Their names and faces are unknown. They are seldom shown on TV. Their chevrons depict an owl raising a sword over Russia, and their commanders are being fiercely hunted by Russian special services. They are Ukrainian intelligence officers.
On September 7, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine will celebrate 29 years since its founding, and its employees continue to do their extremely difficult and dangerous work for the sake of the state and the people, without any right to glory.
How was Ukrainian intelligence formed and what were its first years? How was it subjected to deliberate destruction and how it managed to revive? How was it curbing the Russian invasion and still continue to destroy the enemy? How did it gain the respect of partnering agencies and the hatred of its enemies?
Faithful to Ukraine
With the restoration of Ukraine’s independence in 1991, an urgent need arose to build the country’s own national security and defense system. Alongside the formation of the Ukrainian army, the creation of its own intelligence agencies began. Ukrainian officers, who served in the Soviet army’s intelligence units both in Ukraine and abroad, became the core of this process. The main burden of organizational and staff management to create intelligence of the Ukrainian army almost from scratch fell on their shoulders.
Few people know, but initially, there were two main intelligence structures in Ukraine.
Yet in February 1992, the intelligence department of the then General Headquarters of the Armed Forces of Ukraine was established. Its task was to build a unified intelligence system of the Ukrainian army, to set it up at the operational level. The next step was to create a strategic-level military intelligence system. In such a way, on September 7, 1992, by the Decree of the President of Ukraine, the Strategic Military Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine was established. It is on this day that Ukrainian intelligence officers celebrate their professional holiday.
The existence of two main intelligence agencies subordinated to the Minister of Defense and the Chief of the General Headquarters respectively created many obstacles, required additional time for numerous coordination between the structures, and hampered the overall process of developing an effective military intelligence system. Therefore, on July 6, 1993, President Leonid Kravchuk issued a new decree on establishing the Main Military Intelligence Directorate on the basis of two Ukrainian intelligence structures, which on April 14, 1994, received its current name – the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine (short name – Defense Intelligence of Ukraine, DIU).
“Military intelligence faced certain difficulties and, as life shows, had an advantage as well. The advantage was that we did not transform like other power structures that could change the flag and symbols”, – the first DIU chief Oleksandr Skipalsky later recalled noticing that military intelligence had initially been based on loyalty to young independent Ukraine.
With a single structure being formed, intensive training of special units of military intelligence was launched. Yaroslav Horoshko was tasked to manage the process. He was an Afghan War veteran, one of the few heroes of the Soviet Union who received this title during his lifetime. He was predicted to have a meteoric career in Moscow, but as soon as Ukraine regained independence, Yaroslav Pavlovych returned to his homeland. A strong-willed, professional, tough commander – this is how Yaroslav Horoshko’s comrades and special forces officers, who studied under his leadership, recall him. His responsibilities included training combat swimmers, and he paid special attention to it. Unfortunately, Yaroslav Horoshko died tragically during another dive, but his name is forever written in the DIU Hall of Fame.
For reasons of conscience
During all the years of independence, our military servicemen participated in dozens of peacekeeping missions in other states, in which Ukrainian intelligence officers have always been at the frontline.
The 1990s were extremely tough not only for Ukraine but for the whole world. Russia had fueled military conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, and Russian mercenaries were fighting in Azerbaijan and other hotspots in Europe and worldwide, including the Balkans war. War-torn Bosnia and Herzegovina plunged into a confrontation on three fronts. For a long time, the international peacekeeping contingent, which included the Ukrainian military mission, could not stop the bloodshed. In 1995, the world was horrified by the genocide committed by the Bosnian Serb army in Srebrenica, when 8000 Muslim civilians between the ages of 12 and 77 were murdered. Such a fate awaited the inhabitants of the Zhepa enclave. The Ukrainian contingent defended this land, with intelligence officer Mykola Verkhohlyad being among the commanders.
Unlike the Dutch peacekeepers in Srebrenica, the conscience of Ukrainians did not allow them to leave civilians for certain death. At that time, Zhepa was guarded by only 79 Ukrainian servicemen, who were also under constant fire from the Bosnian Serb army. Verkhoglyad personally conducted grueling talks with Bosnian Serb leader Ratko Mladic (currently serving a life sentence for war crimes) and eventually agreed to evacuate civilians. As a result of an operation by Ukrainian peacekeepers with the support of the French military, more than 10000 Bosnian Muslims were rescued.
Also in 1995, with the participation of military intelligence, Russia’s first attack on Crimea was repulsed. Russia was then trying to solidify the power of the so-called “president of Crimea” Yuriy Meshkov on the peninsula. Ukrainian intelligence officers participated in security and peace enforcement in Iraq as part of the international coalition forces during 2002-2005. In 2003, Russia attacked Crimea once again, starting construction of a dam to the Tuzla Island in the Kerch Strait. Thanks to the operative work of our intelligence, it became possible to prevent the annexation of Ukrainian territory.
