On unity

Ihor SMESHKO: “If professionals do not go in for politics, the so-called elite will ruin the state”

According to the latest information, 27 countries are expelling 144 Russian intelligence officers, disguised as diplomats, following the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury. It is an unprecedented step in the history of world diplomacy, which shows the West’s cohesion in respect of Russia’s aggressive actions. Maybe, Ukraine, which has been feeling the “Russian jackboot” on itself for four years now, would like Western countries, including signatories of the Budapest Memorandum, to take a tougher attitude. For the Kremlin has seized our territories, killed thousands of Ukrainians, and violated international treaties – things like these are supposed to mobilize not only Ukraine, but also all the civilized counties of the world. But the reaction of the international community was and is the same. Ukraine should thank them for this, demanding, or course, that the Budapest guarantees be observed. But the main thing is that we must do proper work inside the country. For example, two draft laws “On National Security of Ukraine,” which are of paramount importance to our warring country, were recently registered in the Ukrainian parliament. Are these documents of good enough quality? We began our interview with Ihor SMESHKO, chairman of the Security Service of Ukraine in 2003-05, by discussing the expulsion of diplomats.


What does the mass-scale expulsion of Russian diplomats from many countries in response to poisoning former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury mean?

“After the end of the Cold War in 1991, the West decided that it had won and that irreversible democratic changes had begun in Russia. But a few years ago the British Parliament’s House of Lords had to make an inquiry about why the West turned out to be absolutely unprepared for Russia’s aggressive actions in Crimea, for flouting the Budapest Memorandum, for violating then Comprehensive Agreement between Ukraine and Russia, and, in general, for the failure of Russia, as a member of the UN Security Council, to meet a number of international commitments.

“The British MPs asked a question: why did the West in fact not react to the aggressive actions of Russia, resorting to none of the four elements of governmental power (economic, diplomatic, military, and informational)? For, as you remember, the initial reaction was on the diplomatic level only. Then they began to think of imposing economic sanctions, while the military and informational components were not even considered. So, as a result, the House of Lords admitted, first of all, as far as the UK is concerned, that the analysis and forecasting of Russia by British governmental institutions proved to be erroneous. They overlooked the fact that Russia could do such things and that democracy had long ceased to be built there. Of course, this applies not only to Britain. The best specialists in intelligence and external relations with the Soviet Union were dismissed in almost all the Euro-Atlantic alliance member states well before 2014.

“When Russia began the war against Ukraine, we, a group of Ukrainian experts, attended a lunch with NATO countries’ ambassadors at the alliance’s headquarters. In an exchange of views, I said that it was a war not between Ukraine and Russia, but between two civilizations – a Euro-Atlantic democratic and a Eurasian authoritarian one which is doing its best to stop the spread of democracy in Europe, particularly in Ukraine, and is attacking democratic values in the EU in order to disunite the European community. The goal is to make Russia a world power which will wield decisive clout in Europe, pushing the US away from European affairs. But even today, when a war in the center of Europe has been raging for four years, the West is still unwilling to fight against Russia. Russia is very well aware of this. Western countries are not united, for each of them only cares about its own socioeconomic wellbeing and stability. One of the reasons is that they have many problems of their own, such as emigrants, changes in the middle class’s political culture, and growing populism, when both the right and the left are playing a more and more active role in the political system of certain countries.

“But we must give due credit to the British House of Lords because it is the only institution of Budapest Memorandum signatories and guarantors of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and of the non-application of military, economic, and political pressure on our country, which made a statement that criticizes the British cabinet for taking insufficient measures as the government of a signatory state. Yet Britain was the only state to suggest holding a meeting in Paris within the framework of the Budapest Memorandum at the ambassadorial level when the annexation of Crimea began. Naturally, Russia ignored this initiative.

