Techniques of Torture and Assassination Deployed by the SBU (Ukraine’s CIA) Recall the U.S.’s Brutal “Operation Phoenix” in Vietnam
Vasily Prozorov, a former officer with the Security Services of Ukraine (SBU) stated soon after his defection to Russia in 2018 that the SBU had been advised by the CIA since 2014.
“CIA employees [who have been present in Kyiv since 2014] are residing in clandestine apartments and suburban houses,” he said. “However, they frequently come to the SBU’s central office for holding, for example, specific meetings or plotting secret operations.”
Prozorov’s revelations take on extremely ominous implications in light of a new report by The Grayzone Project detailing the SBU’s participation in a campaign of assassination, kidnapping and torture overseen by Ukrainian President and Western media darling Volodymyr Zelensky.
The campaign bears comparison with Operation Phoenix in South Vietnam, which resulted in the killing, imprisonment and torture of thousands of South Vietnamese, including civilian officials accused of being loyal to the left-wing, anti-imperialist National Liberation Front (NLF).
During congressional hearings in 1971, Ogden Reid (D-NY) said that, “if the Union had had a Phoenix program during the Civil War, its targets would have been civilians like Jefferson Davis or the mayor of Macon, Georgia.”
In the Ukrainian case, one of the targets of the SBU death squads was the mayor of the eastern city of Kreminna in the Ukrainian-controlled side of Luhansk, Volodymyr Struk.
On March 1, Struk was kidnapped by men in military uniform and then shot in the heart, with his tortured body displayed before the public. Struk had reportedly urged his Ukrainian colleagues to compromise and negotiate with pro-Russian officials.
Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs, celebrated the mayor’s murder, declaring on his Telegram page: “There is one less traitor in Ukraine.”
Gerashchenko has compiled a “blacklist of enemies of the state.” It includes journalists who have been murdered by state-backed death squads, such as prominent columnist Oles Buzina, whose name had appeared on the list.
As of today, eleven mayors in Ukrainian towns are missing. On March 7, the mayor of Gostomel, Yuri Prylypko, was found murdered. Prylypko had reportedly entered into negotiations with the Russian military to organize a humanitarian corridor for the evacuation of his city’s residents—a red line for Ukrainian ultra-nationalists who had long been in conflict with the mayor’s office. (The Ukrainians claim that Prylopko was killed by Russian soldiers while distributing food and medicine)
Then there was the murder of Denis Kireev, a top member of the Ukrainian negotiating team, who was killed in broad daylight in Kyiv after the first round of talks with Russia. Kireev was subsequently accused in local Ukrainian media of “treason.”
President Zelensky stated that “there would be consequences for collaborators,” indicating his support for the Phoenix-style operations.
Currently, Zelensky is promoting a bill that would expand the SBU’s powers. The head of the SBU, Ivan Bakonov, is a close friend of his.
The director of SBU’s counterintelligence, Oleksandr Poklad, is nicknamed “The Strangler.” He has a reputation for using torture and assorted dirty tricks to set up his bosses’ political rivals on treason charges.
In a March 19 executive order, Zelensky invoked martial law to ban 11 opposition parties. The outlawed parties consisted of the entire left-wing, socialist or anti-NATO spectrum in Ukraine. They included the For Life Party, the Left Opposition, the Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine, the Socialist Party of Ukraine, Union of Left Forces, Socialists, the Party of Shariy, Ours, State, Opposition Bloc and the Volodymyr Saldo Bloc.
Openly fascist and pro-Nazi parties like the Azov National Corps were left untouched.
On April 12, Zelensky announced the arrest of his principal political rival, Viktor Medvedchuk, by the SBU. In a photo released to the public, Medvedchuk’s face appeared to be swollen and bruised, the likely result of beatings by SBU goons.
Inmates considered SBU-run prisons to be “like a small Guantanamo.” Beatings took place at all hours of the night amidst the backdrop of Ukrainian nationalist music.
Douglas Valentine, author of the seminal book The Phoenix Program (1990), sees eerie parallels between the original Phoenix program and Zelensky’s operations today. In both cases, Valentine told CAM in an exclusive interview, “neutralism wasn’t tolerated.”
Valentine recounted how legendary CIA officer Lucien Conein had told him that Phoenix was, “a very good blackmail scheme for the central government. ‘If you don’t do what I want, you’re VC [Vietcong].’”
This is similar to Ukraine today—exemplified by the killing of government negotiators who advocate for peace with Russia, or mayors adopting a compromising or neutralist line.
Valentine noted that under Phoenix, or Phung Hoang as it was called by the CIA’s South Vietnamese counterparts, due process was totally non-existent. South Vietnamese civilians whose names appeared on blacklists could be kidnapped, tortured and murdered simply on the word of an anonymous informer—which is again happening in Ukraine.
