‘Don’t Freaking Test Us’: U.S. Sanctions Alleged Intelligence Operatives Undermining Ukraine

It’s part of an effort to shed light on Russia’s orchestrated campaign to destabilize Kyiv—and even take over Ukraine.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden
U.S. President Joe Biden
U.S. President Joe Biden talks to reporters at the White House in Washington on Jan. 19. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Putin’s War

The U.S. Treasury announced new sanctions on four Ukrainians, including two serving members of the Ukrainian parliament, on Thursday, accusing them of being involved in Russian government-directed efforts to destabilize and establish control over the Ukrainian government.

“Russia has directed its intelligence services to recruit current and former Ukrainian government officials to prepare to take over the government of Ukraine and to control Ukraine’s critical infrastructure with an occupying Russian force,” the Treasury Department said in a detailed statement. 

The four individuals sanctioned are alleged to have acted at the direction of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) as part of an effort to undermine the Ukrainian government that predates the current Russian military buildup along the border of Ukraine. But the sanctions come as U.S. officials warned last week that Moscow has pre-positioned operatives in Ukraine with a view to launching a false flag operation as a pretext to go to war. The sanctions freeze any of the subjects’ U.S.-held assets, though it’s not clear they have much to target.

The U.S. Treasury announced new sanctions on four Ukrainians, including two serving members of the Ukrainian parliament, on Thursday, accusing them of being involved in Russian government-directed efforts to destabilize and establish control over the Ukrainian government.

“Russia has directed its intelligence services to recruit current and former Ukrainian government officials to prepare to take over the government of Ukraine and to control Ukraine’s critical infrastructure with an occupying Russian force,” the Treasury Department said in a detailed statement. 

The four individuals sanctioned are alleged to have acted at the direction of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) as part of an effort to undermine the Ukrainian government that predates the current Russian military buildup along the border of Ukraine. But the sanctions come as U.S. officials warned last week that Moscow has pre-positioned operatives in Ukraine with a view to launching a false flag operation as a pretext to go to war. The sanctions freeze any of the subjects’ U.S.-held assets, though it’s not clear they have much to target.

Experts saw the move as part of an ongoing U.S. effort to expose the Kremlin’s nefarious activities in Ukraine and to send a warning shot to Moscow about the risks of further action. Russia has long relied on disinformation and shadowy tactics to disguise its activities in the Ukraine and maintain some veneer of plausible deniability. Amid the current buildup, U.S. officials have been unusually transparent in revealing U.S. intelligence assessments with allies and the public about Russia’s intentions. 

“This is a ‘don’t freaking test us’ kind of move to whack two sitting parliament members in Ukraine for facilitating Russian aggression plans,” said Brian O’Toole, a former sanctions official who served in the Obama administration.

Among those sanctioned were Taras Kozak and Oleh Voloshyn, two members of parliament for the Opposition Platform-For Life party, which is led by media mogul Viktor Medvedchuk, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Medvedchuk is already subject to U.S. and Ukrainian sanctions. Also included in the sanctions were Volodymyr Oliynyk, a former Ukrainian official who now lives in Moscow and is alleged to have worked in 2021 at the direction of the Russian intelligence services to gather information about Ukrainian critical infrastructure, and Vladimir Sivkovich, former deputy secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, who was sanctioned for allegedly working with a network of Russian intelligence operatives to manufacture support for the idea of Ukraine ceding the annexed Crimean peninsula to Russia and for his alleged support of a disinformation campaign targeting the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. 

“The United States is taking action to expose and counter Russia’s dangerous and threatening campaign of influence and disinformation in Ukraine,” Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo said in a statement. “We are committed to taking steps to hold Russia accountable for their destabilizing actions.”

In 2020, Kremlin officials launched an effort to undermine the Ukrainian government’s ability to function independently of Russia, according to the Treasury statement. This included a two-pronged effort to recruit pro-Russian individuals and undermine prominent pro-Western Ukrainians. 

“Goals of the plan included destabilizing the political situation in Ukraine and laying the groundwork for creating a new, Russian-controlled government in Ukraine,” the statement said. 

In a press conference on Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden said that Russia has positioned FSB operatives in Ukraine “to undermine the solidarity within Ukraine about Russia and to try to promote Russian interest.” 

While the FSB is Russia’s domestic security service, roughly analogous to the FBI, it has increasingly spearheaded operations abroad, particularly those involving political subversion. “Over the years, the FSB has moved increasingly into foreign operations but has always played a big role in what used to be called ‘the near abroad’—the former Soviet states and countries along Russia’s periphery,” said John Sipher, a former career member of the CIA’s clandestine service who led the agency’s Russia operations.

The use of the FSB also speaks volumes about the way Moscow views Ukraine. “In some ways, it is at once foreign and also domestic,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services and author of The Weaponisation of Everything: A Field Guide to the New Way of War. “That doesn’t mean to say that the Foreign Intelligence Service and military intelligence are not also there. But they have different types of missions.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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