“So when the latest events in Salisbury occurred (and we know that there had been similar deaths before), Britain began to react toughly the way it could. Let us not forget that, although the UK is withdrawing from the EU, it still remains an active NATO member and a close ally of the US. British Conservatives have understood that further failure to react to the aggressive policy of Russia, which is grossly violating the international order, may lead to escalation. Britain was the first to understand that the European community’s inaction during the aggression against Georgia in 2008 and a soft reaction to the overt military aggression against Ukraine quite fits in with the Ancient Roman maxim: ‘Strength deters, weakness provokes.’ As a result, we have seen at last quite a consolidated reaction of the West on the diplomatic level. It is a positive signal. The downside is that not all the 28 NATO member states reacted, and some countries symbolically expelled one diplomat.”

We often hear in this context that those expelled are Russian intelligence officers. What does it mean?

“Intelligence officers of the majority of strong countries use a diplomatic cover. There are even the so-called special service liaison officers, i.e., legally accredited representatives of intelligence agencies in a given country. As a rule, these are security officers and defense attaches in embassies. Incidentally, you may have noticed that some countries, such as Lithuania, immediately expelled the military attache, i.e., the official representative of Russian Defense Ministry’s Intelligence Directorate.

“There are also undercover intelligence officers in embassies. They use official diplomatic offices as a cover and perform covert intelligence operations. But believe me: the counterintelligence of serious countries (and Euro-Atlantic states are the most developed in this matter) undoubtedly keeps such people under surveillance. Russia officially pronounces NATO its main opponent, and, accordingly, the counterintelligence services of Western countries closely watch the activities of Russian diplomatic offices. Accordingly, they accumulate operative information which they analyze in order to find out whether one is a pure diplomat or an undercover agent. Obviously, those being expelled now are undercover agents, i.e., they are suspected on the basis of aggregate information of being Russia’s intelligence operatives.”

Ukraine has also expelled 13 Russian diplomats, but the government is being reproached for doing so only now, when a poisoning occurred in Britain, although we have been at war for four years.

“Firstly, if we did not react, how would we look in the eyes of the Euro-Atlantic community which is helping us? Secondly, many countries have imposed sanctions on Russia to their own detriment. So, on our part, it is, of course, a right decision. Why didn’t we do so earlier? It is a question to our country’s political leadership which supervises our special services.”

How can Russia respond to this “diplomatic step”?

“I think it will respond symmetrically. They are of an old diplomatic school that dates back to the Russian Empire era. Russia had always reacted harshly to such things. Russian Emperor Alexander III has once said: ‘Russia has only two allies all over the world – its army and its navy.’”


Two draft laws “On National Security of Ukraine” have been registered in parliament: one is presidential and the other parliamentary (Samopomich faction). Have you seen them? What can you say?

“The current Law of Ukraine ‘On the Foundations of National Security and Defense’ of 2003 is, in my view, quite well-balanced. It was passed at a time when General Yevhen Marchuk was Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council and I was his first deputy and, hence, directly participated in drawing it up. So I am surprised that we have never been invited as experts to express our viewpoint on this bill. As is known, it envisions repealing three current laws, including the abovementioned one.

“After seeing what is being proposed, I must say it is in fact a collection of political slogans which do not reveal the essence of the law’s name and will have an adverse effect on defense and national security management in comparison with the three laws to be annulled. Besides, the ambassadors of the US, the UK, France, and the EU have submitted a letter in which they express surprise at the fact that this draft law does not address the basic problems our NATO partners have been pointing out for so many years, including distribution of powers between the sphere of security and the sphere of defense, and civilian control – not as just declarations but as formulations of the intensity, parameters, and the subjects and objects of this control (who will control who and in what way?). To simply say that the Verkhovna Rada exercises control over the Ministry of Defense or the Security Service means to make a political slogan and leave the old situation of no control intact.

