Ihor Smeshko: The Man In The Iron Mask

KIEV, Ukraine -- In his famous novels about the three musketeers in 17th century France, Alexandre Dumas writes about Louis XIV, a corrupt and despotic French monarch, and his brother, Philippe, a potential challenger to the throne. After an unsuccessful plot to replace Louis XIV with Philippe, the king condemns his brother to a lifetime of imprisonment while wearing an iron mask to hide his identity.

Ihor Smeshko, ex-chief of the State Security Service, known by its Ukrainian SBU acronym and the successor agency to the Soviet KGB in independent Ukraine.

The modern state has substituted more refined methods for that of the iron mask. But the intent is the same – to marginalize and erase the identity of those who are either too principled to bend, or who are perceived as threats to the ruling regime.

Although such abuse of state power is always a tragedy for the individual, it is a greater tragedy for a nation when the “man in the iron mask” is one of its most distinguished, principled and accomplished public officials.

In fact, Ukraine’s “Philippe” is the same person who – at two minutes to midnight on the night of Nov. 28, 2004 – saved Ukraine’s capital from a replay of China’s Tiananmen Square.

Who, then, is this “masked man” who – after four repressive years – is re-entering public life and raising his voice against corruption at the highest levels of government?

A distinguished career

Col. General Ihor Smeshko was born in 1955 in Cherkassy oblast. After high school, Smeshko pursued a military-academic career during which he published more than 100 scholarly papers. He went on to earn a doctorate in technical sciences with a specialty in military cybernetics, and a professorship in information and system analysis.

In 1992, he joined the newly established Ukrainian Defense Ministry as secretary of its Science Advisory Council, and, later that year, was asked to help set up an intelligence division within the ministry. But before he could begin, he was reassigned to Washington D.C. as defense attache.

Smeshko won many influential friends for Ukraine during his four years in Washington, while earning the admiration of former Soviet and Warsaw Pact diplomatic missions for negotiating the first memorandum on military cooperation between the United States and a former communist state.

Ten years later, Smeshko again astounded the diplomatic community by negotiating a similar agreement with the Swiss government – one of only 10 such agreements ever signed by the Swiss.

In 1995, Smeshko was awarded his first general’s star, and was recalled to Kiev to head up the president’s committee on intelligence, a position he held for three years. Under his leadership, the committee grew from a “paper” organization to a powerful and influential proponent of reform and professionalism.

Between 2000 and 2002, Smeshko completed a master’s degree in military administration as well as a law degree from Kiev’s Shevchenko University.

Building military intelligence

In 1997, Smeshko was appointed director of Ukraine’s Military Intelligence Directorate. Once again, he took an organization with no physical assets, no budget, an inadequate legal framework, and a demoralized, intermittently paid staff, and, in 3 years, transformed it into the second most influential intelligence service after the SBU, or State Security Service.

This unprecedented challenge to SBU’s preeminence, combined with Smeshko’s lobbying for legislation to reorganize and curtail the SBU’s residual, KGB-era dominance, earned him powerful enemies. The SBU’s counterattacks became especially threatening and intense at the beginning of 2000.

The two main protagonists in this secret war were SBU chief Leonid Derkach and military intelligence chief Ihor Smeshko. Although the struggle was largely below the waterline, the visible tip involved control over Ukraine’s “dual-use” military technology.

Prior to Smeshko’s entry into the world of intelligence and military technology, the SBU, through a network of commercial firms, enjoyed complete monopoly and opaqueness over Ukraine’s armament sales.

It was not until military intelligence officers were first given the authority to review “end-user” certification in the export of arms that they discovered massive falsification and fraud. The SBU’s top brass was enraged at Smeshko’s disclosure of highly sensitive and corrupt “affairs” that could have been disastrous to Ukraine’s international reputation.

The “final straw” came when Smeshko succeeded in placing the highly effective anti-aircraft Kolchuga system under strict export controls. This precluded its export without the Military Intelligence Directorate’s concurrence. After Smeshko was removed as head of military intelligence, the SBU reversed these controls, and embroiled Ukraine in a very damaging global scandal.

In early 2000, the SBU struck back by commencing a sustained, debilitating and humiliating assault on Smeshko, his friends, relatives, and fellow military intelligence officers.

