17:08 19.12.2019

SBU chief: We do not render services to political elites, but ensure the national security of the country

24 min read
SBU chief: We do not render services to political elites, but ensure the national security of the country

Exclusive interview with chief of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) Ivan Bakanov for Interfax-Ukraine

Q: Following the results of the Normandy meeting in Paris, an agreement was reached on the "all for all listed" swap. On the return of which of our citizens will Ukraine insist?

A: All working meetings held by the president on the Minsk and Normandy formats start and finish with the issue of exchange of illegally kept persons. This is a priority.

The formula of "all for all" of those identified was defined at the Normandy in Paris - these people are established. But the problem is that officials in occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk regions (ORDLO) do not let international observers into the area where these people are detained. This makes it difficult to complete the identification on our side. There are some who are identified, but there are those who are subject to identification. There are also legal difficulties of the matter.

In our opinion, it would be good to conduct the exchange in parallel processes, but at the same time without changing the essence of "all for all" swap as agreed upon at the Normandy format talks. It means that Ukraine should exchange, including citizens of the Russian Federation, who are on the territory of Ukraine now, but who are requested by the ORDLO. We can't give Russian citizens to ORDLO. That is, it's more rational to reanimate the platform that was used in the first exchange - Ukraine and the Russian Federation.

Q: Is Russia ready for the swap between Ukraine and Russia?

A: Internally, it seems to me that Russia is ready. And what will it be like in reality? For our part, we will make every effort to bring our citizens home. On Wednesday (December 18), a meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group is to be held. All lists are present.

Talking more about this issue is difficult, since any extra word can do much harm.

Q: How many people are to be swapped according to the lists?

A: They exist, they are known. The security service is engaged in information gathering, defining of the procedural status of each person. We work with all bodies, including with the prosecutor's office, so that the process is completed successfully.

All departments involved in this process provide maximum assistance to resolve this issue. Last time during the exchange, we saw that such an interaction was effective. That is, there is no internal competition, internal misunderstanding. And everything is being done in order to carry out such an exchange before the New Year.

Q: Are SBU employees involved in maintaining law and order on sections of the disengagement line in the process of forces disengagement?

A: The security service works in all sections, including in these ones, in accordance with current legislation, exercising the powers that the service has at its disposal for today.

Working groups have been created on issues that relate not only to disengagement. The SBU carries out the relevant work there.

Q: The reform of the Service proposed by you caused a mixed reaction within the system and among international partners. In fact, what functions will the SBU be tasked with? What will happen to the investigation of economic crimes, with the SBU's "K" Directorate?

A: It seems that everyone cares only about this part of the work of the SBU. Although I think that the discussion should be held on the whole about other things also: whether the Service will be effective with fewer functions, whether this approach corresponds to the operational situation in the country and other important aspects in the work of the Service.

Q: SBU will not be engaged in economic crimes?

A: We will participate in the development of a state program to counter economic crimes and, in fact, will prevent them. But if we talk about the investigation, then the State Bureau of Financial Investigations will obviously deal with this in the future.

The service itself will focus on counterintelligence, and it can be in any field. And when they say that our counterintelligence activity should be limited by something, it surprises me. Today there are many new types of threats that the modern world dictates. And they concern not only Ukraine, but also any other countries. Isn't aggression carried out in the form of economic expansion? One can buy a company strategically important for the country and then destroy it.

We want to reorient towards protecting critical infrastructure. And in this matter we need to be proactive. Usually, all law enforcement agencies work in response to a crime committed. Our task is to prevent crime in the bud by neutralizing threats.

Q: But anyway, the question of powers, functions is still relevant ...

A: It's not about what functions you have, but how you use them. Generally speaking, any powers can lead to abuse. Therefore, the main task is to change the approach to the work of the SBU: we do not render services to the political elites, we ensure the national security of Ukraine in a consistent manner.

Today, the best European practices suggest that organized crime, terrorism, corruption pose a threat to national security, so I do not think that we will not deal with all these issues at all. But there are two directions - opposition and struggle. We want to concentrate our efforts precisely on counteraction.

