More

    Ukrainian SBU: Protectors of the Homeland

    Share

    1. Intro

    The Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) is the country’s primary intelligence, law enforcement, and security agency. It is also commonly known as the SBU, a transliterated acronym from the original Ukrainian Cyrillic. The SBU fulfils a multitude of functions ranging from ensuring state security to intelligence collection. The stated values of the SBU are:

    • Rule of law and legality
    • Integrity
    • Responsibility and accountability
    • Professionalism and constant development

    Emblem of the SBU. (Source)

    The Ukrainian SBU also oversees a special operations unit known as Alfa Group. The SBU can trace its lineage back to the times of the Russian Empire. However it came into existence as we know it now when Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union. As one might expect from a government agency existing for well over 100 years, the SBU’s track record is anything but clean. Despite these controversies the unit continues to play a vital role in the protection of Ukraine.

    2. History

    2.1. The Okhrana’s Influence

    As previously mentioned, the SBU’s history dates back to the Russian Empire of which Ukraine was a part of. At the time, the internal security service for the empire called itself the Okhrana. The Okhrana was the secret police of the tsar and utilized torture to achieve its goals. After the collapse of the Russian Empire, different factions began vying for control of the country. Some factions like the Ukrainian State managed to establish a fairly effective security service due to their incorporation of former members of the Okhrana. (Source) After years of power struggle, Ukraine would officially become communist and become the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

    The internal security service of the early Soviet government in Ukraine, known as the Cheka, targeted political opponents of the Communist Party. Additionally, the Cheka targeted citizens who didn’t want to turn their land over to the state. By 1934, the NKVD, a predecessor to the KGB absorbed the Cheka. (Source) In the Soviet Union, the name of the internal security service changed every 3-10 years. However, the brutality and corruption remained unchanged. 

    2.2. Cold War Collapse

    The story of the SBU really begins after Ukraine gained its independence from the Soviet Union in the early ‘90s. The new independent government officially established the service on the 25th of March, 1992. Most of the personnel came from its predecessor, the KGB and had the bulk of its framework already established. However, the SBU soon faced challenges such as the security and sovereignty of the state, enforcing constitutional order, and protecting territorial integrity. The intelligence function of the SBU often butted heads with the newly formed Military Intelligence of Ukraine due to overlapping responsibilities.

    In 1994 the SBU formally established both the Sectoral State Archive and Alfa Group. In 1998 the government established the Counterterrorism Centre. However, despite the nation’s efforts to democratise, the SBU had lingering issues with corruption. SBU agents were working alongside criminal elements and using torture to force confessions, an issue the agency is still struggling with today. (Source

    SBU investigator’s badge. (Source)

    2.3. SBU in the 21st Century

    By the early 2000s the SBU was still undergoing many challenges and reforms. Over the past two decades the agency has seen reductions in and alterations to its scope of responsibilities. By 2004 the SBU’s intelligence branch was separated into an independent foreign intelligence agency, known as the SZR. (Source) Around this time, the SBU took over the responsibility of protecting Ukrainian government officials. 

    In 2005 talks of reforming the SBU began circulating through the Ukrainian government. The organisation was massive both in terms of responsibilities and personnel. At the time the agency employed close to 30,000 people. Its functions ranged from intelligence gathering, direct action raids, targeting organised crime groups, protecting government officials, and multiple others. The immense size of the agency made it almost impossible to effectively control and internally police. There were allegations that the SBU poisoned a presidential opposition candidate, there were clear signs of corruption, and agents were threatening political activists. However, things would only get worse from there.

    2.4. Yanukovych’s Deception

    In 2010 Viktor Yanukovych was elected as the president of Ukraine. Although international investigators found his election to be legitimate, he was widely corrupt and subversive. Yanukovych was responsible for appointing Russian loyalists to high ranking positions within the Ukrainian government. The questionable legitimacy of his election spurred a series of protests that would eventually lead to his deposition from office. The SBU was weaponized to intimidate his critics. One blogger was arrested on the grounds that he threatened the president in one of his posts. By 2014 Yanukovych’s government was delegitimized and he fled to Russia to live in exile.

