Russia Planning Post-Invasion Arrest and Assassination Campaign in Ukraine, U.S. Officials Say

Intelligence on possible targets has been shared with Ukraine and other partners in the region.

By , , and
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with soldiers
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with soldiers
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrives to attend a military drill outside the city of Rivne, northern Ukraine, on Feb. 16. Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

The United States has obtained intelligence that Russia may target prominent political opponents, anti-corruption activists, and Belarusian and Russian dissidents living in exile should it move forward with plans to invade Ukraine, as U.S. President Joe Biden warned on Thursday that the threat of a renewed Russian invasion of the country remains “very high” and could take place within the next several days. 

Four people familiar with U.S. intelligence said that Russia has drafted lists of Ukrainian political figures and other prominent individuals to be targeted for either arrest or assassination in the event of a Russian assault on Ukraine.

A fifth person, a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the United States has been downgrading its intelligence classification regarding threats to specific groups within Ukraine to share this information with Ukrainian government officials and other partners in the region positioned to help. 

The United States has obtained intelligence that Russia may target prominent political opponents, anti-corruption activists, and Belarusian and Russian dissidents living in exile should it move forward with plans to invade Ukraine, as U.S. President Joe Biden warned on Thursday that the threat of a renewed Russian invasion of the country remains “very high” and could take place within the next several days. 

Four people familiar with U.S. intelligence said that Russia has drafted lists of Ukrainian political figures and other prominent individuals to be targeted for either arrest or assassination in the event of a Russian assault on Ukraine.

A fifth person, a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the United States has been downgrading its intelligence classification regarding threats to specific groups within Ukraine to share this information with Ukrainian government officials and other partners in the region positioned to help. 

A spokesperson for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“As we’ve seen in the past, we expect Russia will try to force cooperation through intimidation and repression,” said a U.S. official who spoke on background on condition of anonymity. 

“These acts, which in past Russian operations have included targeted killings, kidnappings/forced disappearances, detentions, and the use of torture, would likely target those who oppose Russian actions, including Russian and Belarusian dissidents in exile in Ukraine, journalists and anti-corruption activists, and vulnerable populations such as religious and ethnic minorities and LGBTQI+ persons,” the official said. 

The Biden administration has also been startled by how formalized the lists are, which appear to target anyone who could challenge the Russian agenda. Five Eyes intelligence partners have also tracked Russian intelligence agencies, such as the FSB and GRU, building up target and kill lists. One congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the moves were typical of Russian doctrine, using armed forces to seize military objectives, while special operators shape the conflict and intelligence operators come into the country to get rid of opposition elements. 

The first official noted that dissidents from Russia and Belarus, where a brutal crackdown on dissent following mass protests in 2020 prompted many to flee to neighboring Ukraine, faced particular challenges should they need to flee. Unlike Ukrainian citizens, they require visas to travel to other countries in Europe.

Franak Viacorka, a senior advisor to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, said that his team had issued sets of specific recommendations to Belarusians living in Ukraine in the event of a Russian attack, but that they had not been informed of a specific threat to Belarusian dissidents. 

Russia has amassed around 150,000 troops near the border of Ukraine, ostensibly for joint military drills with neighboring Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko’s military forces. Russia has steadfastly denied it has any plans to invade Ukraine and has accused the West of manufacturing the crisis. 

The U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Michael Carpenter, said on Friday that the United States assessed that Russia had amassed between 169,000 to 190,000 personnel in and near Ukraine, a sharp increase from the end of January. The United States has asked Russia for clarification about its “large-scale and unusual military activities,” Carpenter said, including the precise location of the operations and the number and types of military units involved.

Even as U.S. and other NATO members raise concern of a possible invasion, Zelensky has downplayed the threat in recent weeks, insisting an invasion is unlikely and that Washington isn’t helping defuse the crisis by stoking alarm. 

Speaking during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken sketched out a detailed and disturbing picture of what a Russian invasion of Ukraine could look like, beginning with creating a false pretext for an invasion and the Russian government convening emergency meetings to address the manufactured crisis. Some Western officials have pointed to Russia’s new claims that Ukrainian military forces are perpetrating a “genocide” against the Russian-speaking population in Donbass as the possible false pretext—a claim they dismiss as wholly false. 

“Next, the attack is planned to begin,” Blinken said. “Russian missiles and bombs will drop across Ukraine. Communications will be jammed. Cyberattacks will shut down key Ukrainian institutions.” After that, he said, Russian tanks and soldiers “will advance on key targets that have already been identified and mapped out in detailed plans. We believe these targets include … Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million people.”

In his speech, Blinken briefly alluded to U.S. intelligence indicating Russia would target political opponents with arrest or assassination: “And conventional attacks are not all that Russia plans to inflict upon the people of Ukraine. We have information that indicates Russia will target specific groups of Ukrainians.”

On Friday, Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine announced plans to evacuate civilians to Russia, accusing the Ukrainian government of plotting an assault on the region. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba categorically denied Kyiv had plans to launch an offensive operation in the region, describing the allegations as Russian disinformation. 

A report published earlier this week by the British defense think tank the Royal United Services Institute, based on interviews with several senior Ukrainian intelligence officials, alleged that the Russian security services had extensive penetration of Ukrainian local government structures and had begun mapping out networks of individuals who could be relied upon to run local governments in the event of a Russian invasion. 

According to the report, the 9th Directorate of Russia’s FSB security service began wargaming scenarios this past December with the leadership of Russia’s Airborne Forces. 

“Together they mapped which locals would be supportive and began working on lists of targets who would not. The intent was to establish the command-and-control links between intelligence assets and military units to secure critical infrastructure, government buildings, and to locate and eliminate Ukrainian leaders who would rally resistance,” the report said. 

Details of Russia’s war game are not public. “They derive from our interviews. However, our interviewees explained in detail how they know about them. They have the receipts,” said report co-author Jack Watling, a research fellow with the institute, in an email. 

The warning to Ukraine and other allies about Russia’s potential plan to target political opponents aligns with Washington’s new playbook of rapidly declassifying sensitive intelligence to call out Moscow’s moves before they are made. U.S. and other top NATO officials in Europe have repeatedly said the decision on whether to invade rests solely on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s shoulders.

According to senior U.S. diplomats and former intelligence officials, the hope is that by calling out Putin’s moves before he makes them and taking away any element of surprise, they can help deter an invasion.

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

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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