We are involved in the development of state policy on these issues: we collect information, identify and hand it over to the bodies that are specifically involved in the investigation of these crimes. Any citizen under the Constitution, having revealed the violation, is obliged to inform law enforcement agencies. And citizens do not always understand which agency he should contact. We receive such appeals, and if the jurisdiction is not ours, we give the materials to another law enforcement body for investigation.

Effective public control will also help change the approach to the work of the SBU in all areas.

I see no reason to believe that the reform that we planned, the draft law we developed are ineffective or unbalanced. On the contrary, the current operational situation, the current conflict, and the president's ability to increase the number of SBU employees in case of additional threats have been taken into account.

Yes, we are reducing the staff, demilitarizing it, but remain effective, ensuring the national security of Ukraine.

Q: How will counterintelligence increase in practical terms?

A: It will be strengthened due to a number of motivated employees who will engage in counterintelligence, by increasing the level of technical equipment and new approaches to the implementation of tasks.

Q: Will demilitarization adversely affect the conditions of war?

A: Demilitarization is generally a very challenging issue. There is a kind of trap in it. The Constitution of Ukraine clearly states that the national security and defense sector is represented by paramilitary groups and law enforcement agencies. Today, the SBU is a special body with law enforcement functions.

At the same time, we are also military personnel, which allows us, strictly speaking, to stay in this security sector.

And if, as a result of the reform, we are demilitarized and the law enforcement functions are taken away, the SBU will no longer be engaged in the national security sector under the Constitution. And my task is to make the Service modern and more effective.

I want the demilitarization of the SBU to imply only one thing - the hostilities are over, peace and order are restored in Ukraine. We agree to such a demilitarization.

Q: That is, this is a kind of formal demilitarization so far?

A: No, quite specific. Special ranks appear.

Q: When can a bill be adopted and an updated SBU become a reality?

A: The reform of the SBU is not only the law. Of course, it is an excellent base for reform, but even if we assume that it will not be adopted in the near future, we will still, within the framework of our internal capabilities, reform the SBU. First of all, we will be improving the system of the Service itself.

Not only the tasks I have already voiced matter. It is necessary to understand who will perform them. There is a problem that is many years old, and it is about the lack of motivation among our employees. They have the lowest salary among the entire security bodies. Activities within the Service are regulated to a fault, there is no electronic document management, the work of many operational units is not aimed at operational work, but at paperwork and their approval within the Service. Therefore, already now we will change all this, develop a system of employee motivation, simplify the system of promotion. We hope that in this way we will change the standards of the SBU's performance.

Q: What will be the motivation system?

A: Needless to say, this is salary. We have provided for the resolution of this issue in the new bill. And if we succeed, then this will be one of the factors that affect motivation.

Improving housing conditions is the second important point, and we will study the opportunities that we have, including the experience of the Ministry of Internal Affairs on a leasing program.

In addition, one of the key factors is the abolition of bureaucracy within the system and the provision of real professional growth opportunities for employees.

Q: In the context of implementing reforms, what kind of interaction does the SBU have with international partners? Has NATO provided an analysis of the SBU reform bill? Given the criticism, what changes can be made into the draft law?

A: It seems to me that the interaction can't be closer. In order to carry out the reform, we have involved all possible communication channels: with NATO, EUAM (EU Advisory Mission for Civilian Security Sector Reform Ukraine), EU. We submitted our bill for study, and today its discussion is ongoing.

If we talk about the position of NATO and EUAM, they evaluated this bill, noting that it is significantly different from previous versions of the bills. International partners pointed out positive aspects, but at the same time, they would like to finalize the bill in some aspects.

The specific provisions they refer to, in our opinion, are those that need to be discussed. We will be open in this process. We are preparing our arguments for all comments. I think that in the very near future we will be able to meet with our international partners and discuss controversial issues, although it is still quite difficult to find the general consensus on all issues when it comes to such important changes.

Q: What generally explains the "staff turnover" in the SBU leadership? What is meant by team building?

A: Recruiting is, of course, a long and important process. The SBU must do this on a permanent basis since human resources is the crucial issue.

There are various reasons for the staff turnover, given the tasks that are set. But at the same time, this is a normal process, as in any other agency. In some cases, the views on how the SBU should work did not coincide. But in general, there were no specific conflicts and scandals.