    However, before Yanukovych fled he ordered loyalists within the SBU to steal state secrets. Agents loyal to Yanukovych stole data on over 22,000 SBU officers and informants. What the agents couldn’t carry with them, they smashed and burned. Literally overnight, the SBU was crippled. As the then acting director of the SBU, Valentyn Nalyvaichenko put it, the thieves took “everything that forms a basis for a professional intelligence service.” The SBU’s Director of intelligence, Olesandr Yakymenko had stolen as much as he could and fled to Russia with 4 other top spies and dozens of subordinates. In response, the SBU began an internal purge. Around 235 agents, including the former counterintelligence chief and hundreds of other operatives were arrested. They were believed to be working for Moscow. Subsequently all regional directors of the SBU were replaced, as well as half of their deputies. (Source)

    Officers search a vehicle at night.
    SBU officers detaining an arms dealer caught with AKs, pistols, and grenades. (Image credit: ssu.gov.ua)

    2.5. Russian Invasion and Reformation

    In the same year as Yanukovych’s exile, Russia invaded Crimea. Obviously this had serious implications for Ukraine’s government agency responsible for ensuring the territorial integrity of the country. The SBU became even more militarised than it already was. Alfa Group operators were dispatched to hunt down Russian loyalists while counterintelligence agents were hunting down spies within the government. However, after five years of war the Ukrainian government acknowledged the need for reforms within the agency. The public was weary of the organisation due to its problems with corruption and its history as a secret police. In an attempt to alter public opinion and reign in the agency, the Ukrainian government passed a series of reforms for the SBU. 

    Key Reforms of SBU. (Image credit: ssu.gov.ua)

    The reforms included a plan to downsize the massive structure if/when the country transitions towards peace. It also provided clear jurisdictional boundaries for the organisation. Now SBU agents would not be seen around town assisting local police with non-SBU jurisdictional cases. Another big change was significantly increased oversight, including by civilians, the agency was no longer responsible for policing itself. (Source)

    3. SBU’s Responsibilities

    The SBU functions as an internal security service and law enforcement agency for Ukraine, similar to the American FBI or British MI5. The SBU has stated that its five top priorities are:

    • Counterintelligence
    • Protection of National Statehood
    • Counterterrorism
    • Cyber Security
    • Protection of State Secrets

    Badge of Department K. (Source)

    The 2019 reforms significantly altered the functions of the SBU. The service is primarily focused on combating the hybrid warfare Russia is waging on the country. The organised crime and anti-corruption unit, referred to as Department “K” was completely shut down. It’s unclear why exactly it was disbanded. International partners in the intelligence community highly recommended that the responsibility be transferred to other law-enforcement organisations and there are two likely factors as to why. First, organised crime is likely no longer a top priority for the SBU while it is actively fighting an invading army. Second, the SBU has had a long standing issue with internal corruption. The reforms transfer more control into civilian hands and demand more transparency from the agency. It is likely that disbanding Department K was done to better achieve these goals. 

    SBU military working dog with handler.
    SBU military working dog and handler. (Image credit: ssu.gov.ua)

    4. Organisation of the SBU

    The SBU currently employs around 27,000 people. The aforementioned reforms in 2019 include provisions to slowly downsize the agency gradually until 2027. Today the SBU is comprised of 9 major components: (Source)

    • Central Office
    • Regional Offices
    • Centre for Special Unit “A”
    • Counterterrorism Centre
    • Cyber Security Situation Centre
    • Educational Establishments
    • SBU Sectoral State Archive
    • UA Research Institute of Special Equipment and Forensic Science of the SBU
    • Military Medical Department

    4.1. Central Office

    The Central Office is essentially the headquarters element of the SBU. The Central Office establishes the development and adoption of strategic policy decisions on all issues that the SBU is charged with. Additionally, it coordinates the work of all units within the SBU.