Tellingly, after Volodymyr Struk’s death, Anton Gerashchenko claimed that Struk had been judged by the “court of the people’s tribunal” rather than any formal legal state court structure.
‘Rampage Against Any and All Iterations of Internal Political Opposition”
The Grayzone Project reported that, since Russian troops entered Ukraine on February 24, “Ukraine’s SBU security service had been on a rampage against any and all iterations of internal political opposition,” which indeed sounds a lot like Phioenix. “Leftist Ukrainian activists have faced particularly harsh treatment, including kidnapping and torture.”
On March 3 in the city of Dnipro, SBU officers accompanied by Azov ultra-nationalists raided the homes of activists with the Livizja (Left) organization, which has organized against social spending cuts and right-wing media propaganda.
While one activist said the Azov member “cut my hair off with a knife,” the state security agents proceeded to torture her husband, Alexander Matjuschenko, pressing a gun barrel to his head and forcing him to repeatedly belt out the nationalist salute, “Slava Ukraini!”
“Then they put bags over our heads, tied our hands with tape and took us to the SBU building in a car. There they continued to interrogate us and threatened to cut off our ears,” Matjuschenko’s wife told the German publication Junge Welt.
The Azov members and SBU agents recorded the torture session and published images of Matjuschenko’s bloodied face online.
Matjuschenko was jailed on the grounds that he was “conducting an aggressive war or military operation,” and now faces 10 to 15 years in prison. Despite enduring several broken ribs from the beating by state-backed ultra-nationalists, he has been denied bail. Meanwhile, dozens of other leftists have been jailed on similar charges in Dnipro.
Among those targeted by the SBU were Mikhail and Aleksander Kononovich, members of the outlawed Leninist Communist Youth Union of Ukraine. Both were arrested and jailed on March 6 and accused of “spreading pro-Russian and pro-Belarusian views.”
In the following days, the SBU arrested broadcast journalist Yan Taksyur and charged him with treason; human rights activist Elena Berezhnaya; Elena Viacheslavovna, a human rights advocate whose father, Mikhail, was burned to death during the May 2, 2014 ultra-nationalist mob attack on anti-Maidan protesters outside the Odessa House of Trade Unions; independent journalist Yuri Tkachev, who was charged with treason; disabled rights activist Oleg Novikov, who was jailed for three years this April on the grounds that he supported “separatism”; and an untold number of others.
These cases are all reminiscent of the Phoenix program in Vietnam, where Provincial Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) goon squads trained by the CIA targeted human rights and other political activists, journalists and opponents of the Thieu-Ky clique that Washington had propped up in South Vietnam.
In the Ukraine case, Zelensky may have gone one step further: There are reports that SBU agents have tried to kidnap and kill dissidents abroad, including opposition figure Anatoly Shariy, a critic of Zelensky and his predecessor Petro Poroshenko and 2014 Maidan coup who was branded by the Lithuanian media as a “favorite friend of Putin.”
According to the World Socialist website, the SBU—a successor of the Stalinist secret service KGB in Ukraine—has long-standing ties to the Ukrainian far right, including the neo-fascist Azov Battalion.
It has been heavily involved in efforts by the Ukrainian state to rehabilitate the Nazi collaborationist organizations, the Ukrainian Insurgency Army (UPA), and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), which was headed during World War II by fascist Stepan Bandera.
Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, the first head of the SBU after the Euromaidan regime-change operation of 2013-2014, declared in 2015 that the SBU “does not need to invent anything new, it is important to build on the traditions of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and UPA in the 1930–1950 years.”
During World War II, Ukrainian fascists of the OUN-B were involved in the massacres of tens of thousands of Jews and Poles, as well as of Ukrainian opponents of fascism. After the war and well into the 1950s, both the OUN-B and UPA were engaged in an insurgency against Soviet rule, with backing from the CIA, during which the UPA killed another 20,000 Ukrainian civilians.
Not surprising perhaps given his historical outlook, Nalyvaichenko nurtured close ties to Washington when he served as general consul to the Ukrainian Embassy in the U.S. during the George W. Bush administration. During that time, Nalyvaichenko was recruited by the CIA, according to his predecessor at the SBU, Alexander Yakimenko, who served under the Russian-oriented government of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych.
Douglas Valentine believes that the CIA “is applying the same organizational structure in Ukraine as it used in South Vietnam to conduct an updated version of the typical ‘two tier’ Phoenix program. The top tier is to assure political control, the lower tier to pacify the population.”
“Organizationally, Phoenix coordinates CIA foreign intelligence and covert action officers and operations from the highest national level through the provinces down to the most remote territorial outposts.