“Besides, this letter draws attention to the fact that non-transparent utilization of state-budget funds for defense and the security sector is still at variance with the principles of the Euro-Atlantic community. As is known, in the US only 1.5 percent of the Pentagon budget is confidential. All the rest of the budget is open. Please enter the US Congress website and see what this money is to be used for. Even if the Pentagon purchases foreign equipment, everything is written in detail – the name of each aircraft or missile and the allocated funds. But in our country everything is kept secret, including the monopoly of Ukroboronprom on the utilization of these budgetary funds. There’s no transparent program of armament. This is why the name of this firm is only associated with high-profile corruption scandals and criticisms on the part of our Western partners.

“In general, what I saw in this draft law made me, a professional military, feel very sad and alarmed – especially when our politicians are engaged in endless speculations. If you remember, when this bill was registered, it was hyped as one that meets the best Euro-Atlantic standards. Even when the Ukrainian defense minister was visiting the US, his American counterpart called for passing this law as soon as possible. In other words, our politicians are deceiving everybody. I am sure the US defense secretary did not read this law, and he is not obliged to do so. James Mattis must have been glad that we want to pass a law that is named exactly like a similar US law of 1947. But this US law – with 142 pages and supplements until 2017 – delimits down to the minutest detail the functions of the security and defense sectors, intelligence and counterintelligence, public administration and supervision bodies, and presents a crystal-clear and easy-to-grasp pattern and algorithm of control over job placements, personnel training, and financial expenditures in both peacetime and wartime. The law even discloses juridical relationship with intelligence agents and the US government’s commitments as to their protection.

“For example, this law sets out that the highest US governmental leadership in the sphere of defense is the president and the defense secretary. But in our draft law, responsibility in the defense sector is even more blurred than before. The bill names five persons – the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces (AF), the Commander-in-Chief of the AF, the minister of defense, the chief of the General Staff of the AF, the prime minister – without clearly describing the procedure of their relationship.

It is known that democracy was most often built all over the world by the former military – sometimes even by undemocratic methods. Later, when they organized the division of three branches of power and promoted the creation of civil society with a certain level of wellbeing and political culture, they handed over power to civilian administrations.

“I suspect that this bill is sort of a political action that is supposed, firstly, to show the West that we are carrying out some reforms according to Euro-Atlantic standards. Yet the ambassadors of NATO’s leading member states immediately smelled a rat and took an unprecedented step – they made their letter public. Secondly, it is intended for domestic consumption, for it seems to me that the political leadership is afraid that, if power changes in the country, they will be asked why they did not apply the laws which are being repealed now. And if the new law is approved in its present version, this will eliminate political and criminal responsibility for failure to obey the previous laws, and it will be more difficult to bring the current political leadership to justice.”

It still does not mean that it is unnecessary to update the current law, all the more so that our Western partners are demanding this.

“Any law in any country needs correcting in a new time with new external and internal challenges. But such a stable country as, say, the US is distinguished for having only about ten amendments made to the constitution in 200 years – basic laws undergo no changes for dozens of years there. The abovementioned US National Security Law was passed after World War Two. It set out the duties of intelligence, the defense department, the FBI, the State Department, the National Security Council, and major Congress committees, explained in detail their functions, spheres of responsibility, and laid down a procedure of supervising them. But in our country there are a lot of anticorruption bodies, but is unclear who concretely is responsible for what. This is why it is necessary to update laws, but this should be done by true and noted specialists with due account of the best national and international experience.”


Did you see the other bill drawn up by a group of MPs?

“It also has some essential faults. But are the MPs who drew it up well-known experts in national security and defense? Did General Marchuk, General Radetskyi, Admiral Kabanenko, General Skybynetskyi, and General Prokofiev take part in drawing it up? Who is the author of these bills? Speaking of our MPs’ professionalism, you obviously wouldn’t like to find yourself in a hospital with doctors as unprofessional as these lawmakers. Do they really think that being physically young, knowing the Ukrainian language, and wearing an embroidered shirt is enough for being able to write a better law on medicine or reform the national security and defense sector? What is our problem of problems? It is the fact that the current political leaders are absolutely unprepared to address our state’s problems due to their professional and moral qualities. After the two Maidans and what is now going on in the country, a part of our society begins to think that democracy is the root cause of all our troubles and disorders. But, to be more exact, we have anarchy and lack of professionalism ‘on the bottom’ and a hidden dictatorship of parties, clans, and oligarchs ‘on top.’ Nobody has even tried so far to build really democratic institutions of government in Ukraine.”