    This is where the Chairman of the Security Service of Ukraine works. The Chairman of the SBU is appointed by the president. Additionally, the heads of all key departments are appointed by the president, with the recommendation of the Chairman. The Chairman’s staff and all of the SBU’s functional subdivisions work here. It also houses the departments of: (Source)

    • Counterintelligence
    • Protection of national statehood
    • Counterintelligence protection of the state’s interests in the field of economic security
    • Counterintelligence protection of the state’s interests in the field of information security
    • Protection of state secrets and licensing
    • Countering corruption and organised crime
    • Counter-terrorism
    • Protection of participants of criminal proceedings and law enforcement officers 
    • Operational and technical measures
    • Operational documentation
    • Investigations
    • Information analysis, Personnel, Legal, Finance, Medical and other support functions

    Plain clothes officers detain a suspect against a fence.
    SBU counterintelligence agents arresting a terrorist. (Image credit: ssu.gov.ua)

    4.2. Regional Offices

    In total there are 26 regional offices which are subdivided into the different territories of Ukraine. They operate similar to an American FBI field office as they function independently from the local government but often work alongside local law enforcement when there is jurisdictional overlap. Similar to the heads of the Central Office’s departments, the heads of regional offices are appointed by the President of Ukraine based on the recommendation of the Chairman. (Source)

    4.3. Alfa Group

    The Centre for Special Unit “A”, Alpha Group, or Alfa Group is the SBU’s military wing. The unit was officially formed by presidential decree on the 23rd of June, 1994. The unit’s motto is, “Life to the Motherland, honour to no one!” Each of the regional offices has a contingent from Alfa Group to aid in response times to local crises. Alfa Group has a wide variety of functions including:

    • Stopping terrorist attacks.
    • Hostage rescue.
    • Countering illegal armed groups, terrorist organisations and intelligence and sabotage groups of foreign states.
    • Ensuring that SBU officers carry out operative and search activities, counterintelligence measures, and procedural actions.
    • Protection of government authorities and officials.
    • Protection of SBU employees, the Department of the State Guard, and their relatives.
    • Protection of judges and witnesses in high-profile court cases.
    • Supporting the facilitation of martial law and/or a state of emergency.

    Alfa operators in full kit.
    SBU Alfa Group operators. (Image credit: ssu.gov.ua)

    During the protests against Yanukovych’s presidency, Alfa Group snipers opened fire on crowds of protestors. On February 20th, 2014 Alfa Group killed 53 civilians in what came to be known as the Maidan massacre. (Source) Allegedly, this caused a purge of Alfa Group with multiple members being fired. (Source) Since the Russian invasion, Alfa Group has detained hundreds of pro-Russian terrorists and members of sabotage groups. Alfa Group members are trained in a multitude of tactics including:

    • Small unit tactics
    • Weapons training
    • Offensive driving
    • Breaching
    • Parachuting
    • Diving
    • Rappelling

    It’s unknown exactly what selection looks like for Alfa Group, but it lasts several weeks. Additionally, the pass/fail rate is about 1/15 or roughly 7%. The culmination of these skills make the SBU’s Alfa Group a formidable direct action raid force capable of responding to an internal security crisis facing Ukraine. (Source)

    Alfa Group’s badge. (Source)

    4.4. Counterterrorism Centre

    As the name implies, the SBU’s Counterterrorism Centre is responsible for combating terrorist activities within Ukraine. The unit was established in December of 1998 as a response to the rise of terrorism globally. Since 2016 the Counterterrorism Centre has helped to set threat colour-coded threat levels indicating the likelyhood of terrorist activity within the nation’s borders.  This system is known as the Unified State System of Prevention, Reaction and Termination of Terrorist Acts and the Minimisation of Their Consequences. The system denotes the threat level with four colours: grey, blue, yellow, and red. The current threat levels in Ukraine’s regions are as follows: 

    • RED (real threat) – Donetsk and Luhansk regions
    • YELLOW (projected threat) – Zaporizzhya, Mykolaiv, Odessa, Sumy, Kharkiv, Kherson and Chernihiv regions
    • BLUE (potential threat) – Kyiv city, Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Zakarpattia, Rivne, Khmelnytskyi, Cherkasy and Chernivtsi regions. 

    GREY (possible threat) – Vinnytsia, Volyn, Zhytomyr, Ivano-Frankivsk, Kirovohrad, Lviv, Poltava and Ternopil regions.

