The Security Service of Ukraine is 20 years old

When Ukraine restored independence, one of the urgent measures to protect its statehood was establishment of its own intelligence agency.

As time went by, this country became in need of a high-class security service.

So this service was formed.

The presidents, not to mention the grassroots, took different attitudes to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU).

The SBU’s 20th anniversary is a good occasion to tell about the beginning of its history.

Before being passed, the law “On the Security Service of Ukraine” went through three readings.

It was finally adopted on March 25, 1992. (Read about the most acute and tense points in the first years of SBU activities in an interview with Yevhen Marchuk to be published in one of the next issues.)


Here we discuss the particularities of SBU formation and functioning in the early 1990s with Major-General Yurii SEMUSHEV (at the time, chief of the SBU General Directorate for Governmental Communication) and Colonel-General Oleksandr SHARKOV of the International Public Security Police Corporation (at the time, acting chief of the SBU General Intelligence Directorate).

Oleksandr SHARKOV: “The Russians refused to believe they were dealing with an independent secret service”

Mr. Sharkov, in the early 1990s you, member of the National Security Council, dealt with establishing an independent Ukrainian intelligence service. As is known, it used to be a KGB branch. What challenges did you face at the time?

“Far from all interpreted the collapse of the Soviet Union as a positive factor. But, on the other hand, the possibility of establishing an independent Ukraine aroused great enthusiasm as an opportunity to correct old mistakes and smash old stereotypes and set up a new, independent intelligence service. It was clear that Ukraine would not have in the near future the possibilities that the Soviet Union had had. This raised the organizational question of how to set up a secret service.

“It was decided to make a selection. To be eligible for the new secret service, one had to be a patriot and a professional who had not sullied his name by committing repressions against his compatriots. A parliamentary commission was formed to select this kind of people. All the SBU (then part of the National Security Council of Ukraine) top officers were interviewed by this commission with MP Durdynets at the head.

“When Yevhen Marchuk became the SBU chairman, he summoned me and said: draw up a staff list for the General Intelligence Directorate the way you deem necessary. I believed that the staff list should be transparent and include as few bosses as possible and as many responsible persons as possible. The controlling functions should be assigned to someone who has access. The prosecution service is not authorized to interfere into operational activities, so how can they exercise control?”

What problems did you have?

“First of all, the personnel problem. The new staff list made it possible to set up new fields of activity. We introduced a different doctrine which is more oriented to cooperation than to confrontation. There were national interests that we were supposed to protect. From this angle, intelligence was to help form both foreign and domestic policy, protect and promote national interests. Besides, this also envisaged collecting traditional intelligence data and informing the topmost leadership (the president, the Verkhovna Rada, the National Security Council, and the Cabinet of Ministers) to enable them to make important decisions.

“Then we began to develop cooperation (earlier, the secret services of various countries had cooperated via Moscow). We began to develop relations with Russia. I can remember some very interesting negotiations with Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. They were timid during the talks and said: we’d rather go home and think all this over because we are not fully aware of what is going on. I say to them: ‘Look, you are dealing with an independent secret service. We can be friends with you, but we have our own national interests.’ In a word, there emerged so many problems that we had to bring into play all our operational mechanisms to improve the situation. We managed to do very much. Take, for example, a major tank supply contract with Pakistan. Ukraine was not much known at the time. We tapped the international arms trade market for the first time and immediately clinched a 560-million-dollar contract.”

You mentioned cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies. On the one hand, you were to establish relations, but, on the other, you had to perform your professional functions, i.e., gather information. In what way is this done?

“We agreed with the Russians that we would not work against each other – in other words, we would not be recruiting agents. We did not have this with the Americans at the first stage. But we had the counterintelligence, and nobody had ever canceled its tasks. We also had other duties, such as, for example, fighting various acts of international crime. We once helped to have an arms smuggler arrested in Italy. He would supply weapons to the former Yugoslavia, in violation of the UN embargo, and we managed to expose him. We were in fact cooperating with NATO secret services at the time.

“Manmade disasters are also a problem for intelligence agencies. We made a deal with our partners to share, whenever possible, the preliminary information that may ward off such disasters. The same applies to combating drug-trafficking. Once, well before the terrorist acts, the Americans told me it was one of the wars we could not still win. In 1995 or so the budget of the US anti-drug governmental organization was 40 billion dollars. It is more than the budget of Ukraine. Yet the problem still remains.”

You mentioned manmade disasters. What role did intelligence play in this case?

“The intelligence agency took an active part in the Chornobyl nuclear power plant clean-up. On May 4 I was appointed leader of a special-purpose group to furnish the governmental commission with intelligence data. All the intelligence operatives were instructed to gather all kinds of materials about offsetting the disaster’s consequences. There was information of this kind, but it was confidential in most of the countries.”

Yurii SEMUSHEV: “We made a breakthrough comparable to the one in outer space”

Mr. Semushev, you were directly involved in the making of the Security Service of Ukraine in the early 1990s. What tasks were assigned to you?

