On September 7, CNN published its own journalistic investigation into an attempt by the secret services to detain and prosecute Wagner PMC Russian mercenaries, including those who had previously participated in the armed conflict in Donbas.
"Security forces shattered the early morning calm of the lakeside Soviet-era resort outside the Belarusian capital of Minsk, bursting in to arrest 32 Russian mercenaries. It was less than two weeks before Belarus' presidential election last year, and authorities suspected that the outsiders had been sent from Russia to interfere. The men were indeed part of a mission. But the target was not Belarus, and they were not under orders from any Russian entity.," the message reads.
According to the news agency, they were being set up. The 32, along with one other man detained in southern Belarus, were the target of an elaborate intelligence sting by Ukraine, with the knowledge and alleged support of the United States.
Three former high-ranking Ukrainian military intelligence officials described exclusively to CNN how they orchestrated the extraordinary operation aimed at luring suspected war criminals out of Russia to face prosecution for atrocities committed in eastern Ukraine where separatists backed by Moscow have been fighting for years.
First, the Ukrainian agents posed as a Russian private military company, recruiting for security jobs that paid above the going rate, offering a lucrative $5,000 a month contract to protect Venezuelan oil facilities, CNN was told by the men, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak on the sensitive operation.
That bait was taken by hundreds of would-be Russian contractors who applied for work, the sources said, giving Ukrainian intelligence an unprecedented opportunity to begin to identify and reel in those suspected of war crimes.
"We started to call them and say, 'Hey, man, OK, tell me something about yourself. Maybe you are not really a fighter, maybe you are a plumber or something like that,'" one of the former military intelligence officers told CNN of the vetting calls to applicants.
"And then they started to reveal things about themselves, sending us documents, military IDs and proof of where they'd fought. And we are, like, 'bingo, we can use that,'" the source added.
In other words, according to the intelligence officers, the targets themselves started to send in evidence of who they were, their military experience and even the particular battles and incidents in which they had been involved, including IDs, and potentially incriminating photos and videos of their exploits in eastern Ukraine and elsewhere.
One video, shared with CNN by the former military intelligence sources, captures a group of rebel fighters in eastern Ukraine holding up the wreckage of a military aircraft that the sources said had just been shot down, a crime designated as terrorism in Ukraine.
Other applicants linked themselves to the attack on MH17, the Malaysian Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur that was shot down in July 2014 over Ukrainian territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists. All 298 people aboard the aircraft died. A Dutch-led team of international prosecutors said the plane was downed by a missile brought in from Russia and fired from a village controlled by separatists. Russia has denied any involvement.
"There were two who were present when the missile that downed MH17 was launched. Four others were members of a group responsible for shooting down our military aircraft and killing at least 70 of our best men," a second former Ukrainian military intelligence source told CNN.
"Identifying and punishing these people was of high interest to us," he added.
It was apparently of interest to US intelligence too, although US officials deny having a direct role. According to the Ukrainian intelligence officials, the Ukrainian-led operation got US cash, technical assistance and advice from the CIA on how to draw the Russian mercenaries in.
A senior US official told CNN those claims are "false."
He indicated US intelligence was aware of the operation but denied any involvement. The official, who requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly, suggested efforts to implicate US agencies may be an attempt to share, or even pass, blame for what was a high-risk Ukrainian operation that went wrong.