    SBU alfa members pulling security behind a helicopter.
    SBU operators during a counterterrorism exercise. (Image credit: ssu.gov.ua)

    The centre organizes and conducts training for the SBU so that they agency is ready to respond at a moment’s notice to a terrorist act. In 2020 the Counterterrorism Centre led over 600 training exercises. (Source)

    4.5. Cyber Security Situation Centre

    Ensuring the protection of the cyberspace domain is crucial for the security of any state and Ukraine is no different. Cyber specialists from the SBU work 24/7 to protect Ukraine from cyber attacks. The Cyber Security Situation Centre is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to cyberspace. The centre combats cyber threats such as terrorism and espionage, both from foreign states as well as non-state actors. Additionally, the centre fulfils counterintelligence and investigative functions within the cyber domain.

    Two camouflaged officers sit at desk monitoring computers.
    SBU’s cyber security centre. (Image credit: ssu.gov.ua)

    By the centre’s own admission, it works closely with allied foreign intelligence services. Oftentimes, foreign intelligence services will notify the centre of potential cyber threats, allowing the centre to investigate and neutralise threats. Hacker groups will often target critical infrastructure and communications systems, which could cripple the country without the centre’s intervention. In 2019 alone, the centre managed to prevent close to 1,000 attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. (Source)

    4.6. Educational Establishments of the SBU

    The SBU has two primary educational establishments in which it trains recruits. The first is the National Academy of the SBU (NASBU) and the second is the Juridical Personnel Training Institute.  These two schools prepare candidates to fight crime or prosecute it. 

    4.6.1. The National Academy of the Security Service of Ukraine

    The NASBU is the only institution of its kind in Ukraine and provides candidates with all the education they need to become an officer in the SBU. The curriculum covers a multitude of topics taught by four internal institutes:

    • Educational and Scientific Institute of Counterintelligence
    • Educational and Scientific Institute for Development of SBU Personnel
    • Educational and Scientific Institute of Information Security
    • Educational and Scientific Centre of Language Training

    Candidates learn how to counter current and future threats to the country. The NASBU offers language training in 11 languages. There are courses on national security, cyber security, legal studies, counter intelligence and many more. By the time they graduate, candidates are expected to master over 40 disciplines. However, the curriculum is constantly changing in response to the security environment in Ukraine. As new threats emerge, the Academy adapts to prepare candidates to fight them. 

    4.6.2. Juridical Personnel Training Institute

    The Juridical Personnel Training Institute was established in 1994 as a subdivision of the Yaroslav Mudryi National Law University. The institute’s purpose is to train potential lawyers and investigators, both for the SBU and other law-enforcement agencies. Upon graduation, students receive a master’s degree. While attending the institute students take special courses in: (Source)

    • Pre-trial investigation in the SBU
    • Legal support for operational activities in the SBU
    • Principles of state security, counterintelligence and operational search activities
    • Special tactics and operational-tactical training

    Officer looks at a bed covered in cash money.
    SBU investigator inspecting seized cash from a criminal operation. (Image credit: ssu.gov.ua)

    4.7. The SBU Sectoral State Archive

    As the name implies, the Sectoral State Archive is the SBU’s archival service. However, the records stored within the archive date back to 1918, well before the service’s founding. The archive is considered one of the most open and complete of the post-Soviet countries. There are close to 224,000 volumes of documents in the Kiev office with another 735,000 in the various regional offices. In 2015 the SBU made all Soviet era documents free to access. The documents in the archive contain information on:

    • Criminal proceedings against Ukrainian activists from 1920-1980.
    • The Holodomor (Soviet imposed famine on Ukraine killing 3.5 – 5 million people).
    • Ukrainian Insurgent Army activities.
    • Soviet dissidents.
    • The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster.
    • Training materials for the KGB.