“I am a Kharkiv Aviation Institute graduate. But Mr. Marchuk believed that I was more prepared to tackle the problem of providing the state with reliable cryptographic communication.

“There is cryptographic communication in our state, too, – it is called governmental communication. This is a system of crypto telecommunications which ensure a telephonic and documental exchange of secret, top secret, and secret sensitive information for managing the state, the armed forces, and the military-industrial complex. The main requirements for this system are a high reliability of information protection, which is achieved by means of cryptographic and organizational methods.

“The whole message is encoded and sent as a telegram. If the president gives some instructions, he is sure that nobody but the opposite user hears him. Experts in this field say that it is important to guarantee durable communication. This means that if somebody has intercepted the code, which can be done easily, and tried to crack it by means of multistage computing devices, it will be possible to decode such a durable-communication message in 20 years’ time only. But the information will be no longer secret in this span of time. The bodies that provide this kind of communications to the president and the government guarantee the confidentiality of transferring both oral and written information.

“Ukraine decided to separate the governmental communication service from the SBU. This could not be allowed, and Mr. Marchuk said openly at a Verkhovna Rada session: ‘If you establish control over the governmental communication system, I, as the chairman, will refuse to use it because I will not be sure that the secrecy of my communications has been ensured.’ This stopped the process. We wrote a memorandum to Leonid Kravchuk about the necessity of establishing the General Directorate of Governmental Communication which will include such entirely new branches as the Research and Technology Department, the Information Protection (Cryptography), and the Presidential Communication Service. Kravchuk supported this proposal.

“At the initial stage we offered to closely cooperate with Russia because they possessed the entire intellectual part of this project. By that time, a committee had been formed to coordinate work in this field in all the CIS countries because everything depended on Russia. It was a time when ‘patriots’ hated even to hear about any coordination committees.

“We did not have researchers, equipment designers, or cryptography specialist, but Ukraine had some top-security installations along the western border, which intercepted and decoded foreign information. We invited specialists from the Cybernetics Institute and the Higher Military Signals College to address the problems of cryptography. This is how we managed to man the directorate. Besides, we made full use of the not-yet-destroyed scientific and technological potential of Soviet Ukraine.

“We also solved the main financial problem: it is our directorate that hit upon the idea, but owe Mr. Marchuk its implementation. The governmental communication system was then being financed on a residual basis: the first in line were counterintelligence, intelligence, and other specialized units. So we proposed an uncommon idea: the General Directorate of Governmental Communications should be funded from the state budget as a separate item. This allowed us to do all that we had projected. We concluded dozens of contracts and attracted a huge number of specialists from other organizations.

“In 1994 we opened the first governmental communication post at our Washington embassy. Before that, US secret services had been tapping all the phone calls between the ambassador and the leadership of Ukraine. When we came to install this system, this raised such hell! Cryptograms suddenly began to be sent! Where from?”

Everything used to be common in the olden times. But when the Soviet Union broke up, this raised the problem of distancing from Moscow. What was done to prevent Moscow from intercepting information?

“We created codes and a system of key data generation – we produced codes on our own, without buying them in Moscow. I closely watched the reaction of Moscow: when they saw that we had ‘moved aside’ and refused to buy their codes, they showed a very respectful attitude. We received full independence in this sphere and thus strengthened the independence of our state.

“Both the US and the USSR had guaranteed-stability communication systems. Yet NATO facilities used codes of a lower stability. And, thanks to a correct understanding of the situation and rational use of the USSR resources that remained on the territory of Ukraine (I mean personnel and the scientific-technological potential), we made a breakthrough comparable to the one in outer space.

“On the day of the SBU’s 20th anniversary I bow to governmental communication specialists, cryptographers, crypto-analysts, and equipment designers.”

Mr. Semushev, please tell us about how you provided cryptographic communication to Leonid Kravchuk during his visit to the US. How did all it look like?

“The finishing of a governmental communication post for the Ukrainian ambassador and the staff of Ukraine’s embassy in Washington coincided with preparations for Mr. Kravchuk’s visit to the US. Our counterintelligence experience said that the embassy was 100 percent bugged. So we decided to fly in our equipment on an IL 76 plane. We installed a governmental communication switchboard. Taking into account that we needed premises for serious closed-door conversations, including those with the ambassador’s participation, we also brought along an automobile equipped with a special communication system. This automobile accompanied Mr. Kravchuk to Capitol Hill, where he had a meeting in Congress.

“When we were just beginning work, the Americans presented us with secure user telephones (when the encoder and the decoder are inside the telephone itself). But we immediately understood it was a trick and decided to open them for analysis. When we met the Americans a year later, one of them said: ‘Are you not using our telephones?’ After this incident, nobody has ever ‘bitten’ us.”

As is known, the Governmental Communication Directorate was later separated from the SBU. What do you think of this step?

“This should not have been done. The people who create such systems should be vetted as strictly as intelligence operatives. I know about selection and vetting. In Russia, for example, the Federal Agency for Governmental Communication and Information did no last long as an independent body. As soon as Putin became the president, he turned this agency back to the Federal Security Service (FSB). This work is done by secret services all over the world.”