It was a real smokeshow-and-mirrors ploy.
A “too hot” girlfriend of a Russian spy helped wary Ukrainian volunteers sniff out a Moscow intelligence scheme, according to a journalist.
The incongruous couple raised red flags, according to journalist Christo Grozev, a Bulgarian journalist with investigative outlet Bellingcat.
“It took me about five minutes to discover that the pilot’s ‘lover’ (waaay too hot for him, FSB) was an FSB asset,” Grozev wrote on Twitter, using the acronym for Russia’s Federal Security Service.
“The Ukrainians figured that out too,” he added.
Grozev said he’d been following a team of Ukrainian “maverick ex-operatives” running an unofficial operation trying to get Russian pilots to defect.
Some pilots apparently responded, sending the Ukrainians videos of their cockpits to prove their veracity.
But after some back and forth, Grozev said, the pilots’ “tone changed quickly, suggesting the pilots were no longer talking on their own behalf but were ‘coached’ – likely by FSB military counter-intelligence officers.”
The sudden appearance of “Maria,” a gorgeous brunette with suspected ties to Russian intelligence, further raised suspicions, he added.
If accurate, it would not be the first time Russian intelligence gave up the game through questionable tradecraft — in April, an FSB lackey apparently confused “SIM cards” with the video game “the SIMS” when purportedly planting evidence at a staged raid.
Grozev, who is making a documentary film about the operation, said that the discovery kicked off a cat-and-mouse game, with the Ukrainian team luring the wife of a Russian pilot to Minsk in neighboring Belarus in order to identify Russian FSB agents — who in turn were trying to identify Ukrainian operatives.
The FSB waited for four days before realizing they’d been set up, Grozev said.
“Both sides were trying to extract maximum information from the other, while feeding them maximum disinfo,” the journalist said.
Ultimately, he said, the FSB realized they hadn’t fooled the Ukrainians, and the Ukrainians realized they weren’t going to lure a pilot into defecting, and the operation ended.
Grozev said the Ukrainian operation wasn’t official, but run by “volunteers” that were known to Bellingcat through its reporting on a similar sting effort against Russian Wagner Group mercenaries last year.
The FSB — Russia’s primary counterintelligence agency — said in a statement Monday that it had successfully foiled a Ukrainian attempt to recruit Russian pilots.
The FSB said the ploy was an official Ukrainian intelligence operation that “tried to recruit Russian military pilots for a monetary reward and guarantees of obtaining citizenship of one of the EU countries,” in an effort to persuade them “to fly and land aircraft on airfields controlled by the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
“In the course of the operational game, Russian counterintelligence officers obtained information that helped our Armed Forces inflict fire damage on a number of Ukrainian military facilities,” the FSB claimed, according to a report by Russia’s Interfax news agency.