    Unfortunately the archival documents are only available in person at the SBU archive offices. However, the archive has also digitised significant numbers of photographs from the Soviet era but are only accessible via request. (Source)

    SBU officers detain three suspects next to railroad tracks.
    SBU detaining criminals involved in fuel smuggling. (Image credit: ssu.gov.ua)

    4.8. Ukrainian Research Institute of Special Equipment and Forensic Science of the SBU

    The Ukrainian Research Institute of Special Equipment and Forensic Science of the SBU serves two primary functions. The institute innovates new technologies for use by all elements of the SBU. Somewhat like the Q Branch from the Bond movies, the institute develops new equipment for use by Alfa Group, counter-weapon technologies, and forensic tools and methods. The institute conducts full cycle development of its technologies from concept to manufacturing and testing. It is also responsible for maintenance of internally developed equipment. Additionally, the institute supports the investigative functions of the SBU by providing technical and forensic expertise. The institute has capabilities in 43 different forensic disciplines such as: (Source)

    • Document examination
    • Handwriting analysis
    • Ballistic and trace examinations, as well as blast analysis
    • Video and sound recording expertise
    • Computer forensics
    • Telecommunication identification
    • Drug and psychotropic testing
    • Biological examination

    4.9. Military Medical Department

    Once again, the purpose of the Military Medical Department (MMD) isn’t hard to decipher. The department functions as the SBU’s internal healthcare service. The war in Ukraine has resulted in significant injuries to numerous SBU personnel. The department has an excellent track record of caring for its service members. After receiving treatment and rehabilitation from the department, 90% of SBU personnel injured in the conflict have been able to return to duty. The department employs a variety of doctors that collectively provide care in 26 different specialties. There is also a diagnostic laboratory that provides over 140 types of clinical, haematology, biochemical, cytologic and immuno-serological tests. Additionally, the MMD is capable of providing SBU service members with drug rehabilitation programs. (Source)

    5. Joining the SBU

    The base requirements for joining the SBU are relatively simple. The three biggest ones are that an individual must be:

    • Over 18
    • Ukrainian citizen
    • No criminal record

    There are also additional health screenings, physical fitness requirements, and background checks. Additionally, the SBU will evaluate a candidate’s personal and professional aptitude. Certain departments within the SBU have differing internal requirements. For example, a candidate wanting to join the Cyber Security Situation Centre is highly likely to need a background in information technology.

    Plain clothes officers detain a suspect.
    SBU agents arrest a former Alfa Group leader who was a Russian FSB double agent. (Image credit: ssu.gov.ua)

    There is also a list of things which an SBU agent is prohibited from participating in. Agents are not allowed to: (Source)

    • Be a member of political parties or movements.
    • Organise or participate in strikes.
    • Engage in business activities.
    • Have a second job other than teaching, research or practising medicine.
    • Leave the garrison without the permission of SBU leadership.

    SBU officer clears a corner.
    SBU officer during counterterrorism training. (Image credit: ssu.gov.ua)

    5.1. Military Contracts

    The SBU is considered a military organization and subsequently the majority of members hold a military rank. (Source) There are three types of contracts under which personnel can join the SBU, each with increasing educational requirements.

    • “Rank and file”: 3 year service commitment
      • Minimum basic general secondary education (Year 10 / 9th grade)
    • Non-commissioned Officer: 3-5 year service commitment
      • Minimum complete general secondary education (Year 12 / 11th grade)
    • Officer: 1-5 year service commitment
      • Minimum bachelor’s degree

    Joining the SBU is a multistep process, beginning with submitting documentation and ending in a series of investigations.

    1. Candidates must collect and submit the required personal documents.
    2. Must pass a medical examination and professional/psychological screening.
    3. Physical fitness test.
    4. Must pass any special training required for the position.
    5. The department the candidate is applying to must review them and determine their suitability.
    6. Inspection of the candidate’s background regarding the Ukrainian law: “On Purification of Power”.
    7. Inspection of the candidate’s background regarding the Ukrainian law: “On Prevention of Corruption”.
    8. Inspection of the candidate’s background determining access to state secrets (Security clearance).

    If a candidate meets all the requirements and passes all the assessments and background investigations they will then become a member of the SBU.

