Ukraine’s Fifth Column Shoots, Burns, and Poisons Deep Inside Russia

A 16-year-old boy setting a $50 million war plane on fire is just the tip of a large iceberg.

Telegram channel of Sevastopol's governor, Mikhail Razvozhaev, via AP, file
Smoke and flame rise from a burning fuel tank at Sevastopol, Crimea, after it was reportedly hit by a drone on April 29, 2023, a Russian official reported. Telegram channel of Sevastopol's governor, Mikhail Razvozhaev, via AP, file

The director of a Russian state propaganda TV channel was found poisoned in her home last weekend at Krasnodar, some 400 miles south of Ukraine. A bomb disrupted rail traffic Sunday at Nizhny Tagil, home to the world’s largest tank factory, 1,400 miles east of Ukraine.

A 16-year-old boy was arrested last week for torching a $50 million SU war jet, at Chelyabinsk, 1,100 miles east of Ukraine’s border. A TV announcer who said that Ukrainian children should be drowned is struggling to recover from near fatal poisoning at Moscow, 400 miles north of Ukraine.

Shortly after President Putin launched his attack on Ukraine, Mr. Putin went on national television to warn Russians to be on high alert for “fifth columnists.” He said: “The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and will simply spit them out like a gnat that accidentally flew into their mouths — spit them out on the pavement.”

Fallen out of fashion among English-speakers, the phrase “fifth column” dates back to 1936, when Spain’s Francisco Franco said four of his rebel columns were approaching Madrid — and a fifth column would attack the capital from inside. Mr. Putin adapts the phrase to his own family history.

In 1944, the future president’s father, also Vladimir, was parachuted into Nazi-occupied Germany with a 28-member NKVD unit. Estonian farmers “betrayed” the Soviets. Mr. Putin’s father was one of only four survivors. Now, after almost two years of war, Mr. Putin’s prediction about “fifth columnists” is coming true.

Today, there are two “fifth column” groups operating in Russia and in Russia-occupied Ukraine. Rospartizan is an anti-Putin Russian group that conducts and reports on bombings, arson attacks, poisonings and train derailments across Russia. The Rospartizan Telegram channel features these attacks from the last week alone: destruction by arson of the headquarters building in Chechnya of the 70th Guards Motorized Rifle Regiment, the largest Chechen unit fighting in Ukraine; an arson attack on the St. Petersburg apartment of Trofim Tatarenkov, a pro-war propagandist on Sputnik radio; and two attacks on militarily strategic rail lines.

The first of these, Rospartizan says, was the bombing of a fuel tanker rail car  in Nizhny Tagil. This industrial city in the Urals is Russia’s largest producer of T-14, T-72, and T-90 battle tanks for Russia’s war in Ukraine. Separately, on Monday morning, Rospartizan reported about 20 freight cars derailed on a section of the Trans-Siberian Railway 150 miles north of China. Train traffic stopped on the railway, the main corridor for arms shipments from North Korea to Russia. Train sabotage has become so frequent in Russia and its satellite Belarus, that Belarus has instituted the death penalty for people convicted of planning them.

Inside Russia, many attacks are carried out by disgruntled “lone wolves” with no formal connection to a resistance organization. Last Sunday, a 16-year-old boy was detained on suspicion of breaking into an airfield in Chelyabinsk and setting fire to a Su-34 fighter bomber. Russia’s most modern war jet, the Su-34 has a NATO reporting name of ‘Fullback’ and a price tag of $50 million. Video clips posted online appear to show the cockpit in flames. Although the unnamed suspect has no criminal record, he is believed to have set fire to two railroad facilities in his native Dagestan, reports Chelyabinsk news site

In another unclaimed attack, a mysterious fire  last Sunday  destroyed the Ryazan house of Roman Putin, a 45-year-old son of a cousin of the president, according to video and texts posted on a Telegram channel in Ryazan, 125 miles southeast of Moscow.  Last year, arsonists burned down his hotel in the Russian Arctic, causing $10 million in damages. He reportedly had offered to house 500 refugees from Russia-occupied Ukraine. Trading on the family name, Roman Putin set up Putin Consulting Ltd., and became a multi-millionaire by helping foreign investors enter Russia. In 2020, he was elected president of a pro-government party, Russia Without Corruption, according to Ria Novosti.

The other main “fifth columnist” group, Atesh, was set up in 2022 by a new Ukrainian military unit, the National Resistance Center. Meaning “fire” in Crimean Tatar, Atesh was originally centered in Crimea. In recent months, it has aggressively expanded across Russia and now claims it has over 1,000 collaborators. Imagine France’s World War II resistance movement with a national Telegram channel, eight regional Telegram channels, and three sign up email addresses.