The presidential bill envisages parliamentary control of the Security Service of Ukraine referred to as “special-purpose governmental body with law-enforcing functions, which ensures national security of Ukraine.”

“The letter of the four Western ambassadors points out that this draft law does not provide for parliamentary control of the SBU. I am asking: why? For the law on the SBU has already had the same political slogan about parliamentary control since 1992. To put it into practice, it would be sufficient if the Presidential Administration, the Verkhovna Rada, and the SBU drew up the standard-setting instruments that would set the parameters and extent of this control and identify its objects and subjects. Moreover, our parliament’s National Security and Defense Committee combines the functions of five US Congress committees, to say nothing about its professional composition. Does this committee have, as almost all similar committees in the West do, former career officers of the armed forces or special services with a 20-to-30-year experience of work, who know the way these services work and who can control them professionally?”

Parliamentary control is an old demand of the public and our Western partners. And they are right. But the composition of parliament really matters.

“The people of Ukraine have clearly shown in public opinion polls the level of confidence in the current parliament. It is negligible. The Ukrainians trust volunteers, the church, and the army today. But you can see only a small number of low-level reserve officers in parliament. I respect platoon and company leaders very much, but, sorry, they are far behind brigade and division commanders in terms of experience and professionalism. We went through something of the kind 100 years ago. Why was Petro Bolbochan, one of the best UNR generals, killed? He, a colonel of the imperial army, was considered ‘a Ukrainian Napoleon’ who formed the Zaporozhian Kurin, the most battleworthy unit of the Ukrainian army, which grew into the UNR army’s most efficient division. He liberated eastern Ukraine and was in fact the first to seize Crimea at that period. But when the plot against Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky forced him to leave Ukraine, Symon Petliura began to appoint former lieutenants or, at best, company commander to senior posts in the army. This resulted in a new loss of eastern Ukraine. So Bolbochan addressed Petliura in an open letter: ‘Poor Ukraine, we are fighting against Bolshevism, the whole cultured world is rising to fight it, but the brand new UNR government is meeting Bolshevism and Bolsheviks halfway! You are unable to solve the simplest problems of life but are struggling to become ministers, atamans, leaders of a big power, and lawmakers instead of being rank-and-file officials and clerks.” Have we really learned nothing from our own history in the past 100 years? Isn’t it high time our society learned to tell the white from the black in politics and populist babblers from true professionals?”


How can we return professionals to the government, particularly to the uniformed services?

“First of all, it is time for all highly cultured, highly skilled and patriotic forces to unite. Obviously, it would be a good idea to form a conservative democratic party, in which professional army and police officers will account for 10 percent of its membership, while the creative and scientific intelligentsia, representatives of medium and small business, local and regional moral gurus, and active students will make up 90 percent. It’s necessary to form at least one true party based on the ideology of democracy rather than on the Fuehrerprinzip. The mass media must in turn teach society political culture. We should know the background of any politician who is running for an elected office – his education, where he worked, what positive things he has done in his life, and, in general, what makes him have certain political ambitions. A politician is, above all, a person capable of political forecasting and foreseeing, who knows how to choose proper candidates for offices among real specialists and professionals. Incidentally, it is known from history that democracy was most often built all over the world by the former military – sometimes even by undemocratic methods. Later, when they organized the division of three branches of power and promoted the creation of civil society with a certain level of wellbeing and political culture, they handed over power to civilian administrations.”