    6. Weapons and Equipment of the SBU

    Like most elements of the Ukrainian military, the SBU saw a significant increase in its budget as Western nations began to directly fund their fight against Russia. The organisation has modernised on par with any high budget Western security service. Alfa Group members are seen almost exclusively in MultiCam uniforms and equipment. The SBU has usurped older Soviet-era equipment and technology for more modern and effective weaponry.

    Soldiers enter a building in formation with weapons ready and ballistic shields.
    Alfa Group conducts a dynamic entry. (Image credit: ssu.gov.ua)

    6.1. Rifles

    Rifles and carbines are the backbone of any infantry fighting force and the SBU is no exception. Operators can be seen using a multitude of these types of weapons.

    • AK-74
    • AKS-74
    • AKS-74U
    • AK-74M
    • Sig Sauer 516 (A short stroke gas piston M4 derivative)
    • Sig Sauer MCX
    • M4 pattern carbines

    Rifles appear to be distributed based on the department’s likelihood to engage in combat. Obviously the special operations wing of the SBU, Alfa Group, gets the newest and the coolest. Alfa Group is most often seen with new production Sig MCXs. Typically, these are outfitted with Sig made sound suppressors, Aimpoint Comp M4S red dots and peq15/15A IR laser aiming modules. Meanwhile, departments like the Counterintelligence Centre are more often seen with the legacy AK pattern rifles. Its somewhat rare to see AK pattern rifles outfitted with optics and lights, however the SBU seems to be very fond of suppressors. Most rifles employed by the SBU have suppressors, likely to save their hearing while firing indoors. Even with over-the-ear hearing protection, firing a rifle in an enclosed space can be deafening.

    SBU officers outside a building with snow on the ground.
    SBU operators with AKS-74Us outfitted with suppressors. (Image credit: ssu.gov.ua)

    6.2. Pistols

    Alot of post-Soviet states still arm their internal security and police forces with Makrov pistols. Many Russian police agencies can still be seen using them. Although iconic, Makarovs are antiquated and anaemic. It’s unclear when exactly the transition happened, but SBU officers are almost always seen with what appear to be Glock 17 pistols. The Glock fires a significantly more powerful cartridge, has a 17 round magazine compared to 8 rounds, and has a much more user friendly control scheme. Overall the decision to switch to the Glock as a standard issue side arm is an excellent move in terms of modernising the SBU.

    Plater carrier with two rifles and ammunition.
    SBU loadout with a Sig MCX, AKS-74 with GP-25 grenade launcher. (Image retrieved via Reddit)

    6.3. Force Multipliers

    The SBU has steered hard into the utilisation of force multipliers. A force multiplier is essentially anything that makes you more effective in combat than you would be without it. Alfa Group operators utilise OpsCore high cut helmets with arc rails allowing them to mount Peltor Comtacs. Comtacs function as over-the-ear hearing protection, limiting the sound that can enter your ear. Normally over-the-ear hearing protection would limit the user’s situational awareness. However, Comtacs provide active hearing protection. An external microphone amplifies voices and other low level noises but cuts off when high decibel noises like gunshots or explosions are detected. Additionally, they can be integrated into a communications system. The headset can plug into a body worn push-to-talk which then plugs into a body worn radio.

    Plain clothes SBU operators exiting a vehicle with weapons/
    Plain clothes officers conduct a training exercise. (Image credit: ssu.gov.ua)

    The proliferation of red dots, suppressors, modern helmets, modern uniforms, and other gear all make the SBU overmatched when compared to their Russian counterparts. SBU agents have even been seen with signal jammers which protect them from radio detonated explosives and nearby drones. SBU operators are often seen with night vision devices, a rarity for their Russian counterparts as well. Most Ukrainian special operations forces can be seen with dual tube PVS-31s or quad tube GPNV-18s.

    However, the SBU is most commonly seen with single tube PVS-14 devices. Due to the single tube design of the PVS 14, only one eye is seeing an enhanced image. Subsequently it offers less situational awareness and depth perception. However, they are cheap and provide the user with significant capabilities compared to not having one. Officers are also commonly seen with identify friend or foe (IFF) markers in the form of high visibility armbands.

