Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) says it has uncovered an MI6-backed plot to steal Russian warplanes and fly them to Ukraine.
Ukraine is desperately short of fighter aircraft, but as the Ukrainian air force’s pilots are trained on Russian-made airframes it’s not easy to replace Ukraine’s losses with NATO aircraft.
According to an FSB report aired on Russian TV, British intelligence operatives were working with their Ukrainian counterparts to lure Russian pilots to Ukraine in exchange for $2 million (around £1.6m) and a guaranteed “comfortable life” in an EU country.
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The propaganda broadcast on Moscow-based state TV channel Rossiya-24 claimed that the exposure of the Ukrainian spy plot allowed Russian forces to identify a “secret aerodrome” at Kanatovo, in central Ukraine where the stolen aircraft were to be sent.
But Ukrainian sources say that Kanatovo is a well-known Ukrainian air force base that has been in use since Soviet times.
The Ukrainian air force is particularly keen to obtain Su-24M, Su-34 and Tu-22M3 warplanes, according to the Russian report. The alleged plan unravelled after some of the Russian flyers that had been targeted reported the approaches to their senior commanders.
Investigative journalist Christo Grozev was identified as one of those involved in passing the bribes to Russian pilots.
He says that it became clear that the scheme had been compromised after Russian agents took over some of the pilots’ phones and changed there demands – including one who tried to gain passage for his “girlfriend” rather than his wife.
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Grozev says it took “about five minutes” to discover that the woman was a Russian agent that he described as “an FSB girlfriend-for-hire”.
But Grozev told The Times that the Russian operation had in fact been “a serious blunder for the FSB, disclosing unintentionally identities of dozens of counterintel officers, their methods of operation, and their undercover assets”.
Grozev’s news outlet Bellingcat says it’s ready to release a film about the plot, which he says reveals a “crazier-than-fiction story of triple-agents, fake passports and faux girlfriends”
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