Spy game: Bellingcat reveals details of Ukrainian plot to recruit Russian pilots

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Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) claims that it managed to thwart a Ukrainian military plot to bribe Russian pilots and convince them to defect to the other side. However, in a game of cat and mouse that reads like something straight from the pages of a spy novel, the Ukrainian side maintain that it knew Russia had already caught onto the scheme.  

Details of the plot were released on July 25, 2022, when several Russian media channels published a statement claiming that the country’s FSB had uncovered the Ukrainian military plot.   

According to Interfax, the FSB managed to intersect the plot, obtaining secret data that the Ukrainians allegedly attempted to share with the would-be defectors. 

Ukrainian special service employees are reported to have offered Russian pilots up to $2 million, as well as guarantees that their families would be given citizenship in one of the Baltic states. 

The FSB claims the plot was operated by the Ukrainian government, “supported by Western security agencies, primarily the British ones”, and involved Christo Grozev, a journalist and the lead Russia investigator at investigative agency, Bellingcat. 

Several Russian news outlets and social media channels provided additional details regarding the alleged plot, such as claims that Western agencies attempted to kidnap family members of the pilots and hold them hostage and that multiple successful airstrikes had been conducted by Russian armed forces using data obtained from the Ukrainian side. 

But later the same day, Grozev published a lengthy Twitter thread detailing additional information about the story. 

According to Grozev, the operation began as a genuine attempt by some Ukrainian volunteers to recruit Russian pilots. Bellingcat was brought on board to document the operation and will eventually produce a documentary about it.  

“The Ukrainian operation was not a project of either SBU [Security Service of Ukraine – AeroTime] or GUR [Defence Intelligence of Ukraine – AeroTime],” Grozev said. “(If it were, there’d be no way we would – or want to – get access to it). It was organized by maverick ex operatives whom we got to know in the Wagner investigation.” 

The volunteers got in contact with Russian pilots and tried to convince them to defect. At some point it became apparent that Russian pilots were being “coached” by the FSB, Grozev explained. Therefore, Ukrainians began to feed the pilots fake data regarding the position of Ukrainian air defenses, while simultaneously receiving fake information about pilots from the FSB in return. 

However, the game finally came to an end when the two sides agreed to a meetup between the family members of one Russian pilot and a Ukrainian informant. A meeting to which the Ukrainians never came, leaving the FSB waiting in vain for four days, according to Grozev. 

Despite the unexpected ending (so far), we still plan to finish this crazy film,” Grozev concluded.  

You can find Grozev’s thread by clicking ‘Read the full conversation’ under the following tweet. 

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