    7. Controversies of the SBU

    Throughout this article, it has been alluded that the SBU’s past is less than clean. Corruption and the use of Gestapo tactics has plagued the organisation’s history, even in the modern era. These indiscretions (to put it lightly) range from suspected embezzlement and poisoning, to outright torture and forced confessions. 

    7.1. Corruption

    One of the most clear pieces of evidence of systemic corruption in the SBU dates back to 2012. Ironically, the head of the Main Directorate for Combating Corruption and Organised Crime was seen at a public event wearing a watch that cost more than he makes in a year. The watch cost around US$35,000. The director’s biography listed that he had no external business ventures and his yearly salary was well below the watches’ value. (Source) It is only speculation that this money was attained via corruption. However, it is worth noting that he was the head of the department that would have investigated his corruption.

    7.1.1. Political Poisoning

    The corruption also extended out of the economic sphere and into the political one. Evidence points towards the SBU’s involvement in the poisoning of an opposition presidential candidate in 2004. In the run up to the presidential election, opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko was dining with a few high ranking members of the SBU about the agency’s role in the election campaign. Incidentally, the following day Yushchenko became seriously ill. Doctors initially claimed it was food poisoning. However, as time progressed he developed chronic back pain, partial facial paralysis, and facial disfigurement.

    Yushchenko was undeterred by this, he continued campaigning with a catheter feeding painkillers into his spine and stated that he had fallen victim to, “Ukraine’s political cuisine which kills”. Yushchenko ultimately won the election inspite on the attempt on his life. Eventually doctors did conclude that Yushchenko had been poisoned. He never publicly accused the SBU of poisoning him. However, that became the general consensus for most of the country. (Source)

    Man with glasses and a suit with pock marks.
    Victor Yushchenko in 2006. (Source)

    7.2. “Gestapo Tactics”

    The SBU has been known to utilize Gestapo tactics, a colloquiallism for a secret police force that terrorizes the civilian populace in an attempt to root out disloyalty to the state. When Yuschenchko’s successor, Victor Yanukovych came to power in 2010, he was far more willing to utilise the SBU as a political weapon against his enemies.

    The femenist group FEMEN was also targeted by the SBU. The Ukraininan group is best known for protesting topless against sex tourism, homophobia, and a string of other social issues in Ukraine. When Yanukovych came to power he let the SBU loose on the feminist group. In the summer of 2010, SBU agents forced their way into the leader of FEMEN’s apartment in order to have a “preventive talk”. The agents subsequently threatened to break her arms and legs if she didn’t stop. Additionally, students at a Kiev university were called to the administration’s office where a group of SBU agents were waiting to interrogate them about their connections to FEMEN, who they worked for, and how the group received its funding. (Source) Ultimately, its not hard to understand why the group moved its headquarters to France.

    Yanukovych once again weaponized the SBU and prosecutors against a blogger/journalist named Oleg Shinkarenko. Shinkarenko’s crime was that he posted negatively about Yanukovych on a personal blog. He was arrested for “harsh criticism of the highest representatives of power” and “obscene expressions in the same address”. (Source) Essentially, the SBU had been weaponized as the thought police

    7.3. Torture

    The KGB was no stranger to using torture in order to coerce confessions. In fact its typically one of the first things that comes to mind when people think of the KGB. As the successor to the KGB, the SBU is no different. In the midst of the Russian invasion this practice became so prevalent that the United Nation’s Human Rights Council conducted multiple investigations into the use of torture by the Ukrainian government during the ongoing conflict. The SBU has been known to utilize physical, psychological, and sexual torture as means to an end. 

    7.3.1. The Bad

    In May of 2017, a young woman was lured towards an Azov Battalion position. From there she was ambushed by masked men who blindfolded and abducted her. While being filmed, the men threatened to kill her and beat her until she confessed to aiding the Russians. The men then took her to an SBU office where she was then interrogated by two male officers and forced to confess again. Then one of the SBU officers left the interrogation room, leaving her alone against her will with the other male officer. He proceeded to force her to take her clothes off and began to take photographs of her naked body, claiming to be documenting her bruises and tattoos. (Source)

    Three years prior to this, eight individuals were detained by the SBU officers in Kharkiv. The individuals were arrested for a variety of reasons, but they all were subjected to various methods of torture. These individuals were subjected to:

    • Suffocation with a gas mask.
    • Forcible dislocation of joints.
    • Electric shocks.
    • Mock executions.
    • Death threats targeting their families.
    • Threats of sexual violence against their families.