Foreign intelligence officers advise SBU security service to assure ‘top tier’ internal security and political control; and Ukrainian CIA agents run ops into Donbas, Russia and Belarus, sending illegal travelers, smugglers, and agents to set up agent nets and penetrate the enemy in his territory, [and carry out] sabotage and subversion. SBU and Ukrainian CIA are where hit-lists get authored. CIA officers advise military, militias and mercenaries in deniable political, paramilitary and psychological operations to terrorize and otherwise persuade civilian population to support Zelensky while demoralizing and fighting the enemy.”
As in Vietnam, some of the CIA agents may be operating under the cover of State Department-run police training programs which were instituted in Ukraine after the 2014 Maidan coup. Others were known to have been assigned to specialized paramilitary units fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Phoenix Always Rising from the Ashes
According to Valentine, the disaster now unfolding in Ukraine has long been in the works. Starting in 1991 with the fall of the USSR, the CIA began buying property and setting up organizations and businesses in Ukraine so it would have fronts and safe houses.
“All these things serve as places where CIA officers can meet and plot and engage in unilateral recruitments to put politicians and civil servants and businessmen in place who can assure that the CIA can reorganize the economy and the government and put a Defense Minister and Minister of the Interior in place who is on their payroll, who will then appoint police chiefs who will be on the CIA payroll—for the purpose of furthering U.S. policy, not Ukraine policy.”
The ultimate goal since 1991 was to start a war in the Ukraine against Russia, which weakens Russia but also forces Ukrainians to flee the war zones. As soon as that happens, the prices go down and who is going to go swooping in there to buy it up?
Meanwhile, Valentine says, “the CIA is building a compatible civil base through unilateral recruitments. Also, U.S. universities and unions send advisers to help create schools and indoctrinate youth and workers.
Business advisers create a Rotary Club and a Chamber of Commerce. They create a foreign relations council. This is how the CIA rules a foreign society: through the ownership of property and having the proper people in government security and defense industries and control of the civic institutions.”
According to Valentine, “the CIA is working with bankers. They want Ukrainians putting their money in a Morgan Stanley brokerage firm in Kyiv. They want to suck the life out of Ukrainians. People do it on the promise of a brighter future—others are bribed, still others like Zelensky in my humble opinion are blackmailed.”
“Whatever, the CIA is manipulating them toward U.S. policies. CIA officers are recruiting people and putting them in place, having them sign contracts.
It would be like the Russians coming here to the United States and recruiting people and our police forces and our government institutions. It’s illegal. You can’t do it. You can’t take money from a foreign intelligence agency and work against your own government, but that is what the CIA is doing in the Ukraine right now on a massive scale.”
Valentine further notes:
“They’re always finding a reason to start a war, so they can send the next generation of young men into battle, to learn how to kill people in the most brutal fashion—that’s Phoenix, always rising from the ashes of war. The U.S. has an imperative to be as super-aggressive as it can be, so it doesn’t lose its edge. If its predatory impulse to dominate was stilted in Vietnam, that doesn’t mean the soldiers and spies aren’t going to pop up someplace else. They’re always going to pop up someplace else. They always do. Like in Ukraine.”
Where Is the Congressional Oversight?
Valentine pointed out that, at the conclusion of the congressional hearings into the original Phoenix program in 1971, Representatives Pete McCloskey (R-CA), John Conyers (D-MI), Ben Rosenthal (D-NY), and Bella Abzug (D-NY) stated their belief that “the people of these United States … have deliberately imposed on the Vietnamese people a system of justice which admittedly denies due process of law…. In so doing, we appear to have violated the 1949 Geneva Convention for the protection of civilian peoples” in time of war.”
“Some of us who have visited Vietnam,” they further said, “share a real fear that the Phoenix program is an instrument of terror… and that U.S. civilian and military personnel have participated for over three years in the deliberate denial of due process of law to thousands of people held in secret interrogation centers built with U.S. dollars.” They added that “Congress owes a duty to act swiftly and decisively to see that the practices involved are terminated forthwith.”
Now where is the congressional oversight of the CIA’s abuses in Ukraine? And mainstream media scrutiny, which would generate the kind of public outrage necessary for instituting congressional hearings?
Douglas Valentine, The Phoenix Program (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2000), 13. ↑
Buzina advocated for unity among Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia and campaigned to outlaw neo-Nazi organizing. ↑
For the historical pattern, see Jeremy Kuzmarov, Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012). ↑
Valentine, The Phoenix Program, 235. ↑
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About the Author
Jeremy Kuzmarov is Managing Editor of CovertAction Magazine.
He is the author of four books on U.S. foreign policy, including Obama’s Unending Wars (Clarity Press, 2019) and The Russians Are Coming, Again, with John Marciano (Monthly Review Press, 2018).
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.