In the early 2000s, the Ukrainian parliament passed the Law “On Intelligence Agencies of Ukraine”. Under it, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine was granted the status of a special government authority.
Attempt to destroy and the revival
When the Yanukovych dictatorship was established in 2010, the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the DIU in particular faced tough times. Agents of the Russian Federation were appointed heads of the Ministry of Defense; they deliberately destroyed the military intelligence system of Ukraine in particular. As of the beginning of 2014, an interstate agreement was in force with Russia, according to which mutual intelligence activities were prohibited, and the state leadership closely monitored the observance of this agreement. As a result, before the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war, military intelligence did not have sufficient data on the Russian army, its movement, and accumulation on the border. On the other hand, the intelligence units of the brigades of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, given the purposeful several-year demoralization of the army, were involved in tasks unusual for them, as they were considered the most disciplined and professional. For example, they escorted military columns and established checkpoints.
The DIU officers had to restore the agency’s combat capability at an insane pace and promptly obtain vital intelligence to stop the Russian offensive.
Sapiens dominabitur astris*
We won’t find out for a long time the names of many intelligence officers and the details of hundreds of special operations that helped Ukraine defend its independence and sovereignty. However, it was through professional intelligence that a successful offensive by Ukrainian forces in the summer of 2014 was made possible, as a result of which Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, and other Ukrainian cities were liberated.
The heroic defense of the Donetsk airport began with the operation of the DIU detachment headed by Colonel Maksym Shapoval when the airport was liberated from the Russian occupiers. The DIU officers became the first “cyborgs”. In addition, with the beginning of the war, Maksym Shapoval’s unit collected evidence of Kremlin aggression, data on the deployment of Russian artillery, conducted operations in the enemy’s deep rear, and distinguished itself in battles for the Savur-Mohyla strategic height. Thanks to the Colonel’s professionalism, thousands of lives of Ukrainian military and civilians were saved. He personally commanded special operations and became a blood enemy of the occupiers. They had been hunting for him since the outbreak of war.
On June 27, 2017, Maksym Shapoval died as a result of a terrorist attack. For his heroism, the Colonel was awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine (posthumously), and a special reserve of the DIU, led by Shapoval, was named after him.
“Intelligence does not leave its people” is a principle, which officers always remember and follow. Yevhen Zelensky’s group from the 8th Special Purpose Regiment received exactly such a task on June 17, 2014, in the heat of the Russian-Ukrainian war. They were to free the volunteers of the Aidar Battalion from Russian captivity. The officers completed their task but were ambushed. Yevhen Zelensky personally covered the withdrawal of an armored personnel carrier hit by an enemy shell. Later, the participants of that battle mentioned that the commander had actually shielded them from an enemy explosion. A week later, he died from injuries at the Kyiv military hospital. Senior Lieutenant Zelensky was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine for his courage and heroism. He was only 23 years old.
If you want peace, prepare for war. This was the approach of Lieutenant Colonel Yuriy Kovalenko, Deputy Commander of the Special Forces Detachment of the 3rd Regiment. Dealing with all kinds of weapons and equipment, mines, hand-to-hand combat – this was the basics which the officer taught and demanded from his subordinates yet in peacetime. As the war broke out, Lieutenant Colonel Kovalenko’s group raided the enemy’s deep rear, destroyed enemy ambushes, and secured the passage of units of the Armed Forces and the Border Guard Service to protect the state border. The commander personally planned a breakthrough of the unit through the combat formations of the Russian occupation forces in the Izvaryno area and the blocking of the main routes for the advance of the occupiers from Russia’s territory. Unfortunately, on July 15, 2014, the Lieutenant Colonel’s detachment came under heavy mortar fire, and Yuriy Kovalenko died from injuries. For his feat in defending Ukraine’s independence, the officer was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine.
To protect and take care of your comrades-in-arms. Commander of the intelligence group Oleksandr Petrakivsky followed this rule. Dozens of reconnaissance missions, combat operations, and raids to the enemy’s rear were successfully performed by Captain Petrakivsky’s group without losses, and valuable information was gained. The battle for Luhansk airport became one of the heroic pages of Ukrainians in the struggle for freedom and independence. On July 21, Petrakivsky’s reconnaissance group followed a column of the ATO forces moving to the airport and discovered an ambush of the Russian occupiers. To save the soldiers’ lives, the intelligence officers entered the battle, during which Commander Petrakivsky gave a helmet to a soldier, who saved his life. Unfortunately, Petrakivsky himself was seriously injured. For his feat in defending the freedom and independence of Ukraine, he was awarded the Order of the Golden Star and the title of Hero of Ukraine. After a long struggle for life, on August 29, 2021, Oleksandr Petrakivsky died.