    After hours of being beaten and shocked, an SBU agent pretended to be a doctor and threatened to cut off the testicals of one man. During the interrogation of one of the women the SBU threatened to kidnap her young daughter and hand her over to a far-right militia so that the mother could “watch how they play with her”. (Source)

    7.3.2. The Really Bad

    Sometimes the SBU wasn’t always the instruments of the tortrute but the orchestrators of it. The SBU worked closely with the Azov Battalion when it came to forcing confessions.  In 2014 while acting on orders from the SBU, masked men from Azov abducted a woman near her home in the Zaporizhzhia region. She awoke in a room with her arms and legs bound by zip ties, chained to a metal chair, surrounded by masked men. They proceeded to kick her, bash her with the butts of their rifles, and shove needles under her fingernails. The men tied her hands behind her back and then hoisted her up by her wrists in a method of torture known as the “swallow”. Her captors threatened to gang rape her vaginally and orally. She was later released the same day. (Source)

    Another woman was abducted in January 2015 by ten masked men wearing camouflage uniforms. She was held in confinement for over a week in the basement of an SBU building. While there SBU agents beat her, shocked her with electricity, and burned her with melted plastic. The abductors threatened to rape her daughter if she refused to confess to supporting the Russians in 2014. (Source)

    In 2016 a man was abducted and taken to an SBU building while unconscious. His captors forced him to strip naked and tied him to a radiator. Over the course of two days, four SBU agents forced him to his knees while they insulted and humiliated him. They beat his head, kidneys, and groin. They attached probes to his tongue to shock him with electricity. He spent the two days without food or water and with his head in a plastic bag. (Source)

    6.4. Why It Matters

    The SBU’s track record of torturing it’s own citizens and forcing confession is one akin to a Stalinist government rather than a democratic one. This is by no means a complete list of reported incidents. The number of people actually tortured is highly likely to be much higher. Victims of state sanctioned rape are generally are not inclined to report it, especially when the victim is a man. It is also hard to tell how many victims didn’t survive the torture and interrogations. 

    Soldiers preparing to raid an apartment.
    SBU officers preparing to raid a fuel smuggling operation. (Image credit: ssu.gov.ua)

    Internal corruption leads to massive distrust of the organisation by the public. Even now the Ukrainian people harbour an intense suspicion towards the SBU and it will be very hard for them to regain the public’s trust. The 2019 reformations are clearly an attempt to rebuild this public trust as well as integrate and cooperate better with similar Western organisations. After the reforms passed there is far less evidence of corruption and unethical practices within the organisation. In a democratic society like Ukraine is striving towards, ensuring that internal security services work for the people rather than against them is critical. 

    8. Conclusion

    The history of the SBU is long and controversial. It has been marred by internal corruption and external threats. However, the SBU has been making a serious attempt to legitimise itself both in the eyes of the Ukrainian people and the international community. Internally the agency has become significantly more modernised, allowing them to better combat the Russian threat. The civilian populace now holds more control over the agency, providing better accountability. SBU officers protect against a full spectrum of threats, ranging from the cyber domain to criminal enterprises. Despite its past, the agency has a critical function in protecting Ukraine. It is likely that as cooperation with the West grows, the SBU will continue to become one of the best internal security services in the world.

    SBU officers in formation.
    Alfa Group operators. (Image credit: president.gov.ua)
    Jordan Smith
    Jordan Smith
    Jordan is currently working on his undergraduate degree at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He is majoring in International Politics with a concentration in Security Studies and a minor in Russian language.

    Table of contents

    Subscribe

    Get the weekly email from Grey Dynamics that makes reading intel articles and reports actually enjoyable. Join our mailing list to stay in the loop for free!

    Related contents