They falsely accused him and associates of criminal acts, harassed those closest to him, and spread false rumors that he was “working for the Americans.” In order to escape rumored assassination, Smeshko resigned as head of MI and took a demotion as defense attache to Switzerland.

Taming the beast

It wasn’t until late 2002 that Kuchma urgently recalled Smeshko from Switzerland to help in dampening the exploding Kolchuga scandal that threatened Ukraine’s relations with the West.

Appointed SBU chief in April 2003, Smeshko was authorized to reorganize and reform that organization in line with European models. Consistent with Kuchma’s call for the “de-KGBization” of the SBU, Smeshko insisted on political independence and on strict adherence to constitutional and statutory norms.

Having spent nine years in various assignments abroad, Smeshko had adequate opportunity to compare Ukraine’s security and intelligence services with that of other countries. He recognized that – as long as the SBU retained its core KGB character and mentality – Ukraine’s democracy would be at risk; the civil rights of its citizens would be subject to abuse; and Euro-integration would be problematic. However, any reform would inevitably provoke resistance and retaliation.

The first thing Smeshko did, upon being appointed to head up SBU, was to request letters of resignation from its top managers – something that had not happened in 90 years. Next, he ordered that no documents be destroyed. Thirdly, he moved to increase pay scales and reward professionalism. Having established authority, Smeshko began to boost SBU efficiency through a three-pronged plan:

1. Liquidation of the former KGB’s role as a secret political police force, and its subordination to civil state authority. Key to accomplishing this was removal of agents from government agencies;

2. Provide adequate financing of SBU operational costs by eliminating inefficiencies and increasing budgets and compensation; and

3. Reorganization of its internal responsibilities and structure.

As to this last point, Smeshko’s plan was to reconstruct it into a “special service” agency responsible for domestic counter-intelligence, protecting Ukraine from foreign espionage, subversion and external interference.

In addition, the reformed SBU would focus on complex, large-scale criminal activities that threatened the country’s security and constitutional order, such as transnational organized crime; high-level corruption; vote fraud; terrorism; proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; treason and separatism.

Under Smeshko’s 15 months of leadership, the SBU demonstrated great progress and proficiency in a variety of cases. Despite considerable opposition, Smeshko completed many reforms.

He transferred the foreign intelligence collection function to the newly created Foreign Intelligence Service; and he laid the groundwork for the transference out of military counter-intelligence; and he terminated SBU’s influence over government by outlawing the placement of SBU agents in legislative and executive branches.

However, he was removed from office before this work finished.

Yushchenko poisoning

The one fateful event that has hung like a cloud over Smeshko and his family since 2005 has been the poisoning of presidential candidate Yushchenko.

Smeshko’s first tragedy is that he agreed to Yushchenko’s request to attend dinner at the home of his SBU deputy, Volodymyr Satsiuk, on the evening of Sept. 5, 2004 – the night Yushchenko claims to have been poisoned.

His second tragedy is that Yushchenko, despite the sudden onset of severe spinal and head pains a day earlier, chose that dinner as evidence of the “evil, corrupt” regime he was battling. Having staked much of his claim to the presidency on this poisoning, Yushchenko would not find it easy to retract his position without clear evidence against some other party or event.

So much has been written about the poisoning, making it unnecessary to retrace well-trodden trails. Nevertheless, it is key to recognize that no amount of searches and interrogations of Smeshko, and his associates, have ever turned up a scintilla of evidence of any complicity on his part, nor was there ever reason to consider him more than a simple “witness” to one of several poisoning theories.

There are about ten poisoning theories, one of which included the dinner of Sept. 5. Nevertheless, it would be inconceivable for the SBU chief to engage in, or allow, such a risky, high-visibility crime as a political assassination in his presence.

Would any top security official in any country in the midst of such a closely watched election have risked such an obvious disclosure of complicity? Many of those who studied the issue closely consider the theory of a Sept. 5 poisoning to be the least likely of the existing ten.

Interestingly, Yushchenko, himself, appears to have had no doubts concerning Smeshko’s innocence. Shortly after his return from the clinic in Vienna, he dispatched his aide to reassure Smeshko that he harbored no suspicions towards him.

Three months later, Yushchenko officiated at Smeshko’s retirement by thanking him for “the cross that he had to bear as head of SBU.”

So, how do we explain – four years after the poisoning – the inchoate cloud that still hangs over Smeshko?

