On December 2, Russia’s Federal Security Service announced the arrest of three Ukrainian intelligence agents. According to the FSB, one of these assets was planning to set off bombs on Russian soil, while the other two — a father and son — had allegedly been paid to gather intelligence on strategic facilities. Ukraine’s Security Service (the SBU) dismissed the news as fake, accusing the FSB of trying to discredit Ukrainian intelligence in an act of “revenge.” Meduza looks into the detainees and uncovers how a 23-year-old coffee salesman from Kyiv and a father and son duo from a small village in western Ukraine ended up in FSB custody.
Barista turned ‘terrorist’
On December 2, Russia’s FSB announced the arrest of three Ukrainian agents — two from the Security Service of Ukraine (the SBU) and one from the country’s military intelligence service (the HUR MO). The FSB also published video footage of their “confessions.” Two of the agents, a father and son duo, were allegedly carrying out espionage; the third, a 23-year-old by the name of Alexander Tsilyk, was planning a terrorist attack in Russia, the FSB claimed.
Kyiv native Milana Tsilyk watched the FSB’s video announcement with rapt attention: she was hearing her son Alexander’s voice for the first time since October 2021, when he left for Russia on a business trip. “On business related to tea and coffee. He made his money from coffee,” Milana tells Meduza. “He got very carried away with coffee in the last two years: he went to festivals and read a lot.”
After graduating with a degree in banking, Alexander Tsilyk began working as a barista and bartender in Kyiv (at the Fun Bar Banka, for example). Judging by his social media profiles, Alexander really was professionally involved in the coffee industry.
But in the confession video filmed by the FSB, Alexander Tsilyk explained that he travelled to Russia not to purchase coffee, but to “organize a terrorist attack.” Allegedly, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate (HUR MO) had tasked him with detonating two improvised bombs on Russian soil.
After crossing the Russian border in October 2021, Alexander stopped answering his phone, Milana recalls. She’s hesitant to give an exact date. “I don’t know if I can tell you [that],” she says, without specifying who advised her not to disclose this information to journalists. (According to the FSB, Alexander Tsilyk was arrested on October 11, 2021).
Following his disappearance, Alexander Tsilyk was put on a missing persons list in Ukraine. But Milana says there was no word about her son until a month later, in November. “I called the embassy and they made a request [to Russia],” she tells Meduza. “They [the embassy] were told that he had been detained. It’s kind of weird, according to the rules, they [the FSB] should have informed the consul — but none of that happened.”
In the confession video, Alexander Tsilyk said that Ukraine’s military intelligence service instructed him to orchestrate a terrorist attack. According to Tsilyk, Lieutenant Colonel Maksym Kyrylovets personally trained him to work with arms caches and special communications, and helped him make storage lockers with bombs.
Milana insists that her son didn’t have any ties to the HUR MO. “The army isn’t our [thing] at all,” she tells Meduza. “He has two small children. I, unfortunately, don’t know [what happened] — but I know for sure that this is all made up. I also saw the [confession] video and I see that he’s reading [from a piece of paper]. I see that pressure was put on him. Physical pressure. I have one guess: they bullied him, tortured him, and beat him down, so he’d own up to some rubbish.”
Milana Tsilyk couldn’t explain to Meduza what specific signs of torture she observed in the confession video published by the FSB.
A family affair
According to the FSB, the two other detainees are SBU agents Zionviy and Igor Koval — a father and son who supposedly came to Russia to record footage of strategic sites. Specifically, “road bridges, railway bridges, and a thermal power station.”
As follows from the confession videos published by the FSB, the Kovals — a family from Perepelnyky, a tiny village in the Ternopil region of western Ukraine — were recruited remarkably quickly.
The SBU approached 22-year-old Igor Koval and he met with his future handler, Colonel Vasyl Kovalik, on October 6, 2021, at a cafe in the regional center, Ternopil. One conversation was enough to get Igor on board — he chose the code name “Torik” and signed paperwork confirming “that he would cooperate with the SBU.”
Back at home, Igor recalled, he had a strange conversation with his father: Zinoviy casually asked his son how the conversation with the recruiter went — and then confessed that he was cooperating with the SBU, too, under the alias “Byk” (“Bull”).
At this point, Igor’s mother Iryna joined the conversation, also admitting to her son that she was cooperating with the security services, under the code name “Shkola” (“School”). According to Iryna Koval’s Odnoklassniki profile, she’s a Perepelnyky native, who study education and worked as a school teacher until at least 2017.
A week after the family’s recruitment — in mid-October — Igor Koval and his father travelled to Russia, where they ended up getting arrested. FSB agents found a cache of weapons in their car. The operational footage released by the Russian security service shows eight pistols, as well as a carbine and number of clips. A veteran of one of Russia’s security agencies who watched the FSB footage at Meduza’s request identified the carbine as a Ukrainian-made Saiga semi-automatic rifle. “A weapon for civilian use [that can] be bought at any gun shop,” he explained.
According to the FSB, SBU Colonel Vasyl Kovalik promised the Kovals a $10,000 reward for completing the assignment (that is, gathering intelligence on strategic sites in Russia).
The FSB also stated that materials obtained as a result of the arrests confirm the “terrorist endeavors of Ukrainian military intelligence [targeting] facilities on the territory of our country [Russia].”
The SBU refuted the news about the arrests as fake. “Such statements from the Russian FSB should be considered solely through the prism of a hybrid war, in which information propaganda and spreading fake [news] play an important role,” said SBU spokesman Artem Dekhtiarenko on December 2.
Dekhtiarenko also recalled that in the last nine months, the Ukrainian security services have “exposed” around 50 Russian agents. “Russian FSB officers were identified by name and their conversations were intercepted. Apparently, this was a great reputational loss for the FSB, which is seeking once again to discredit a Ukrainian intelligence agency with fake [stories],” the SBU spokesman concluded.
‘Destructive activity’ Ukraine’s Security Service busts ‘anti-vax network’ suspected of crimes against national security
We won’t give up Because you’re with us
I’m with you, Meduza
Translation by Eilish Hart