“Above us only stars” is the motto of the aggressor state’s intelligence.
“The wise will rule the stars” * – Sapiens dominabitur astris is the answer of thousands of Ukrainian intelligence officers, whose names we may never know, but thanks to whom Ukraine has been defending Europe from the “Russian bear” for eight years.
Combat officers lead reforms
“Iron is melted into steel in fire, people are transformed into a nation in the struggle” – the words of the hero of the national liberation struggle of the twentieth century Yevhen Konovalets were prophetic. Today, Ukrainians defend Ukraine’s independence, restored in 1991, with weapons in their hands. The Ukrainian nation, its army, and military intelligence were finally formed in the crucible of war. Our military intelligence has become a burr in the saddle of the Russian occupiers.
In 2020, the DIU received a new leadership. A colonel, and recently a brigadier general, full cavalier of the Order of Courage Kyrylo Budanov, who survived numerous attempted assassinations by the Russian special services, headed the agency. His team is made up of young combat officers who have experienced successful special operations against the enemy, in particular in the occupied Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Many skeptics immediately criticized the President’s decision, claiming that combat veterans were unlikely to master the “desk job” of reforming an important area in the national security and defense sector.
However, one of the first steps of the DIU leadership, together with the heads of other intelligence agencies, the relevant committee of the Parliament, and the Office of the President, was to develop a new Law “On Intelligence”, which the Verkhovna Rada passed within several months, in September 2020.
The law set the legal basis for developing the latest Ukrainian intelligence system as another step towards Ukraine’s integration into the European and Euro-Atlantic communities. The law was developed taking into account the experience of regulating the activities of intelligence agencies in the EU and NATO countries.
In turn, the DIU further works on strengthening cooperation with Western partners, adopting practices, and sharing its experience with colleagues from NATO countries. “Honor above all” is the major principle of modern Ukrainian intelligence officers, who changed the situation on the front, and now are changing the situation in Ukraine and on the international arena, fighting for a worthy place of our state in the world.
“Many special units worldwide would not dare to do something because of higher risks, but our vision is completely different. We are able to conduct operations in any part of the world, if necessary. A decision is made and it will be implemented. As an example, the launch of the DIU special operation to evacuate people from Afghanistan was agreed upon very promptly – in one day, – Chief of the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine Kyrylo Budanov emphasizes.
It is clear that we will not find information about modern military intelligence operations in open sources. However, some of them are still becoming known to the public. When Afghanistan fell under Taliban terrorists’ attacks and the vast majority of Western allies evacuated due to high danger, Ukraine continued its mission to save the lives of hundreds of its own citizens, allies, and civilian Afghans. Officers of the Main Intelligence Directorate had to grab Ukrainian and other citizens by the necks, pull them out of the crowd so that they could get on board the evacuation aircraft. On August 22, a group of the DIU special forces officers together with the crew of the IL-76MD aircraft of the 25th Transport Aviation Brigade of the Air Force of Ukraine rescued 83 people.
Moreover, when the Canadian military’s planned attempts to evacuate its Afghan workers failed, as did another attempt by the U.S. Department of State, Canada asked for Ukraine’s support. The second DIU operation to rescue interpreters was conducted on the morning of August 27, 2021, a day after the last Canadian evacuation aircraft took off from Afghanistan and a few hours after the terrorist attack near Kabul airport (where at least 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. soldiers were killed).
“Everyone was surprised. For a month I have been trying to get someone to take us away. We asked Americans, Canadians, Qataris, everyone – and there was no solution. They were afraid to go out. Ukrainian soldiers have become angels for us. They did an extraordinary job. They have big hearts”, – said Javed Hakmal, a 33-year-old father of four who worked with Canadian special forces in Kandahar for two years, said.
As a result of Ukraine’s second military intelligence operation in Taliban-occupied Kabul, 29 people to be executed by Afghanistan’s “new government” were rescued.
With faith in the future
Today, the Main Intelligence Directorate, to say the least, is one of the most professional agencies, where war-hardened professionals work. The structure builds up capacities, develops the intelligence network, modernizes its material and technical base, adopts the leading practices of NATO countries, and shares its experience with partners. The relatively young but professional DIU leadership eradicates Soviet remnants and pays special attention to the selection and growth of personnel who will shape the future of Ukraine’s military intelligence tomorrow. The special services of the aggressor state blame the Ukrainian intelligence officers for their numerous failures, without stopping the attempts to assassinate the DIU leaders. And the partners admire the professionalism and courage of our warriors, who are able to successfully perform tasks in extremely dangerous conditions.
Therefore, on September 7, we can congratulate the heroes, thanks to whom our peaceful daily life is possible, and express our gratitude to the warriors who are gaining victory and glory of Ukraine every day.