One persuasive explanation for a continuing campaign of harassment and vilification is offered by Mykola Obikhod. With a unique insight deriving from work as deputy head in both the prosecutor office and SBU, he believes that all the charges and rumors against Smeshko (including speculation concerning complicity in Yushchenko’s poisoning) have all the markings of a high-level, well-organized, procured and politically motivated assault to discredit him, and to preclude him from any future political role.

He believes that the instigators of this campaign are current and former members of the security services who resisted Smeshko’s efforts at establishing a competing Military Intelligence Directorate. They continued to vilify Smeshko in his effort to break up SBU’s intelligence gathering and reporting monopoly, especially on matters involving high-level corruption, links to international criminal organizations, illegal arms trafficking and the unlawful export of military technology.

Obikhod also believes that the effort to discredit Smeshko may have been orchestrated by colleagues of former SBU chief Derkach. These officials actively concealed Derkach’s alleged and reported ties with notorious international criminal kingpins such as Semion Mogilevich.

But the primary reason for the anti-Smeshko campaign – according to Obikhod – has been Smeshko’s systemic SBU reform and reorganization, including the loss of its privileged dominance over Ukrainian politics.

Then came revolution

Smeshko refused to take sides in the Orange Revolution. He saw himself as a public servant, loyal to the state, constitutional order, preservation of peace and the physical protection of all citizens. Smeshko expressed his conviction, saying: “not a single child’s tear or a drop of an innocent’s blood is worth all the intended blessings of ‘improving’ the world through revolutionary means.”

In the winter of 2004, Smeshko played the most difficult role, insisting on SBU neutrality – a position which did not score points with politicians. As popular passions began to rise and the multitudes became nervous over rumors of imminent attempts to forcefully unblock government buildings, General Serhiy Popkov, commander of 15,000 Interior Ministry troops outside the capital, took note of the crowd’s restlessness, and sounded the alarm.

In the early days of the revolution, his troops were armed, ready and started moving to squash the protestors in Kiev.

As these events unfolded, Smeshko telephoned Interior Minister Mykola Bilokon in the hopes of preventing a clash. Bilokon said he was responding to imminent threats by protesters to seize government buildings. Bilokon sought assurances from Smeshko that the opposition would not seize the buildings.

Smeshko responded by assuming personal responsibility for the safety of government facilities. At two minutes to midnight, the moving armed convoy was ordered to return to its encampment.

Why the mask?

From the very first days of Ukrainian independence, Smeshko devoted all his talents and efforts towards the well-being of his country. He had done so at great personal risk to both life and career. Despite numerous efforts to discredit him, he has never been found guilty of any corrupt or criminal wrongdoing.

He had taken on the all-powerful SBU; foiled the criminal schemes of corrupt officials and oligarchs; and saved the state from major international embarrassments and financial losses. He succeeded at every task assigned him, and won for Ukraine the respect and confidence of many of the world’s most discerning and influential leaders.

So why has he been marginalized, harassed, humiliated and covered with an iron mask of obscurity? At a time when Ukraine needs leaders with a proven track record of integrity, character, and intellect, how is it possible that a man of Smeshko’s stature and capabilities has been buried?

The reason for this lies in his character. Smeshko does not fit well into the political theatre that passes for much of Ukraine’s government. He is not an actor, an opportunist or a sycophant. He sees himself as a straight-talking military officer whose prime responsibility is to his country rather than a political party, clan or oligarch.

“I was fortunate that my first mentors were front-line officers. They taught me to love and take pride in my fatherland; to preserve the honor of an officer and the trust of my subordinates; and, most of all, to serve and protect my nation and my country.”

These words and sentiments sound quaint – almost archaic – in the cynical, pocket-lining atmosphere of Ukrainian politics. Thieves and charlatans have no use for someone who is loyal to a principle.

Smeshko is no ordinary man or public official. His first love is that of an academic and historian. He is currently conducting research for a book on Ukraine’s integral role in the development of European civilization.

He is also a devout Christian, fluent in English, German and French and – years after his last official position as SBU head – is eagerly sought as a speaker and adviser to business, academic and government institutions.

So we return to our opening questions. Who is this man in the iron mask who has been buried and whose talents squandered at a time of Ukraine’s greatest need? And why has this been allowed?

Truly, it seems that in today’s Ukraine, such men must be buried and forgotten lest they challenge those now sitting on their uneasy thrones.

Source: Kyiv Post

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