The United States has proof that the Russian government in Moscow is running a network of spies inside eastern Ukraine because the U.S. government has recordings of their conversations, Secretary of State John Kerry said in a closed-door meeting Friday.
“Intel is producing taped conversations of intelligence operatives taking their orders from Moscow and everybody can tell the difference in the accents, in the idioms, in the language. We know exactly who’s giving those orders, we know where they are coming from,” Kerry said at a private meeting of the Trilateral Commission in Washington. A recording of Kerry’s remarks was obtained by The Daily Beast.
Kerry didn’t name specific Russian officials implicated in the recordings. But he claimed that the intercepts provided proof of the Russians deliberately fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine—and lying about it to U.S. officials and the public.
“It’s not an accident that you have some of the same people identified who were in Crimea and in Georgia and who are now in east Ukraine,” said Kerry. “This is insulting to everybody’s intelligence, let alone to our notions about how we ought to be behaving in the 21st century. It’s thuggism, it’s rogue state-ism. It’s the worst order of behavior.”
Representatives for the State Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not respond to requests for comment. On Tuesday, however, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Kerry was referring to Ukrainian intelligence in his remarks on Friday, adding The Daily Beast's story was a "mischaracterization." Kerry at no point in his remarks indicated that he was referring to Ukrainian intelligence.
Kerry has asserted publicly before that Russian intelligence officers were the “catalyst” behind the riots and government building takeovers in eastern Ukraine. But on Friday he told the private audience why he—and the U.S. intelligence community—were so sure of this assessment.
If U.S. intelligence agencies have intercepted proof of Russia’s destabilization operations, as Kerry claims, it means that the code-breakers and eavesdroppers in the National Security Agency and the broader American armed forces have overcome Russian efforts to hide their military communications. In March, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. agencies were surprised that it had not collected any telltale signs of the Crimea stealth invasion at the end of February, suggesting the Russians had managed to give such orders without the United States knowing about it.
The intercepts also come as more proof has mounted inside Ukraine that Russia is behind the provocations, uprisings and other actions aimed at ripping the country apart. On Monday Ukraine's internal security service claimed they caught the self appointed separatist deputy mayor of Slavyansk with cash and encryption equipment on a return trip from Moscow. Last month, The Daily Beast reported the first signs of a Russian shadow invasion of Ukraine, noting Ukrainian arrests in eastern cities of people suspected of espionage.
The U.S. European Command relies primarily upon the RC-135 Rivet Joint to vacuum up electronic communications from Russia. These jets—variants of the Boeing 707 model—are equipped with advanced sensor and signal intercept packages. The other primary spy plane used by U.S. Navy to eavesdrop on such communications is the EP3, flown out off U.S. naval stations in Rota, Spain and Sigonella, Italy. The EP3 is the same spy plane grounded by the Chinese military at the beginning of the George W. Bush administration in 2001.
The Russians are also listening in on the conversations of Ukrainian and Western officials. U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Russia has been behind a spate of such intercepted telephone conversations leaked out on the Internet and publicized by Russian state media. Traditionally the Russians use their own Beriev A-50 surveillance and early-warning aircraft to spy on the communications of its adversaries.
Kerry previewed to the group of influential world leaders Monday’s announcement that the Obama administration is adding a group of Russian officials, businessmen, and institutions to its sanctions list. He gave new details about the administration’s planning of economic assaults on broad sections of the Russian economy that the U.S. would impose only if Vladimir Putin decides to launch an all-out invasion of eastern Ukraine.
“I’m not convinced he’s made the decision to cross the line with his troops because then it’s absolutely no question that its full force sector sanctions, energy, banking, finance, technology, arms, you name it, they are all on the table,” Kerry said. “We are trying to find a way to do sector sanctions so it is minimal negative impact on Europe and Canada and the U.S. but maximum impact on Russia. We believe there is a way to do sector sanctions with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.”
Kerry said that he believes there is discord within the camp surrounding Putin and that Putin is now feeling pressure to relinquish his policy of aggressively interfering inside Ukraine.
“There’s a hardcore group around President Putin and the hardcore group… and they are pushing him forward, and then you’ve got a group of economic people that are urging caution,” said Kerry. ““Already I know that people close to him aren’t happy.”
Among those increasingly unhappy with Putin these days is the government of China, according to Kerry.
“The Chinese are very nervous about what Russia is doing. We have talked to the Chinese about it. There are obvious reasons that China is concerned about it,” he said.
The Europeans share some of the blame for exacerbating the tensions inside Ukraine late last year, according to Kerry’s version of events.
“Some folks in Europe made mistakes, the association agreement became too much of an East-West tug of war. It shouldn’t have been,” Kerry said.
Kerry expressed anger and despair at Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The Secretary of State accused his Russian counterpart of lying to him about Russia’s willingness to abide by an international agreement to de-escalate the Ukraine crisis.
“Right now there is not a negotiation; there is a confrontation. I’m sad to report I’ve never seen such a complete, miserable, unaccountable, disgraceful walk away from a set of promises and understandings than what has taken place,” Kerry said. “I’ve had six conversations with Lavrov in the last weeks. The last one was Kafka-esque, it was other planet, it was just bizarre. Nobody is better at telling you that red is blue and black is white… That’s what we are dealing with.”