A military intelligence officer says he is conducting operations against the Putin regime without the knowledge of his superiors


Samantha de Bendern

December 17, 2023

The Times


Mykola is an officer in the main intelligence directorate of Ukraine’s defence ministry. He trains operatives for secret missions in Russia: sabotage, poisonings, assassinations, diversions. He claims they are unauthorised by the chain of command above him. Last week he invited me to his training centre in southeast Ukraine, a place so secret that before we even got in his car, I had to switch off my phone and seal it in a bag that blocks out all signals.

We arrived at his base as the mid-afternoon sky turned a darker shade of grey. The temperature had warmed up from the previous week’s frost, turning the snow to slush, and the crisp cold into bone-bruising damp. In the fading light a dozen men and one woman, who looked incredibly young and tiny, were practising on a shooting range. Two husky-malamute mixes howled in a rusty cage nearby.

The buildings, squat concrete blocks, without windows so light could not escape at night, housed sleeping quarters, a canteen and an indoor shooting range. Mykola (not his real name) proudly displayed small metal bullseye targets with photographs of President Putin, the Russian chief of general staff Valery Gerasimov and the defence minister Sergey Shoigu, as well as a few Russian propagandists. “I built this place myself, with my own money,” he said. “It’s off the books. The government is too slow and bureaucratic. We need to train people fast and get them ready. There are no government specialised training camps for the kind of operations needed to fight this war.”

Optimism earlier in the year that Ukraine had turned the tide of the war and would soon drive out the Russian invaders has faded. A long-anticipated counteroffensive failed to make substantial headway. The continued financial and logistical support of Ukraine’s allies can no longer be counted on. Last week Hungary blocked €50 billion (£43 billion) of aid from the European Union. In the United States disagreements between Democrats and Republicans have held up approval of a $61 billion (£48 billion) defence aid package. The dirty war gives Ukraine a chance to even the odds, Mykola believes.

On the way to the canteen, we passed a small group of fit young men in camouflage. They eyed me suspiciously and Mykola mumbled something to reassure them. “They are preparing for a cross-border mission tonight into Russia,” Mykola said. “The conditions are perfect. Low cloud hides the moon and the stars. The Russians won’t expect them. They will dress in civilian clothes, carry fake papers, no phones, use a compass, a map and count their steps to orient themselves.”

Mykola says that his missions are neither ordered nor sanctioned by the head of military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov. “You need to fill in papers, send them up the hierarchy,” he said. “By the time you get authorisation, the opportunity is lost.” There was no way of independently verifying this claim, and if the operations really are off the books, they offer perfectly plausible deniability for activities that Ukraine’s Nato backers fear could fuel Moscow’s allegations that they are supporting attacks on Russian soil.

Mykola refused to give details of specific operations his men carry out. “Most of them are too low-key to make the headlines, mainly because the Kremlin is keen to keep quiet about the humiliation of Ukrainian special ops commandos roaming around the Russian countryside.” When pressed, his only

concession was that “men like him” were behind the drones that targeted the Kremlin in May last year. “We also have Russians inside Russia who help us, people who see how senseless this war is and hate the criminal regime.”

This apparent discretion contrasts with the assassination in early December of the ex-Ukrainian pro-Russia MP Illya Kyva in Moscow, which Ukrainian law enforcement sources have attributed to the Ukrainian State Security Service (SBU). Military intelligence has also claimed some spectacular raids, the most famous being the night-time raid on jet skis in September during which commandos placed a Ukrainian flag on the Crimean shore.

Mykola is scathing of such operations. “We call the people who carried it out [the Crimea raid] Spielberg brigades. They went, they saw, they filmed. It was a complete waste of time and resources. As usual Kyrylo was more interested in sending people out to make promotional films than serious operations.”

Mykola acknowledges that Ukraine “can’t compete with Russia in terms of numbers of men and weapons”, adding: “We can only compete in surgical techniques. Technology and our entrepreneurial mindset will defeat Russian meat and steel.”

This logic is echoed by Andrii Suprun, an entrepreneur working with western partners in several technology incubators: “Ukraine has the capacity and the mindset to switch to modern flexible Nato-standard military tactics. If we can’t have the weapons, putting our expertise together with that of our partners will go a long way. And that does not cost nearly as much.”

Ruslan, also a pseudonym, is an engineer and military intelligence officer from another unit. He is both optimistic and pessimistic. “We are developing drone-jamming capabilities that are more cutting-edge than anything in the West. This is creating opportunities to leapfrog into a new technological age.”

Technology, entrepreneurship, and gung-ho operations into Russia notwithstanding, Ukraine needs weapons more than anything. “Our air defence is completely dependent on our western partners,” insisted Mykola, as he prepared to see a team of new recruits off on a night-time orienteering mission.

The importance of air defence was highlighted last week when Kyiv suffered a battery of missile attacks. All were intercepted by the US Patriot air-defence system, but missile debris caused serious damage to three Kyiv suburbs. Fifty-three people were injured and hundreds more made homeless.

In a parallel development that reinforced a key area of Ukrainian vulnerability, the largest cyber-attack of the war took down the main mobile phone operator, Kyivstar, on Tuesday morning. The most serious impact was felt by ordinary soldiers at the front, many of whom rely on ordinary mobile networks.

It also hit ordinary citizens in a highly digitalised country, where much government and private administration is done online via mobile phone apps. Businesses were paralysed and people were no longer able to make payments or use public transport via almost universal electronic ticketing systems. Even restaurants, which have gone through a post-Covid elimination of physical menus in favour of QR codes, struggled, and in the ensuing chaos other mobile operators were so swamped with demand for new sim cards that they rapidly ran out. Even the air-raid warning apps stopped working.

What if the supply of weapons from the West dried up, I asked Mykola. “It will be hard,” he said. “But we won’t give up. We will take to the forests, to the hills, to the fields. It will be partisan warfare. We can always find weapons. Look at how we defended Kyiv and Hostomel airport at the beginning of the war. There were no orders to do that. The government was too disorganised in the early days and men didn’t wait to be told to defend their country. We picked up our weapons and we pushed the Russians back. We will do so again, despite what any government says.”


Samantha de Bendern is an Associate Fellow of the Russia and

Eurasia Programme at Chatham House.