Bellingcat is involved in a Ukrainian plot to hijack Russian jets. The polarizing group, though, argues that all it was doing was creating a “documentary film.”
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Christo Grozev, the self-styled “lead Russia investigator” for Bellingcat, admitted on Monday that he had been involved in a Ukrainian intelligence scheme to encourage Russian military pilots to defect and hijack their aircraft. The prominent member of the contentious Western-funded organization, however, disputed the Russian side’s claim.
Grozev claimed that Russia’s Security Service (FSB) offered “a traditional mix of forged ‘evidence’ and loosely interpreted facts” on the case, refuting charges that he was actively involved in the conspiracy. According to an intermediary apprehended by Russian intelligence, he was receiving direct instructions from Grozev on how to send payment to the pilots in exchange for films confirming they have access to warplanes.
“What is true, however, is I was involved in this crazier-than-fiction story of triple-agents, fake passports and faux girlfriends – as a documentary film maker,” he claimed in a lengthy Twitter thread regarding the topic. Grozev, on the other hand, did not explicitly address the allegations brought against him by the apprehended suspect.
“Grozev… did not actually explain anything to me, he just told me the name of the courier who would deliver the money by train,” the suspect claimed.
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Grozev further said that the entire operation was a “serious blunder” for Russian intelligence instead of a triumph. He said that intelligence had divulged “unintentionally [the] identities of dozens of counter intel officers, their methods of operation, and their undercover assets.” One of the pilots, for example, abruptly opted to depart Russia with his purported “lover” rather than his wife, raising suspicions about the group. According to Grozev, the purported “lover” was “waaay too hot” for the pilot, and her phone contacts indicated she was in communication with FSB counterintelligence personnel.
The entire operation eventually deteriorated into the two parties exchanging false information about air defenses, flight trajectories, altitude corridors, and so forth. “This bizarre mutual-deceipt (sic) game came to an end when the FSB realized no one will show up at any of the suggested meet-ups (FSB were keen to identify Ukrainian agents), realizing they’ve been burned. And the Ukrainians realized they’re likely not getting a real pilot either,” Grozev wrote.
He further stated that the operation was carried out by “maverick ex operatives” rather than active Ukrainian intelligence agents. “If it were, there’d be no way we would – or want to – get access to it,” he said. Bellingcat simply “found out about the initiative” taken by the supposedly unaffiliated “operatives” it had previously known and “assured ourselves a front seat,” Grozev explained. He also categorically denied any cooperation of Western intelligence agencies in the scheme, characterizing such claims as “unadulterated bollocks.”
Russia has frequently challenged Bellingcat’s independence and credibility. Despite promoting itself as an investigative organization focused on fact-checking and open-source intelligence, with contributions from both professional and citizen journalists, it has received state financing from a number of Western states. The organisation was declared “undesirable” in Russia earlier this month, thus barring any activity in the country for it.
Sergey Naryshkin, head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), publicly accused Bellingcat with collaborating with Western intelligence agencies solely to “put pressure on either [Russia] or on individuals and entities” last year.
“They use dishonest methods. And the information that is used in such cases is false, unverified, it has its own goals… They are ready to perform any task, because they do it for money, not objectively,” Naryshkin asserted.