Q: What are the key threats to national security now?

A: If we do not talk about the ongoing aggression in the east of the country, then information threats are in the first place today.

Fakes flood the information space around the world. It is very difficult to realize where the truth is. Is it destabilizing? Yes, it is. Are only domestic forces producing fakes? Of course, not.

The next is cyber threats.

Today we all use computers, software. A simple example is the Petya virus. It would be difficult to counter this threat without top-notch SBU specialists.

Q: The attack is always ahead of the defense. Do you see threats to the implementation of the "State in a Smartphone program"?

A: This is a serious question. Of course, the protection of information databases, including those that will be the basis of the "State in a Smartphone" program, is a priority. We are working on this issue today together with the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC), the Cabinet of Ministers, and cyber divisions of other law enforcement agencies.

That is, this is not only about devices, but also about communications, which should also be protected.

Of course, this work will require resources. It is also necessary to build a clear architecture of the system for countering cyber threats. This will significantly increase the security of the system in the future.

Q: Is the prankster 'Joker' an example of such a threat?

A: The 'Joker' is our reflection in the mirror. And here, in my opinion, we should pay more attention to the political culture in Ukraine as a whole, because today it is politicians who feed the 'Joker.' We all need to change so that he becomes unemployed.

There is not only 'Joker' but a clear tendency. There are also 'The White Knight' and 'The Dark Knight' ... But if we change ourselves, they will all be out of work.

Q: Who is behind them?

A: We have an idea. There is operational information, but it makes no sense to advertise the people who are behind this.

Q: Does it make sense to track these processes in any way, to keep them under control, so as not to go beyond a certain framework?

A: Their activities should definitely be monitored.

Q: Can it be stirred up from the outside, inspired, in particular, by an unfriendly state?

A: Yes, it can. We see these ligaments.

Q: How do you rate the bill on criminal liability for fake information? Do you see censorship in this? Will the Service take part in the development of the norms of this law?

A: Since we do not have the text of this bill, it is difficult for me to say anything specific. We were not asked for help in preparing this draft law.

If we talk about whether such a law is needed, then it seems to me that it should be considered just taking into account possible information threats. I think that the world will move in this direction.

On the other hand, according to the head of the SBU, it is necessary to work with the text to understand whether this infringes on the rights and freedoms of citizens, where this fine line will be …

We do realize that even the word "yes" has at least 15 semantic nuances that will depend on the context.

Therefore, the issue needs to be worked out, involving the society in the discussion. And only after a comprehensive discussion can such a law be adopted.

Q: How to define a fine line between expressing one's position in the media and working for foreign countries? Where is real politics and where is it brought in from outside?

A: Only through comprehensive and systematic work, including operational. It is impossible to say unequivocally if this is a sincere personal position or some kind introduced from the outside.

It is difficult to immediately determine the information line of a politician. Only in the course of time one can say what this leads to, or, having information in advance why it is being done.

In my opinion, besides it is necessary to appeal to the responsibility of politicians, to foster political culture in society and the country. Democracy is not the best form of government, but no one has come up with a better idea.

Q: Continuing the topic of threats, are there real external and internal threats now, such as an invasion of the Russian Federation from the south, separatist tendencies in the west of Ukraine?

A: We all know that there is an external threat. There is a phrase that is already several thousand years old: If you wish for peace, prepare for war. If you are strong and prepared, then, by and large, you will cope with this threat.

I think that today, any side that would like to attack Ukraine will not be able to do this simple and easy - our country has significantly changed. First of all, the sentiments within the country , the citizens themselves have changed.

It seems to me that the current level of sentiment in Ukraine will not allow turning aggression into an "easy matter."

Of course, the state, for its part, should do everything possible to strengthen the army, the national security and defense sector. Only in this way can we effectively counter this threat.

And if there is no strong economy, then it is hard to resist in such a way, since, whether we like it or not, any project or any threat has three main criteria today: time, cost, quality. If you do not possess these resources, then you will not achieve the quality of solving problems.

Therefore, we realistically evaluate all these threats. The President of Ukraine, the National Security and Defense Council, and the power block as a whole, exchange information on a permanent basis today. There is no old Soviet competition between security officials. Everyone understands the scale of the threats, and the fact that they can be overcome only by joint efforts.

