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Investigative Stories From Ukraine: Politically connected NGOs help men exploit the Shliakh system, leave the country

by Anna Myroniuk January 31, 2024 12:51 PM 9 min read
A boy's shadow is seen at a sports center training 50 children in the Piatykhatky neighborhood in the northern part of Kharkiv, Ukraine, on July 21, 2023. (Gian Marco Benedetto/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
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Welcome to Investigative Stories from Ukraine, the Kyiv Independent's newsletter that walks you through the most prominent investigations of the past week.

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Top investigative stories

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Ukrainska Pravda exposes politically connected NGOs helping men flee Ukraine, overcome travel ban

Almost 900 men in Volyn Oblast alone could have illegally fled Ukraine to avoid mobilization with assistance from local NGOs. The NGOs, backed by politicians and officials, helped the men leave Ukraine by exploiting a loophole in the travel ban designed for volunteers helping the war effort, according to Ukrainska Pravda.

The travel ban, introduced after the start of the Russian full-scale invasion in February 2022, prohibits men of conscription age – between 18 and 60 years old – from leaving Ukraine. One of the very few exceptions to the rule is the Shliakh (Path) system. It allows volunteers bringing in aid to leave Ukraine for a short period of time.

Ukrainska Pravda obtained a list of 900 names of men who allegedly left the country via Shliakh as volunteers with the help of the Volyn Oblast Administration and never returned.

The Shliakh system is notorious for how massively it’s been misused. NGL.Media, a Lviv-based investigative journalism outlet, has earlier uncovered a large-scale scheme of draft evasion involving 400 NGOs.

While the media outlet couldn’t independently verify every name on that list, the journalists focused on the high-profile ones as well as the NGOs allegedly helping them break the law.

Among the NGOs in question is Volyn Youth Active, co-founded by lawmaker Valeriy Sterniychuk, a member of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s party, Servant of the People, and two of his aides. One of the aides is Andriy Kostenko, who currently heads the NGO.

According to Ukrainska Pravda’s law enforcement sources, at least 18 men Volyn Youth Active vouched for to help them leave Ukraine didn’t return. In 2023 alone, the organization entered over 1,000 men’s names into the Shliakh system, which journalists claim is an excessive number.

Sterniychuk himself used the backing of Volyn Youth Active to leave Ukraine via Shliakh but has since returned to Ukraine, Ukrainska Pravda reported.

Sterniychuk told Ukrainska Pravda that he exited the NGO when he became a lawmaker in 2019.

Sterniychuk denied any wrongdoing and said he asked the State Security Service (SBU) to investigate the fact that some of the men Volyn Youth Active had aided in leaving Ukraine didn’t return home.

Another local NGO, We Believe in Ukraine, has also helped men leave the country despite the travel ban. Among the red flags journalists pointed to is the fact that these men often come from Kyiv, not the western Volyn Oblast, where the NGO is active.  

It was founded by Yuriy Gupalo, deputy head of the Volyn Oblast Administration. According to law enforcement sources of Ukrainska Pravda, he used his official position to greenlight exits for men. For that, he allegedly charged them $7,000 per person.

Ukrainska Pravda couldn’t reach Gupalo for comment. His boss, the head of the Volyn Oblast Administration, Yuriy Pohulyaiko, refused to comment.

According to Ukrainska Pravda, among the people We Believe in Ukraine NGO assisted in getting permission to leave the country was Yevhen Metzger, former head of the state-owned Ukreximbank.

Metzger became infamous for his clash with journalists in 2021. After he didn’t like the questions he was asked during the interview, Metzger and his aide attacked the filming crew of Schemes, an investigative journalism project of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, erased the footage from their cameras, and locked the crew in a room for an hour, threatening them.

Metzger told Ukrainska Pravda he doesn’t remember the name of the NGO that helped him exit Ukraine in 2022. According to the publication, Metzger received the We Believe in Ukraine permit to leave the country five times that year. Metzger said that a friend recommended this organization as one that can vouch for him. He claimed he traveled abroad to bring humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Watch the full story in Ukrainian here. Interested in the topic? Read more on:

Ukrainian surveillance cameras send data to Chinese manufacturers, posing security threat

Hundreds of thousands of surveillance cameras used in Ukraine transmit information to servers of their Chinese state-linked manufacturers, according to Schemes, an investigative project of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

This can pose significant security risks, as China closely cooperates with Russia in many areas, including information exchange.

