To hear Ukraine tell it, you'd think their fledgling new government is full of crack spy hunters rooting out every Russian mole and agitator from Kiev to Kharkiv. Ukraine's main security agency, the SBU, has been keeping a running tally of all the Russian provocateurs who've been discovered or captured in the past month. The list includes an alleged "espionage ring of the military intelligence of the Russian Federation," a Russian and three Ukrainians who were preparing to hand over computer hard drives to Russia's security service, and a Russian woman attempting to "destabilize the situation in the southern regions of Ukraine." An SBU Web site shows what appears to be the woman's social media page, where she poses in combat fatigues while sporting an assault rifle.
Such a public display of Ukraine's intelligence successes could be chalked up to patriotic chest thumping. But it may also be a way of encouraging American spies to share more of their secrets with the SBU. American spy agencies are closely tracking Russian troop movements and have warned lawmakers and administration officials that a Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine could happen at any moment. But U.S. spy agencies have been reluctant to share much of what they know with their Ukrainian counterparts, for fear that it would be intercepted by Russia and used to discern the sources and methods that the Americans are using to spy on their longtime foe.
Historically, the SBU has been allied with Moscow, and today is believed to have been penetrated by Russian intelligence agents from top to bottom, according to three former U.S. intelligence officials. But unlike Ukraine's conventional military forces, which were allowed to languish after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine's intelligence service "remained pretty decent and competent," says a former U.S. military intelligence officer with experience in eastern Europe. "But how decent is hard to determine. Harder still is determining how reliable its people are -- or even could be, under the circumstances."
Despite those risks, growing numbers of lawmakers have started calling for the administration to share more information with Ukraine, particularly after receiving dire warnings from intelligence officials that further Russian military assaults could come at any moment.
"We certainly have intelligence about Russian troop movements, and that intelligence is very alarming -- Russia has everything it needs to move into Ukraine on a moment's notice," Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told MSNBC on Wednesday.
Schiff said he agreed with concerns that Ukraine's government "is penetrated by Russian intelligence agencies," but he said that shouldn't prevent the United States from sharing more specific details about the movement of Russian forces. U.S. intelligence has been monitoring Russian supply lines and has also seen the military setting up field hospitals, two strong indications that the forces may be preparing to invade.
"I think there is more we could do to help Ukraine prepare, that doesn't put at risk any of our intelligence gathering methods, or the degree to which we can track Russian military movements," Schiff said.
The loyalties of SBU officers are likely divided between the new government and the former regime of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, who was driven from power in February, the former officer said. And divided loyalties are nothing new in Ukraine.
"People who grew up in the Soviet era learned to ‘speak with two tongues,' as the expression went -- saying the right things in front of their peers and superiors, and even acquaintances, but keeping their true feelings reserved for only immediate family and the closest of friends," the former officer said. "Loyalties are likely divided, which does not exactly make for a situation where people can trust their own chain of command, or even their peers."
U.S. intelligence agencies are reluctant to feed information into such a duplicitous environment and share it with people they can't completely trust. "Kiev desperately needs to clear the SBU and Ukraine's military intelligence branch of Russian agents, and they are trying hard now," said John Schindler, a former National Security Agency officer who now teaches at the Naval War College.
Schindler, who called the SBU "a competent security service," said the U.S. might be sharing some basic information about Russian troop movements with Ukraine, but even that is likely limited by concerns about the SBU's ability to keep secrets. Schindler said he'd like to see the U.S. share more information with Ukraine, but nothing too sensitive. In light of the leaks of highly classified information by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, he said, "the intelligence community and Defense Department are understandably pretty gun shy here."
That may explain why Ukraine has gone to such public lengths to document the work the SBU is doing finding and arresting alleged Russian spies. The Web site appears to have been set up only in the past month, as U.S. intelligence warnings about Russia have increased. The site also documents Ukraine's attempts to root out official corruption and bribery, a further indication that the new government wants to bolster public confidence in its ability to run the cash-strapped and deeply unsettled country. That may be the biggest challenge of them all.
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