“Atesh is expanding and creating a number of autonomous cells on the territory of the Russian Federation,” the group announces in its latest post on Telegram. “Regional centers were created in: Ichkeria [Chechnya] Kaliningrad, Buryatia, Tyva, Ingushetia. Dagestan. Cells also operate in Siberia and Tatarstan. We increasingly received messages about the desire to help from various regions of the Russian Federation.”

Atesh’s Telegram channels largely post reports of car bombings and streams of smartphone photographs of Russian military bases around Crimea and Western Russia. Atesh claims that this on the ground intelligence leads to concrete actions. Thursday saw the burial of the top commander in Crimea of radar and anti-missile units, Colonel Vadim Ismagilov of the Russian military. He was killed January 4 in a daytime missile strike on a radar command post near Sevastopol.  Last year, a Russian major general described Colonel Ismagilov’s unit as “the eyes and ears” of Russian air defense in Crimea.

Poisoning is a favorite tactic used by pro-Ukraine resisters. A group called “Crimea Combat Seagulls” claimed in a Telegram post last month to have poisoned and killed 46 Russian soldiers in Crimea. Two young women allegedly delivered to a Russian base food and drink adulterated with arsenic and rat poison.

“Two cute girls came to the checkpoint of the military unit and introduced themselves as local residents,” the post states. “They brought seven bottles of vodka and some snacks — fish, sausage, bread, cheese. They told the guards that they wanted to thank our boys for everything, for protecting them.”

In November at Melitopol, a Ukrainian occupied city, four FSB agents were poisoned by takeout food adulterated with rat poison and arsenic. Three died and the takeout food driver disappeared, Melitopol’s mayor-in-exile Ivan Fedorov told Ukrainian TV. In October, a Ukrainian driver in western Russia was arrested after delivering a poisoned cake and bottles of whisky to a 20th class reunion celebration for 77 Russian Air Force pilots, reported Russian a military blogger site, ‘Fighterbomber.’ On September 29, seven people died of poisoning after attending the funeral reception at Sevastopol for a Russian Navy officer, reports the Russia-based Telegram channel Kremlyevskaya Tabakerka.

State media propagandists are also targets for poisoning. Last weekend state television director Zoya Konovalova was found poisoned to death in her home. Ms. Konovalova, aged 48, was editor-in-chief of Russian state TV in Kuban, a region neighboring Ukraine. Last month, Anna Tsareva, deputy editor-in-chief of Komsomolskaya Pravda news site, was found dead in her Moscow apartment at age 35.  

Late last month, leading Putin TV propagandist Anton Krasovsky was poisoned in his apartment in Moscow, he reported from a hospital bed in his Telegram channel.  Krasovsky, age 48 was formerly broadcast director for RT, Russian international media arm. On air, Mr. Krasovky had called for a “final solution” to the Ukrainian problem. This would include beheading Ukrainian prisoners and drowning or burning Ukrainian children.

The challenge for the Kremlin is that most Russian-speaking Ukrainians can pass for Russians. In the North America context, most Canadians could pass for Americans.

In response, Putin once again takes a leaf out of World War II history. He has revived “Smersh,” Stalin’s counterintelligence organization, as the Sun has reported. The name means “Death to Spies.” On Monday, Britain’s Defense Intelligence reported that agents with “Smersh” patches had been spotted in Russia-occupied Ukraine. Smersh operated between 1942 and 1946, torturing and executing supposed spies and traitors. A decade later, Ian Fleming adopted the name for a fictional international criminal syndicate that matched wits with James Bond in Bond novels and movies.

In real life, much of the counter espionage in Russia-occupied Ukraine is carried about by Rosgvardiya, or the Russian National Guard, a military organization run by a former bodyguard of Mr. Putin, Viktor Zolotov. It has 35,000 troops assigned to occupied areas and charged with ‘filtration’ of the population and detection of partisans, according to Ukraine’s National Resistance Center.

“This is exactly how their ‘grandfathers’ [who served] in the ranks of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs of the USSR acted when Soviet troops occupied Western Ukraine and the Baltic countries after 1945,” says the Resistance Center. “These units are responsible for the preservation of Putin’s ruling regime and his entourage on the territory of the Russian Federation itself, it can be argued that Putin’s Rosgvardia is the Russian analogue of the Gestapo from the times of the Third Reich.”

To pacify Western Ukraine in the late 1940s, the Soviets killed 153,000 Ukrainians, arrested 134,000 and deported 203,000. From the Ukrainian side, partisans killed 30,676 people. In 1975, when Mr. Putin joined the KGB, its upper ranks were filled with officers experienced with pacifying Ukraine two decades earlier.

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