This is how Ukraine catches spies who sell information to Russia

Sloviansk, Ucrania (CNN) — On a dusty street in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk, a man in a long-sleeved black shirt and cargo pants smokes a cigarette. He is being watched.

“It’s ours,” a man says over the radio from his car on the street. “There it goes”.

From the other direction, a van swerves and two men in combat fatigues with their faces covered jump out. The man in black throws himself to the ground, as if by instinct. Agents—from the Ukrainian security service, or SBU—search him and recover his precious evidence: his mobile phone.

In eastern Ukraine, Russian and Ukrainian artillery strikes are an almost constant presence. Much of the Russian bombing is indiscriminate, but some is directed at high-value targets, such as military camps, weapons depots, or the SBU headquarters itself in Kramatorsk, which was partially destroyed in the first weeks of the war.

The SBU says Russian forces rely heavily on collaborators like the suspected spy CNN saw detained in Sloviansk this weekend to locate their targets and gauge the success of their hits.

A suspect is led away by an agent of the Ukrainian security service after being arrested on suspicion of providing information to Russia. Editor’s note: CNN has redacted this photo to protect the suspect’s identity.

Confronted by an SBU investigator at the scene, the suspect quickly admits to communicating with the enemy.

“What did he ask you for?” asks the investigator.

“Coordinates, movements and whatnot,” the suspect says, head down. “The locations of the hits. That kind of thing. The general situation, etc.”

“Did you understand why I needed the coordinates?”

“Yes, I understand. I realize it.”

Ukrainian security service agents search the phone of a suspect believed to have sent information to Russian forces.

The SBU here says they’re running operations like this once or twice a day. This man has been under investigation for only four days.

Some of the suspects are the classic infiltrators: Russian citizens, brought to the Donbas region at the beginning of the war, who live among the population. Others are political sympathizers. But the man running today’s operation, whom we call Serhiy, says most of them spy for money.

“There are fewer and fewer ideological traitors,” he says. “Even those who supported the aggression of the Russian Federation in 2014 in Donbas, during the creation of the so-called DPR and LPR [Repúblicas Populares de Donetsk y Luhansk]… when they saw what happened to Mariupol, Kharkiv, Kyiv, Bucha and dozens and hundreds of other locations, they began to change their world view of Russia.”

The suspect tells the investigator this weekend that he was offered just 500 hryvnia, about $17, in exchange for information about the target. He says that he was recruited through the Telegram messaging app by someone who identifies himself as “Nikolai.”

The headquarters of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) in Kramatorsk, which was hit by a Russian attack in March.

The investigator reads their exchanges aloud while the SBU agents stand with their guns drawn.

“Yesterday you did a good job,” Nikolai wrote. “Today the same information is needed. Photos, videos, geographic data of the military at the CNIL [un campamento militar]. How long does it take to get the information?

“I got it, I got it,” the suspect replied. “I’m sending you a message. An hour and a half to two hours.”

“Okay, waiting,” replied Nikolai. “Be careful. Pay attention to the cameras so they don’t see you. Take photos and videos secretly.”

The investigator explains to the suspect that they are going to seize his phone.

“Who do I call to report your arrest?” asks the investigator.

“To my mother,” says the suspect.

“Do you remember the number?”

“There’s a number on the phone.”

With that, the man is led to the unmarked SBU car, and taken away. Serhiy says that he will be transferred west to Dnipro, where he will stand trial. If his espionage is proven to have led to death or “serious consequences,” a conviction could send him to prison for the rest of his life, Serhiy says.

“These missiles hit the coordinates these criminals are transmitting,” he tells us back at headquarters. “People are dying from these missiles. Our soldiers are dying and civilians too.”

He says he tries to keep his anger in check, but it’s hard not to take betrayals personally.

“Every time I arrest someone like him, I know one thing: I am from here myself. My loved ones, all my relatives, are from Lyman” — a nearby town that has been under heavy Russian bombardment for weeks — he says.

“Right now, they don’t have a place to live, they don’t have anything. They don’t have anywhere to go back to. I always remember it. I always remember Kramatorsk train station,” he says, referring to a Russian airstrike in April. that killed at least 50 people.

“We were picking people up, piece by piece.”

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