It is also about operational information, which we exchange today almost instantly.

As for the separatist sentiments, including in the west of the country, it is necessary first of all to ask the question - who benefits from this? And who is trying to focus on this? There is a potential threat. The security service conducts operational consultations with colleagues in the security block so that this threat remains at a potential rather than a real level.

I want to state that the involvement of our neighbors in these threats is obvious in many cases.

Q: Do you see danger from the radical forces in society as a whole and in the Armed Forces in particular, who are trying to influence domestic politics?

A: Radical forces were always present, but if we talk about a real threat, including in the Armed Forces, I don't think that there is a radically minded part of the Ukrainian army that can harm the state.

Q: And members of volunteer battalions? People who returned from the front? Is there a potential threat to national security in this environment?

A: Members of volunteer battalions and all the military personnel, who were involved in the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO), are citizens of our country with whom we need to work, communicate.

Both the reform of the SBU and the reform of Ukraine's Armed Forces are aimed at the fact that we must change the approach to people who served or are serving. That is, these people should become the personnel reserve for changes in the country. They have their own value vision of what is happening in Ukraine. They must be actively involved in society. It seems to me that those who fought will not be able to betray their country under any circumstances. Or at least this probability is much lower.

There are problems of various levels in this matter. No doubt, people who went through hostilities should receive all kinds of support, including psychological support. They should be obviously integrated back into society. World practice suggests that such people definitely have psychological trauma.

Today, various versions of bills are being discussed and being developed that would allow these people to be integrated, possibly even into the forces of territorial defense.

This is very penetrating discussion issue, which requires both the availability of resources and a comprehensive understanding of the problem. We are discussing this with our partners and are interested in the experience of their countries.

Q: Who will deal with these issues?

A: Today this is our common problem: volunteers, experts, psychologists, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Social Policy, the Ministry of Veterans… They all must join in the search for the right solutions.

Q: The investigation into the murder of Sheremet named the suspects. Will the service be involved in further investigation, including on the establishment of the mastermind?

A: If we receive a corresponding order from the Prosecutor General, of course, we will take part in the investigation of this case.

Q: Did the SBU investigators accept materials on criminal proceedings from the prosecution authorities? Are there any resonant cases related to the Burisma company, the National Bank, the case of the Ilovaisk tragedy?

A: Materials have not been physically received yet, but some registered cases have been handed over to the SBU. The transfer process is quite lengthy.

It's more than one resonant case. I think that their investigation is a great responsibility, and we must deal with this. At minimum, I want to say that there will definitely be no political aspect in the investigation of these cases.

By the way, in the bill on reforming the Service, we propose limiting the circle of people who can transfer cases to the SBU to be investigated by the prosecutor general and his deputies.

Generally speaking, in those cases when they say that the SBU in some way puts pressure on business, are related to the execution of orders that come to us from other law enforcement agencies. Therefore, in order to reduce the number of such instructions, we suggest narrowing down the circle of people who will have the right to delegate cases to us. And we hope that members of parliament will support this initiative. I admit that we will be more effective due to it, and the number of complaints against the SBU will decrease.

Although, if today we look at the number of complaints that the business ombudsman has, the SBU is the law enforcement agency that is least complained of.

We have significantly changed the approach even in involving Alpha in conducting operational investigative measures.

Q: How will you evaluate the results of 100 days of the Service under your leadership?

A: My opinion, of course, is subjective, that the results for 100 days are worthy. Can they be improved? Definitely. You can't rest on your laurels. There is a lot of work, and many areas where we can increase efficiency.

What we have done during 100 days. In the field of countering terrorism and protecting territorial integrity alone, more than 100 criminal proceedings have been launched.

The security service, together with international partners, detained one of the leaders of ISIS Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Umar al-Shishani), which is an unprecedented event not only for Ukraine, but also for any European country.

There are also 69 criminal counterintelligence proceedings underway. Of these, 17 relate to high treason, court decisions have been made on nine cases with specific sentences executed.

Some 39 officials were dismissed, and 134 were reported suspicion of a crime and 50 had already been convicted.

