Washington (CNN) — Ukraine recruited a network of operatives and sympathizers inside Russia working to carry out acts of sabotage against Russian targets and began providing them with drones to stage attacks, several people familiar with US intelligence told CNN in the subject.
US officials believe these pro-Ukrainian operatives inside Russia carried out a targeted drone attack on the Kremlin in early May, launching drones from inside Russia instead of flying them from Ukraine to Moscow.
It is unclear whether other drone strikes carried out in recent days — including one targeting a residential neighborhood near Moscow and another targeting oil refineries in southern Russia — were also launched from within Russia or were carried out. by this network of pro-Ukrainian agents.
But US officials believe that Ukraine has developed sabotage cells inside Russia made up of a mix of pro-Ukrainian sympathizers and agents well-trained in this type of warfare. Ukraine is believed to have provided them with Ukrainian-made drones, and two US officials told CNN there is no evidence that any of the strikes were carried out with US-provided drones.
Officials were unable to say conclusively how Ukraine managed to get the drones behind enemy lines, but two of the sources told CNN that it had established well-practiced smuggling routes that could be used to ship drones or aircraft components. drones to Russia, where they could then be assembled.
money works wonders
A European intelligence official noted that the Russian-Ukrainian border is vast and very difficult to control, making it ripe for smuggling, something the official says Ukrainians have been doing for the better part of a decade they’ve been at war with pro-Russian forces.
“You also have to take into account that this is a peripheral area of Russia,” the official said. “Survival is everyone’s problem, so cash works wonders.”
Who exactly controls these assets is also unclear, the sources told CNN, although US officials believe elements within Ukraine’s intelligence community are involved. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has set general parameters for what his intelligence and security services are authorized to do, two of the sources said, but not all operations require his approval.
When asked for comment, a spokesman for the head of the Ukrainian Security Service suggested to CNN that mysterious explosions and drone strikes inside Russia would continue.
“We will comment on the ‘cotton’ cases only after our victory,” he said. Quoting the head of the Security Service, Vasyl Malyuk, the spokesman added that, despite everything, “‘cotton’ has been burning, is burning and will continue to burn.”
“Cotton” is a slang word used by Ukrainians to refer to explosions, usually in Russia or Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine. Its origins go back to the first weeks of the war and stem from the fact that the Russian word for “burst” is very similar to the Ukrainian word for cotton.
The culmination of months of effort
Over the past year, mysterious fires and explosions have broken out in Russia, targeting oil and fuel depots, railways, military enlistment offices, warehouses and pipelines. But the authorities have observed an uptick in these attacks on Russian soil in recent weeks, starting with the attack on the Kremlin building. It appears to be “the culmination of months of effort” by the Ukrainians to create the necessary infrastructure for this type of sabotage, said one of the sources familiar with the intelligence.
“For months now there has been a fairly consistent push by some in Ukraine to be more aggressive,” this person said, speaking anonymously due to the sensitivity of US intelligence. “And there certainly has been some willingness at the higher levels. The challenge has always been their ability to do it.”
The head of Ukrainian military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, has consistently proposed some of the most brazen plans for operations against Russia and values symbolic acts, US officials have told CNN.
Classified Pentagon documents leaked online earlier this year revealed that the CIA urged Budanov to “postpone” attacks on Russia on the anniversary of his invasion of Ukraine, according to The Washington Post. Budanov agreed to the CIA’s request, according to the classified documents. However, drones were sighted near Moscow on February 28, just days after the first anniversary of the war.
Another leaked US intelligence report obtained by CNN from Signals Intelligence claims that Zelensky in late February “suggested attacking Russian deployment sites in Russia’s Rostov Oblast” using drones, as Ukraine does not have long-range weapons capable of reaching that far.
It is not clear if that plan went ahead, but oil facilities in Rostov Oblast have caught fire after being hit by suspected drones several times over the past year, attacks that Russia is now investigating and has attributed to “criminal actions by the armed formations of Ukraine”.
“The only thing I’m going to say is that we’ve been killing Russians,” Budanov told Yahoo News last month when asked about the car bombing that killed the daughter of a prominent Russian political figure in suburban Moscow on last year. The US intelligence community considered that this operation was authorized by elements of the Ukrainian government.
“And we will continue to kill Russians anywhere in the world until Ukraine’s complete victory,” Budanov added.
A smart military strategy
Publicly, senior US officials have condemned the attacks inside Russia, warning of the possibility of an escalation of warfare. However, in private statements to CNN, US and Western officials said they believe cross-border strikes are a smart military strategy that could divert Russian resources towards protecting its own territory as Ukraine prepares for a major counter-offensive.
Last Tuesday, the UK Foreign Secretary told reporters that Ukraine has “the right to project force beyond its borders to undermine Russia’s ability to project force into Ukraine itself. Legitimate military targets beyond their own borders are internationally recognized as part of a nation’s self-defense… We should recognize that.”
French Vice Admiral Nicolas Vaujour, chief of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN on Friday that attacks inside Russia are simply “part of the war” and offer an opportunity to send a message to the Russian population.
“There is a war there and it might worry them [al público ruso] in the future,” Vaujour said of the attacks. “And so it’s a good way for Ukrainians to send a message not only to Vladimir Putin, but to the Russian population,” he added.
As for the bombings, he said it was not “forbidden” for Ukraine to think about it.
In addition, Ukrainian officials have privately said they plan to continue attacks inside Russia because it is a good diversionary tactic that is forcing Russia to worry about its own security at home, according to a US source who has spoken with Ukrainian officials in recent years. days.
In an intelligence update, the UK Defense Ministry said attacks by pro-Ukrainian partisan groups and drone strikes in the Belgorod border region have forced Russia to deploy “the full range of firepower military in its own territory.”
“Russian commanders now face an acute dilemma,” the update said, “of whether to bolster defenses in Russia’s border regions or reinforce their lines in occupied Ukraine.”
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler, Alex Marquardt and Oren Liebermann contributed to this report.
Source: CNN Espanol