Russia-Ukraine spy scandal erupts on eve of vote

KIEV (AFP)— Ukraine’s security service on Tuesday said it had foiled a Russian plot by arresting five of Moscow’s intelligence agents operating in the south of the country on a mission to steal state secrets.

Adding to tensions ahead of presidential elections on Sunday, the Ukraine Security Service (SBU) said four of the purported agents had been expelled from the country while one, a colonel, was still being detained.

“On January 27, the SBU foiled an operation by the Russian agents in the region of Odessa” in the south of Ukraine, SBU chief Valentin Nalyvaichenko was quoted as saying by the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.

He said the agents from Russia’s security service the FSB “were trying to illegally obtain Ukrainian secrets through blackmail and threats.”

“They were caught red-handed,” he added.

In a statement released through Russian news agencies in Moscow, the FSB confirmed that its “employee” had been detained on Ukrainian territory.

It expressed astonishment that its Ukraine counterpart had made the incident public “as usually such situations are resolved through coordination between the special services.”

The scandal is the latest incident to hit ties between Moscow and Kiev which have been ravaged by a succession of rows ranging from energy supplies to interpretation of history under Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.

The pro-Western Yushchenko was eliminated in the first round of presidential elections and the candidates in the run-off, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich, are seen as more pro-Russian.

The SBU operates under the control of the president, which also appoints its chief.

The SBU found that the Russian agents were carrying a camera hidden inside a pen and other espionage gadgets, Nalyvaichenko said.

In a rare insight into operational matters, the FSB defended its actions inside Ukraine, saying they were in response to espionage operations by Kiev.

It said it had in October 2009 arrested a Ukrainian citizen working for the Ukrainian defence ministry’s intelligence arm at a Russian military facility in Moldova with a digital camera and scans of documents marked “top secret”.

Apparently offering to work as a double agent, the man then offered to hand over information to the Russian side about espionage activities being carried out against Moscow.

It was then decided to refrain from prosecuting him, the FSB said.

On January 27, he had been due to meet Russian agents to hand over information about threats to Russian military objects in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transdniestr, where it has a contingent of troops.