According to Schemes, cameras produced by China's Hikvision and Dahua manufacturers, banned in the U.S. due to security concerns, are widely used in Ukraine, including on city streets, at public and private facilities, and in people's homes.

An experiment conducted by Schemes with the help of digital security specialists showed that the older versions of these cameras are easy to hack.

Although recently produced devices are better protected against hacker attacks, they still provide data to Hikvision and Dahua, both partially owned by the Chinese state.

Both of these companies are on Ukraine's list of international war sponsors. In spite of that, their products are also used by Ukrainian government agencies and services, such as the "Safe City" public security system.

Russian intelligence services have reportedly managed to access surveillance cameras, including an older Hikvision device, to guide strikes against Ukraine's cities, for example, during the mass missile attack on Jan. 2.

Schemes reported that Ukraine's security services had blocked over 10,000 cameras that Russia could have accessed throughout the full-scale war. Many more remain in use.

Ukraine’s Interior Ministry told Schemes that the Chinese cameras used by the "Safe City" system work as part of an isolated network, preventing them from entering the wider web and sending data to their manufacturers.

The possibility of the data from Chinese cameras in Ukraine ending up in Russian hands creates a significant security risk.

China has not provided direct military assistance to Russia and urged a peaceful resolution to the war, but has also refused to join the international pressure against the Kremlin and continued to tighten cooperation amid the full-scale war.

A December investigation by Schemes found that thousands of surveillance cameras in Ukraine use the Russian TRASSIR software, which sends data to Moscow servers linked to Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB).

Read the full story in Ukrainian here.

Impact

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SBU arrests ex-Defense Ministry officials over alleged ammo procurement fraud, following media reports

State Security Service (SBU) exposed former and current officials of the Defense Ministry as well as managers of a private company in alleged ammunition procurement fraud, the law enforcement agency said on Jan. 27.

According to the SBU, former and current Defense Ministry officials together with managers of Lviv Arsenal pocketed nearly Hr 1.5 billion (nearly $40 million) the state paid to purchase 100,000 mortar bombs. The payment was made upfront, but no arms were delivered, SBU said.

The SBU handed notices of suspicion to five individuals involved. They didn’t name the suspects, but Ukrainian media soon identified them using their sources.

Among the people reported to be arrested as part of the SBU criminal probe is Oleksandr Liyev, former head of the Defense Ministry's department that procures weapons for the military.

According to the SBU and media reports, Liyev was detained while on his way to leave the country. In a Facebook post, apparently written by Liyev’s wife, he denied allegations of crime and also of trying to escape justice, saying he was leaving Ukraine “for a work trip.”

Liyev’s replacement at the Defense Ministry, the current head of the procurement department, Toomas Nakhura, is also reported to be arrested as part of the same criminal probe.

In the summer and autumn of 2023, Ukrainian media outlets reported on the department’s problematic procurement contracts, including on the deal with Lviv Arsenal, which led to the detentions.

Hromadske journalists found that Lviv Arsenal was not an ammunition producer but one link in a chain of three. The seemingly unnecessary intermediaries connected Ukraine's Defense Ministry and a Croatia-based arms manufacturer, which eventually pulled out of the contract after it allegedly didn't receive the payments from the brokers.

Crackdown on press freedom

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Kyiv Independent’s journalist loses libel case to notorious ex-official turn businessman in apparent unjust court ruling

The Kyiv Independent’s journalist and head of investigations Anna Myroniuk (Editor’s Note: Yes, it’s me, the person bringing you this newsletter.) lost a defamation case to Vadym Sliusariev, an influential politically connected former State Border Guard official, over an investigative report published in 2021.

The story was published in June 2021 in Kyiv Post, where Myroniuk and other co-founders of the Kyiv Independent then worked, in collaboration with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). The story looked into alleged Chinese cigarette smuggling by the companies co-owned by Sliusariev. The story became the runner-up in the Investigative Reporting category of the 2022 European Press Prize.

