The decision to “kill Petrovich” was made by the RHO team members as they sought to allay the growing discontent of the fictional mercenary brigade, given the need to buy time to decide whether and if so how to proceed with the investigation. They figured that the new supervisor would be a legitimate excuse for more time, as he would inherit a roster of hundreds of fighters, he would need to check each person, and might also have to make changes to the mission plan. If, in the meantime, the GUR MOV decides to permanently close the special operation project, the new curator can provide cover for an elegant exit so that the mercenaries – and possibly the Russian special services – do not find out that they have been duped. The death of “Petrovich” marked the formal completion of the data collection operation and the transition to the active stage of the operation.
Corrupt border guards help the operation
The GUR team understood that they had no more than a month, otherwise the militants would switch to other projects, for example, they would go to the “musicians”. Ukrainian intelligence officers spent this time working out the operation and getting political support for it.
Out of 180 recruited people, the scouts planned to select several dozen of the main war criminals, organize a flight for them, and then forcibly land the plane when it flies over Ukrainian territory. Due to the pandemic, it was only possible to fly out of Russia through the territory of Belarus, and the most convenient and plausible flight through the territory of Ukraine was a flight to Istanbul (which was indeed used as a hub for flights to the Middle East and Latin America). Already at the stage of the transfer to Minsk, difficulties arose, due to the pandemic, border control was established between Russia and Belarus, and entry into Belarus was limited by only three reasons: medical treatment, a business trip to work in a Belarusian state company, or transit.
Transit seemed the most convenient option, the GUR team, just in case, sent their employee to check this option in transit by bus, he had air tickets from Minsk with him. However, they didn’t let him into Belarus, took him out of the bus and sent him to the border kiosk selling travel insurance. There he was offered a combination of travel insurance and an employment contract (with a seal already affixed) with a Belarusian state-owned company at the price of a package of 1,000 rubles. In such a simple way, corrupt border guards offered many to solve the problem of closed borders, and as soon as the Ukrainian intelligence officer showed them a freshly completed “labor contract”, he was allowed to enter the country. And while fake employment contracts solved the problem, the risk of being spotted when transporting hundreds of militants across the border was very high.
Power steering comes up with a forced landing scenario
The most important part of the operation was to be the forced landing of the aircraft. Firstly, it was necessary to ensure the safety of all passengers, and secondly, a plausible legal pretext was needed to land the plane, and most importantly, the plan had to work.
The route from Minsk to Istanbul was convenient: the plane would have been in Ukrainian airspace for about 28 minutes – quite enough time to perform an emergency landing under a false pretext. But each of those 28 minutes had to be well thought out. After examining the Chicago Convention governing commercial air travel, the team concluded that there are only two scenarios that would allow Ukraine to legally land an aircraft on its territory. The first is emergency medical care: if a passenger on board a flight becomes ill, for example, as a result of a heart attack, the plane must make an emergency landing at the nearest airport. Technically, the closest after the transition to Ukrainian airspace would be one of the two airports in Kiev. However, the distance from the border to the Minsk airport was not much greater, because of which the pilot could return to Belarus instead, so this option was too risky.
The second scenario is the threat of an explosion on board. In this scenario, once the relevant ground control tower is informed of the threat, it will instruct the aircraft to land at the airport of its choice at its discretion, since the hypothetical risk from the explosion extended not only to passengers but also to people on the ground. Moreover, according to international law, Ukrainian air traffic controllers can instruct the pilot not to inform passengers about an emergency or even about a change in the flight path. It was this option that was accepted as the basis as the most reliable.
To implement this plan, it was necessary for someone physically located at the Minsk airport to call the air traffic control service of Ukraine and warn that he had good reason to believe that a bomb was planted on board this plane. In this scenario, the caller would say that he overheard two male passengers in an airport café discussing their hostility towards Ukraine and what he believed to be discussing a terrorist attack aboard the flight. The call was supposed to be made at the moment when the plane entered the airspace of Ukraine.
To minimize the risk of leakage and make it possible to deny their involvement, the RHO team recruited a very narrow circle of colleagues from law enforcement agencies.
Zelensky is informed
By the second half of June 2020, the GUR team had 180 mercenaries ready to go to Venezuela for several months. Of these, the GUR chose 40, whose war crimes were proven, and who were planned to be detained. The new curator of the mercenaries “Artur Palych” divided the mercenaries into four platoons of 45 people each. “Shaman” retained command of the company of 180 people, but also led the first outgoing platoon, while other commanders, including Lieutenant Colonel Krivenko, were to lead the rest of the platoons. According to legend, the platoons were going to go to Venezuela in sequence, with a break of several days. Since only the first platoon was planned to send (and capture), the main focus was on deciding who would enter this group.
The RHO group needed the help of the SBU in compiling a short list of mercenaries who were most important to Ukraine, and in order to request this assistance, the approval of the presidential office was required. However, the president’s approval was in any case necessary, since the operation would clearly have caused a great political resonance. According to the interviewed former employees of the GUR, the President of Ukraine was first informed about the proposed special operation on June 15, 2020 during a regular Monday security briefing with the heads of the special services. The interlocutors told us that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy generally approved the operation scheduled for June 26, 2020 and asked for a detailed plan. This concept plan was prepared and approved by the Minister of Defense on July 1, 2020.
Since then, two senior officers in charge of the project: Vasily Burba, director of the GUR, and Ruslan Baranetsky, deputy director of the SBU, have regularly briefed the president on the progress of the Avenue project.
SBU recognizes the names of the most wanted in the list
After receiving political approval, the GUR team began to share data and agree on a plan with their colleagues from the SBU, who by that time had already collected terabytes of data on militants in Donbas, including hundreds of thousands of intercepted phone calls. The SBU confirmed: the militants recruited by the GUR are of great importance, many of them have already been on the SBU’s most wanted terrorist lists. Among them were the fighters who took part in the decisive battles near Ilovaisk and Debaltseve, and the militants who shot down a Ukrainian military transport plane near Luhansk in June 2014 (then all 49 servicemen on board were killed), and mercenaries who served in the air defense in the area ( that is, potentially important witnesses in the case of the downed Boeing MH17). One of the mercenaries even said that in early July 2014 he accompanied the BUK (the same anti-aircraft missile system that shot down Boeing) across the Russian-Ukrainian border.
The SBU team quickly prepared its own shortlist of interested persons – it included 28 people. The GUR, bringing the number to the planned 45, added to the list of mercenaries who did not have Ukrainian experience, so that the militants would not have unnecessary suspicions.