The secret operation to support Ukrainian independence that haunts the CIA

In stride of World War II, American authorities realized that their knowledge of their former allies in the Soviet Union was severely restricted.

This lack of information stemmed from two main interrelated reasons. The first was the absence of any kind of structured intelligence apparatus in the United States, remedied by the formation of the CIA in 1947. But the second was even more concerning: the lack of contacts inside the Soviet Union, especially in regions pushing back Moscow’s rule. And it was this last issue that became more salient when the Kremlin began to seize and strangle conquered countries and annex parts of Europe, including parts of Ukraine previously out of its grip. from Moscow.

In Washington, the newly formed CIA offered a potential solution. American agents would scour DP camps across Europe looking for exiles they could train and then smuggle into the Soviet Union. They would use them both to gather intelligence and to link up with other anti-Soviet movements. But some senior CIA officials wondered why they should stop there. What if the United States could also arm these numbers backfired, and potentially fracture the Soviet Union?

The plan had a few elements. As one of the few scientific reviews of the operation detailed, “At the time, Soviet air defenses were woefully disorganized, allowing American aircraft to violate their airspace with impunity.” Moreover, in the eyes of the American handlers, these trainees hardly landed in a vacuum. On the contrary, they were effectively jumping into wildfire: a war zone pitting Ukrainian nationalists against Soviet authorities trying to hold on to Moscow’s colonial empire. And these Ukrainian nationalists seemed to be winning. For the first time in decades, Ukrainian independence appeared within reach, a message the Americans were happy to reinforce. “The Ukrainian organization offers unusual opportunities to penetrate the USSR and help develop clandestine movements behind the Iron Curtain,” reads a declassified CIA document from the time. And if they could succeed, “ultimately an operational base could be established in… Ukraine”.

The emigrants “were told that everything was in the service of liberation, of the overthrow of communist regimes”, writes Scott Anderson in The Quiet Americans, a book on the early history of the CIA. “That message has been reinforced by the steady drumbeat of rhetoric now emanating from Washington.”

Still, the plan was pushed back by some Washington neighborhoods. As the acting head of the CIA’s Special Projects Division for Soviet operations wrote in 1947, the United States had to “confront the fact that in the long term, operations using Ukrainians as an organized group will likely prove worthless – simply because without policies supporting Ukrainian nationalist groups will be decimated by Soviet pressure and demoralization. But in those early days of the Cold War, the CIA was looking for early intelligence success it could expand elsewhere, especially as relations between Washington and Moscow went into freefall in the late 1940s.

In September 1949, the operation was ready and the first flights launched. Ukrainian commandos successfully crossed Soviet airspace, landing in western Ukraine, the heart of Ukrainian resistance to Soviet occupation. And at first, everything seemed to be going well. Messages relayed to American managers, via new electronic equipment smuggled behind Soviet lines, spoke of operational success. The optimism continued to grow as month after month, drop after drop, the same messages in pink came back.

Yet, back in Washington, concerns began to grow. On the one hand, there was the reality with whom these Ukrainian émigrés actually bonded. The main body of Ukrainian insurgents, and in particular the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, had previously been directly linked to Nazi atrocities in the region. “They were Nazis, plain and simple,” said a CIA operations chief. “Worse than that, because a lot of them did the Nazis’ dirty work for them.”

Beyond these concerns about empowering the fascists, there was also a better understanding of how Soviet secret police and counter-intelligence operations actually worked – and how little success an operation like the Red Sox would have. probably in a place like the USSR.

“You send people to these Soviet-controlled areas – Poland or Ukraine or wherever – with the idea that they will create resistance groups or meet those who are already there,” recalls a CIA station chief. . “But it is impossible that these resistance groups could exist under the Soviet security system…. It is a dream. It can’t work. You just send people to their deaths. On the contrary, Anderson added, those so-called anti-Soviet resistance groups that the CIA thought it was helping to support were, in reality, “watersheds in which the enemies of the regimes, both internal and external, could be concentrated and confined in safely until the state is ready to pick them up.


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