country’s intelligence service, apparently came close to persuading three Russian aviators who were in the midst of bombing Ukraine to defect with their warplanes in exchange for $1 million a piece. It was a bold, months-long operation, “like a movie,” in the words of one of the Russian marks, a trio of exceptionally well-trained airmen who seemed amenable to betraying their motherland for a sum of money they’d otherwise never see in their lifetimes.
What looked like a legitimate plan to switch sides proved anything but. None of the pilots defected in the end. There is strong evidence that most if not all of them were found out by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), one of the successor agencies to the Soviet KGB. Russian propaganda says the whole saga was in fact orchestrated by the FSB from the start. The Ukrainians insist the FSB only got involved late in the negotiations, after sincere commitments were made by each pilot. Kyiv also maintains its failure to acquire Russian warplanes was nonetheless a mitigated success: It gleaned valuable technical information about Russia’s air force and compromised three military officers, at least one of whom has not flown combat missions since. A complex intelligence operation thus devolved into a remote game of dueling counterintelligence narratives with both sides claiming victory.
Yahoo News met the main Ukrainian volunteer — here called “Bohdan” to protect his identity — who conceived and initiated this elaborate scheme to hijack Russian warplanes. We examined hundreds of encrypted chat messages between his team and the three Russian pilots: Igor Tveritin, 48, Roman Nosenko, 36, and Andrei Maslov, 33. Their identities were independently confirmed by Yahoo News, but it’s not clear where they are currently located and could not be reached for comment.
The remarkable level of detail provided by Bohdan both undermines the Russian recast of the events while also giving a rare window into how these behind-the-scenes, spy-vs.-spy operations unfold as Russian and Ukrainian forces batter each other on the frontlines. [Continue reading…]