If we talk about work with "black registrars," the SBU conducted a unique multi-level operation, as a result of which the gang of "black registrars" was eliminated. Preliminary damage from illegally re-registered property amounted to approximately UAH 1.5 billion.

There are other cases where we have good results. For example, we prevented the appropriation of almost a billion hryvnias during the construction of the capital's large Ring Road. On the one hand, the sum throughout the country may seem not very impressive, but on the other hand, this is an average monthly pension of 330,000 pensioners.

We also systematically work with our colleagues from the State Fiscal Service on conversion centers - these are the tasks that the president set. We produce results every week. 

Today we are trying not only to stop some ongoing offense, but we are also working to establish the whole chain, the entire mechanism of illegal activity.

If we talk about this result, then in recent years the level of confidence in the SBU has grown up to 45%. Is it a lot or a little? Of course, this is a worthy result compared to what it had been before. The level of trust for the first time in many years has exceeded the level of distrust. But we still have a lot of work ahead.

Q: Are you already comfortable in your position? As a person new for this system, did you grow familiar with it?

A: The fact that I am not the person from the system gives me an advantage: the opportunity to see how the Service works with a completely "fresh pair of eyes."

Did I encounter any rejection or difficulties? Not really.

Q: And from your subordinates?

A: Even if someone had such emotions, we dealt with them. It was a joint effort.

Q: At what stage is the ArcelorMittal investigation now? Have specific facts of subversive activity in favor of the Russian Federation been established at the Motor Sich enterprise?

A: If there was no such a fact, then the corresponding criminal cases would not have been registered. But a person, according to the Constitution, is guilty only if there is an appropriate court decision.

The SBU is working on these cases. I cannot disclose all aspects of the work. Examinations, investigative measures are being carried out.

If we get the result and permission of the supervisor of pretrial proceedings for disclosure, we will immediately share this information with the public.

Q: Have suspicions been presented to anyone as part of the investigation of these cases?

A: We are working on it.

Q: Does the SBU have initiatives to amend the sanctions lists with the submission of initiatives to the NSDC?

A: The service has always worked with sanctions lists and continues this work. To add, expand, change, and exclude someone from this list. This work that is carried out in a consistent manner.

Q: Trade with ORDLO. How widespread is the problem now and can you assure that there is no protection racket for illegal trade?

A: Trade with ORDLO is a complex issue, including from the point of view of the social situation in the region.

Of course, within the framework of the current legislation, the service reacts to the facts of illegal trade, but we must not forget that the citizens of Ukraine live on the territory of the ORDLO and there must be a balance in this matter.

In July of this year, the Cabinet of Ministers decided to expand the list of products that can be traded with the temporarily occupied territories.

To date, we have replaced the head of the internal security service of the SBU. The internal security service is working at an appropriate level and our common task is to do everything possible so that the SBU is not involved in such phenomena as the "protection racket" of illegal trade.

After conducting audits in the SBU, materials of official inspections were systematized and materials on criminal offenses were transferred for investigation to the State Bureau of Investigations (SBI).

We systematically deal with the negative phenomena that exist within the Service.

Q: The Savchenko-Ruban case. Does the SBU continue to consider them suspected of preparing terrorist acts, given that they are both at large?

A: The SBU carried out all the work that was supposed to be done in this case, and submitted the materials to the court. Today, choosing a preventive measure is exclusively in the competence of the court in which the case is considered, and the state prosecution is represented by the prosecutor's office.

Now it is the court that must decide.

Q: The Handziuk murder investigation. Who, except for Manher, could be a paymaster?

A: This case is resonant for society, important for the SBU and personally for me. This is a tragic event in the history of our country, and I would like to distinguish the work of the SBU in this case. The performers and organizers were convicted; the issue of masterminds remains open.

Largely because one of the suspects that could link this evidence base is on the international wanted list. We are looking for this person together with Interpol. At the same time, other versions are being worked out, and persons who are possibly involved in this crime are being identified.

We make every effort to ensure that not only performers, but also paymasters are held accountable in the very near future.

No less important are those questions on crimes in Kherson region that Kateryna raised. They are not forgotten, they are being investigated. We hope that these investigations will be effective.