News Mar 01, 2024 12:28 PM EST

The Hidden Hand: How Ukraine's Covert Teams are Shaping the Eastern Conflict

By Patrick Mondaca

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

The fifth counter-intelligence directorate of Ukraine's domestic security service (SBU) has been targeting and killing Russian military commanders in occupied Crimea and the eastern Donbas region since 2015.

Other such "liquidations," such as that of Daria Dugina, the daughter of a prominent Russian nationalist killed in a car bomb attack near Moscow in August, have also been attributed to Ukrainian security services. Ukrainian officials have firmly denied involvement in Dugina's killing; but as did Israel for many years regarding its use of covert action teams against Black September, it is not without good reason. 

(Photo : Getty Images) Africa at the center of this war

The death of Dugina, though high in symbolic value, does not serve any apparent particular tactical or strategic objective. And as Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine's president, said in an interview with the New York Times. "

Again, I'll underline that any murder during wartime in some country or another must carry with it some kind of practical significance. It should fulfill some specific purpose, tactical or strategic. Someone like Dugina is not a tactical or a strategic target for Ukraine." Extrajudicial killings without any significant operational or political objective pose significant risk to Ukraine which is why it has likely maintained its noninvolvement. 

Ukraine's Mossad

Killings like that of Daria Dugina's risk Western support for the Ukrainian war effort. While demonstrating the SBU's ability to reach out and touch Russians wherever they might be in the world, it is not an effective use of such "hit squads." Where Ukraine's president could better deploy such teams would be through the formation of independent covert action teams modeled after Israel's-teams specifically formed to track down and eliminate Black September terrorists who carried out the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of eleven Israeli athletes. 

Ukraine already has the framework for this in place. As Ukrainian General Kyrylo Budanov told the Economist, "If you are asking about [creating a version of] Mossad...We don't need to. It already exists." As were Golda Meir's teams hunting Black September, Ukraine's fifth counter-intelligence directorate is composed of military and civilian intelligence and special operations personnel with specialized training in "wet work." 

What They're Up To

The Mossad's kill teams [for the most part] and Ukraine's SBU work within the state security apparatus. As such, there are certain risks and constraints like the one presented by the August assassination of Daria Dugina. Herein lies the dilemma for Ukraine's president: To balance sending the message that an attack against Ukraine is an attack that will not go unpunished wherever those attackers may be-and maintain a plausible deniability of Ukrainian involvement-Zelenskyy's kill teams will have to operate outside of traditional bureaucratic and political constraints. 

To accomplish such a feat will mean a renewed prioritization on the avoidance of any collateral damages by these teams. Likewise, it will mean the implementation of parallel teams with the same objectives under distinctly different command and control structures. Sound crazy? It is. It's both crazy and genius; and it's how Israel ran down and killed those responsible for the 1972 Munich attack on its citizens in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa for twenty years after. And despite its missteps, in the midst of a region largely opposed to its very existence, Israel still stands. 

The Fate of the Free World

As noted by that 17th century forbearer of international law, Hugo Grotius, "Not merely by the law of nature but also by the law of is in fact permissible to kill an enemy in any place whatsoever; and it does not matter how many there are that do the deed, or who suffer." 

If Ukraine's Zelenskyy wants to send the message that Putin's enablers should think long and hard before supplying Russia with gold, guns, or anything else sustaining the Kremlin's war and hasten the expulsion of the Russian terrorist occupiers of his country, his kill teams must take a different tack. They must cut down those high-value targets with definitive military objectives, and they must do so quickly. The fate of the free world depends on it. 

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