It sounds like a story from spy fiction or a James Bond film, but it was a real-life drama involving an intelligence plan to entice a Russian pilot to defect to Ukraine with his high-tech plane – if you believe the Russian side. Or a scam by a group of maverick non-intelligence Ukrainian which recovered intelligence information for the Ukrainians.
The Russian side claims they were given important military information which enabled them to r=eradicate a number of targets in Ukraine. The other side claims their little plot enabled them to expose a number of Russian intelligence agents – members of the FSB. If you believe the self-styled investigative agency Bellingcat, which was allegedly involved.
It could also be that whatever the truth this episode could be the reason a large number of members of the Ukrainian intelligence agency, the SBU, were recently sacked and now face charges of treason.
The story itself does not interest me – readers can get the Russian side of the story from the video above. Also useful are comments from a British guy, iEarlGrey, currently living in St Petersburg, who produces a YouTube channel with daily critical commentary on the news in Russian and Western media.
What does interest me is that a leading member of Bellingcat was involved. This outfit markets itself as an objective investigative news agency but actually receives funding from western government and intelligence agencies (see How Bellingcat launders National Security State talking points into the press).
The involvement of a high-ranking Bellingcat member, or indeed a member of any media agency, in an intelligence action, is concerning. It should ring alarm bells to readers. How can a news agency which is closely involved with intelligence agencies and actively working in intelligent actions be considered as providing anything like reliable news?
People on the Russian side who claim they were to receive cash from Ukrainian and NATO intelligence agencies for the hijack of the plane have outed Christo Grozev, the Bellingcat investigator, as their contact for the cash and orders. Effectively Grozev admitted in Twitter posts to being involved in the operation.
I have followed Grozev on Twitter for quite a while – probably initially because of his Bellingcat links. But lately, I have experienced him as someone who is naively pro-Ukraine – continually tweeting some of the more fantastic stories Ukrainians have produced about this war. So, someone who does not come across as an objective journalist. In fact, I had come to see his accounts as just another one of the many accounts to Ukrainian government has set up to spread disinformation about the war.
No one should trust Bellingcat
Anyone who has followed the activities of Bellingcat and its founder Eliot Higgens will be aware that it is not a trustworthy news or investigative source. It clearly has strong links with intelligence agencies and NATO governments. It presents a picture of rigorous investigation of open-access sources and is consequently often used by the mainstream media as a source. Like the White Helmets in Syria which is linked to jihadi antigovernment and terrorist sources, it is often used by governments and intelligence agencies to plant disinformation in the mainstream media. A bit like many think tanks. This method is used to overcome the lack of credibility most governments have.
Now and then I experience people assuring me of the facts of a particular news item by referring to their source as Bellingcat or the White Helmets. All that tells me is that the person giving me these assurances has not bothered to really check the information. They may have simply been fooled by the description of the White Helmets or Bellingcat as non-governmental groups funded by public donations. In most cases, these people are simply indulging in confirmation bias, and think citing the names of these groups lends credibility to the information.