In November 2023, the judge of the Kyiv Sviatoshyn District Court Tetiana Dubas, ruled in favor of Sliusariev and his companies, ignoring all the arguments of the defense, which goes against the law. The Ukrainian legislation obliges the judge to give reasoned assessment of the arguments of both sides regarding the presence or absence of the grounds for the case.

The complete absence of a mention of the arguments provided by the defense can indicate an unjust and groundless ruling. Myroniuk appealed, and the appeal case was accepted on Dec. 20, 2023. The Kyiv Independent will update its readers on the outcome of the appeal.

Sliusariev is an influential former official who was the head of the internal security in the State Border Guard Service with the rank of major-general. In 2019, he joined the Servant of The People party and was later elected to its political council, but according to media reports, didn’t become its member in the end.

Ukrainska Pravda reported that Sliusariev left Ukraine for Russia days before the start of the Russian full-scale invasion. He only returned in May, according to another investigative outlet, Bihus.Info.

Bihus.Info reported that following the outbreak of the all-out war Sliusariev made a series of purchases from Russia supporters. That includes a Kharkiv-based factory, Rapid, which he bought from close confidants of pro-Russian politicians, Yevhen Murayev and Alexei Azarov.

Meanwhile, in Russia

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Russia imports Taiwanese metalworking equipment despite sanctions

Taiwan has become the biggest exporter of metalworking equipment to Russia during the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, according to a joint investigation by the Russian independent media The Insider and Taiwanese The Reporter.

Russia successfully circumvents sanctions, importing tech and equipment for defense production amid its ongoing war against Ukraine, according to the investigation.

Despite the West's initial expectations to suffocate Russia's war machine through sanctions, the effort has had limited effect, as Russia adapted to restrictions, often using third-country intermediaries for import.

Taiwan reportedly banned the export of metalworking equipment to Russia in January 2023. Moscow nonetheless received 193 pieces of Taiwanese-made metalworking machinery worth nearly $29 million from March to September 2023, the journalist investigation found.

Nearly 80% of the equipment is sent to Russia via intermediaries, Turkey and China, the media reported, citing data from the Russian customs service.

According to Taiwan's customs data, the total price of metalworking equipment exported to Turkey increased by 45% from January to October 2023. Such machinery is used in the production of a range of military equipment and arms, including high-precision weapons.

Taiwan has supported Ukraine in its fight against Russia's invasion by providing aid to Ukrainian refugees and imposing sanctions against Moscow.

On Dec. 27, Taiwan expanded its sanctions against Russia and Belarus to include additional high-tech goods that could be made into weapons, the country's Economy Ministry said.

Read the full story in English here.

Latvian member of European Parliament allegedly Russian agent

Tatjana Zdanoka, a long-serving member of the European Parliament from Latvia, is allegedly an agent working with Russian intelligence services, according to the independent Russian media outlet The Insider.

Zdanoka, who represented Latvia in the European Parliament from 2004-2018 and again from 2019 until the present, is alleged to have been a Russian intelligence asset since at least 2015.

The Insider released a story as part of the journalism consortium involving the Estonian media outlet Delfi, Latvian investigative journalism center Re:Baltica, and Swedish newspaper Expressen.

The journalists based their stories on leaked emails between Zdanoka and her alleged Russian handlers and other sources.

Citing interviews and communications obtained, The Insider reported that Zdanoka was primarily motivated by ideology rather than material gain.

Zdanoka's public activity, both concerning her official work as a lawmaker and statements in her private life, display a long-standing pattern of supporting Russia and promoting Russian propaganda.

While a sitting member of the European Parliament, Zdanoka participated as an international observer in a sham Russian referendum on Crimea's annexation in 2014, widely viewed as illegitimate. She also was one of a small group of lawmakers who voted against the European Parliament's condemnation of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in March 2022.

Citing leaked emails and comments from intelligence sources in the Baltics and other Western countries, The Insider alleged that Zdanoka regularly met with known members of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), who are characterized as her "case officers."

When asked about her supposed Russian handlers, Zdanoka told The Insider she could not specifically recall the individuals in question.

The Insider referred its investigation to Latvia's intelligence services.

Earlier in January, a Russian-born professor at Estonia's University of Tartu was arrested on espionage charges.

Read the full story in English here.

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