The next presidential and parliamentary elections are a year away. To what extent is the unity you are speaking of real, taking into account the shortage of time and difficult conditions?

“We are really short of time. But I think we have accumulated political experience in the years of independence. After the two Maidans, a critical mass of voters has understood that they no longer need populists and businesspeople of dubious origin. Business is no politics.”

Will you personally take part in the elections?

“Of course, I will be taking part in political activities because I feel no affection for the current so-called political elite. I am clearly aware that if professionals do not go in for politics, the so-called elite will ruin the state. And this is the question of the future of my children and my country. Therefore, I will take part in the elections.”

Presidential or parliamentary?

“I would be pleased to stand by a person who has a clearly-formed national ides of Ukraine in contemporary conditions, a strategic plan of building democracy in Ukraine in the concrete external and internal conditions, who has a vision of his professional team, particularly a new Cabinet, with two or three candidates for each office. Well before the elections, this person should show his candidates to society which must accept them. They should be specialists with adequate knowledge, practical experience, and the wish and ability to fulfill this strategic plan.”


Would you comment on the events around Nadia Savchenko? We can clearly see the superimposition of many problems here.

“The Savchenko and Ruban story should be divided into two parts. The first is professional and the second is the political implementation of the results of SBU operations. Speaking of the professional component, I have no questions about the actions of SBU counterintelligence. Thank God, we have a counterintelligence service which works so well. But any law-enforcement body, including the SBU, is subordinate to the political leadership on which the length of the Security Service’s arms depends. So the way the Prosecutor General’s Office implemented the political component surprised me very much. It is dangerous for political stability in the country to make political statements of this kind from the parliamentary rostrum unless a court has confirmed accusations against the person whom we made an icon, a Hero of Ukraine, just a few years ago. There were some very serious high-profile cases which we solved. Some of them were heard in court, and certain sentences were passed. But there was no political hype even after this because it could cause harm to national security – to discredit the highest bodies of political power and the topmost officials means to discredit the state in the eyes of society and the outside world.

“So this case is, unfortunately, too politicized, which plants one more time bomb in the state. Now, if the accusations prove to be groundless in the course of a trial and are not corroborated with fresh evidence, it will only benefit our enemy. There is another important moment in this situation. When the law-enforcement bodies are going to conduct an operation, the decision to this effect should be made with due account of other security and defense agencies. Even an intelligence-related forecast is made to find out what political effect this may have not only inside the country, but also abroad. It is the domain of the National Security and Defense Council and the Committee for Intelligence.”

How are our special services supposed to treat those freed from captivity?

“This is also a big problem. In 2004 we drew up a plan of reforming the Security Service consisting of several items. The first was to make intelligence a separate agency. It was done – the Foreign Intelligence Service was established. The second was the transfer of counterintelligence to the Ministry of Defense. This ministry must have its own counterintelligence service, especially in wartime, in order to filter prisoners of war, the zone of hostilities, volunteer battalions which included, incidentally, people with a criminal record, and so on. The third – we were going to withdraw the main directorate ‘K’ and the department of counterintelligence-related protection of the economy in order to establish a new entity – the National Bureau of Investigations. This reform was prepared and approved as far back as 2004, but President Yushchenko never carried it out.

“Military counterintelligence is part of the ‘secret state police’ – civilian special services – in authoritarian countries only, such as Russia and Belarus. During World War Two, the Smersh military counterintelligence service was subordinate to the USSR People’s Commissariat of Defense. After the war, Stalin transferred it to the KGB system in order to keep the ‘marshals of victory,’ i.e. the army he was afraid of, under surveillance. He was afraid of the ‘phenomenon of Eisenhower’ who became president of the US. Accordingly, the KGB spied on marshals Zhukov and Rokossovsky. But our present-day practice – military counterintelligence as part of the SBU – has no analogs in our democratic partner countries and, first of all, in the NATO member states.”