Bellingcat confirms involvement in Ukrainian plot to steal Russian jets
Christo Grozev, self-styled ‘lead Russia investigator’ with Bellingcat, confirmed on Monday his involvement in a Ukrainian intelligence plot to incite Russian military pilots to defect and hijack their planes. The senior member of the controversial Western-funded group, however, challenged the story told by the Russian side.
Russia’s Security Service (FSB) has presented “a traditional mix of forged ‘evidence’ and loosely interpreted facts” on the affair, Grozev claimed, rejecting allegations of being directly involved in the plot. According to a middleman detained by Russian intelligence, he had been receiving orders directly from Grozev on how to deliver cash to the pilots in exchange for videos proving they actually have access to warplanes.
“What is true, however, is I was involved in this crazier-than-fiction story of triple-agents, fake passports and faux girlfriends – as a documentary film maker,” he said, in a lengthy Twitter thread about the matter. Grozev did not, however, directly address the claims made against him by the detained suspect.
“Grozev… did not actually explain anything to me, he just told me the name of the courier who would deliver the money by train,” the suspect claimed.
Grozev also insisted the whole affair ultimately became a “serious blunder” for Russian intelligence rather than a success. He claimed that the intelligence has disclosed “unintentionally [the] identities of dozens of counter intel officers, their methods of operation, and their undercover assets.” One of the pilots, for instance, abruptly decided to flee Russia with his alleged “lover” instead of his wife, immediately raising suspicion of the team. Primarily, the alleged “lover” was deemed being “waaay too hot” for the pilot, while her phone contacts suggested she was in touch with FSB counter intelligence officers, according to Grozev.
The whole operation ultimately devolved into the two parties feeding each other misinformation on air defenses, flight paths, altitude corridors and so on. “This bizarre mutual-deceipt (sic) game came to an end when the FSB realized no one will show up at any of the suggested meet-ups (FSB were keen to identify Ukrainian agents), realizing they’ve been burned. And the Ukrainians realized they're likely not getting a real pilot either,” Grozev wrote.
He also claimed that the operation was staged by “maverick ex operatives” and not active Ukrainian intelligence services. “If it were, there’d be no way we would – or want to – get access to it,” he stressed. Bellingcat just “found out about the initiative” taken by the supposedly independent “operatives” it knew from before and “assured ourselves a front seat,” Grozev explained. He also strongly denied the involvement of any Western intelligence agencies in the plot, elegantly dismissing such allegations as “unadulterated bollocks.”
Russia has repeatedly questioned the independence and credibility of Bellingcat. Despite advertising itself as an investigative group specializing in fact-checking and open-source intelligence, with both professional and citizen journalists contributing, it has been receiving state funding from multiple Western states. The group was labeled “undesirable” in Russia earlier in July, with the designation effectively prohibiting any operations in the country for it.
Last year, Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) chief Sergey Naryshkin squarely accused Bellingcat of working closely with Western intelligence services with the sole goal to “put pressure on either [Russia] or on individuals and entities.”
“They use dishonest methods. And the information that is used in such cases is false, unverified, it has its own goals… They are ready to perform any task, because they do it for money, not objectively,” Naryshkin asserted.