'This is like a movie': Ukraine's secret plan to convince 3 Russian pilots to defect with their planes

Sukhoi Su-35S aircraft
Russian aircraft on display at the Kubinka military training ground in Moscow. (Pavel Pavlov/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

At first, the Russian pilots all thought it was a scam. But they agreed to go along with it anyway, especially after the initial payments came through.

Last summer, a group of Ukrainian volunteers, working closely with their country’s intelligence service, apparently came close to persuading three Russian aviators who were in the midst of bombing Ukraine to defect with their warplanes in exchange for $1 million a piece. It was a bold, months-long operation, “like a movie,” in the words of one of the Russian marks, a trio of exceptionally well-trained airmen who seemed amenable to betraying their motherland for a sum of money they’d otherwise never see in their lifetimes.

What looked like a legitimate plan to switch sides proved anything but. None of the pilots defected in the end. There is strong evidence that most if not all of them were found out by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), one of the successor agencies to the Soviet KGB. Russian propaganda says the whole saga was in fact orchestrated by the FSB from the start. The Ukrainians insist the FSB only got involved late in the negotiations, after sincere commitments were made by each pilot. Kyiv also maintains its failure to acquire Russian warplanes was nonetheless a mitigated success: It gleaned valuable technical information about Russia’s air force and compromised three military officers, at least one of whom has not flown combat missions since. A complex intelligence operation thus devolved into a remote game of dueling counterintelligence narratives with both sides claiming victory.

Various types of Russian military aircraft fly over Red Square in Moscow in preparation for the World War II Victory Parade, May 4, 2022
Various types of Russian military aircraft fly over Red Square in Moscow in preparation for the World War II Victory Parade, May 4, 2022.(Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images)

Yahoo News met the main Ukrainian volunteer — here called “Bohdan” to protect his identity — who conceived and initiated this elaborate scheme to hijack Russian warplanes. We examined hundreds of encrypted chat messages between his team and the three Russian pilots: Igor Tveritin, 48, Roman Nosenko, 36, and Andrei Maslov, 33. Their identities were independently confirmed by Yahoo News, but it’s not clear where they are currently located and could not be reached for comment.

The remarkable level of detail provided by Bohdan both undermines the Russian recast of the events while also giving a rare window into how these behind-the-scenes, spy-vs.-spy operations unfold as Russian and Ukrainian forces batter each other on the frontlines.

“We gave these Russian pilots a chance to make the right choice and stop bombing civilians,” Bohdan told Yahoo News. “Even if they were intercepted by the FSB at some stage, we managed to eliminate all three war criminals without getting up from the table.”

In each case, the plan was risky but straightforward: The pilot would fly his multimillion-dollar aircraft into Ukrainian airspace, where it would be met by Ukrainian interceptors and escorted safely to a designated landing strip. One offered to drug his own navigator preflight. Another proposed reporting nonexistent technical malfunctions to hoodwink his co-pilot and Central Command. Ukraine would not only grant all of defectors full amnesty but outfit them with new passports, as well as ones for chosen members of their families, with whom they’d be comfortably resettled somewhere in Europe.

The plot was reminiscent of the Cold War case of Viktor Belenko, a Soviet pilot who in 1976 defected — with his MiG-25 — from Russia's far east to Japan. Then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush hailed the plane acquisition as a “major intelligence bonanza.”

An unexploded bomb in front of a destroyed building in Mariupol, Ukraine
An unexploded bomb in front of a destroyed building in Mariupol, Ukraine, on June 2, 2022. (AFP via Getty Images)

The Ukrainian volunteers say the operation still ranks as a modest achievement for Kyiv. Tveritin, Bohdan claimed, is now grounded, based on call data from the last quarter of 2022. All three pilots also provided valuable Russian military secrets in the course of establishing their bona fides, including sharing images and recordings of the cockpits and instrument panels in their cutting-edge planes — Su-34s, Su-24s, and Tu-22M3s — as well as details of their air bases. And all it cost the Ukrainians was a few thousand dollars and a lot of patience.

A civilian with a background in the IT industry, Bohdan recently met with Yahoo News at a hotel lounge in downtown Manhattan. He explained that he and his colleagues were motivated to approach the Russian pilots by a law signed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in April 2022, according to which his government would generously compensate any Russian who voluntarily gave up the Kremlin’s military hardware. Fighter jets, bombers and fixed-wing attack aircraft were worth $1 million; helicopters were worth $500,000. Bohdan said he and his team spent their own money on the operation and never asked the Ukrainian government to reimburse them even though, at advanced stages, Ukraine’s domestic security service (SBU) got involved; so did Kyiv’s Special Operations Forces (SSO), which guided the logistics how to get the Russians to Ukrainian territory.

A third party involved in the operation shared with Yahoo News extensive encrypted WhatsApp and Signal chats he had with Tveritin, Nosenko and Maslov, from late March to July of last year, as well as the documentary evidence they provided of themselves and their aircraft. All three pilots Bohdan found using open-source methods. “Initially, I managed to acquire the database of the pilots who fought in Syria,” he said. “In this database, I saw the details, including who was the flight commander, who was the navigation officer. I was able to structure it in a way to identify whom to contact. There was no contact information in this database, so I had to perform additional research through paid services to understand well, de-anonymize and identify each person.”

Pilot 1: ‘I don’t want to have the same story as Skripal’

Tveritin Igor Yurievich (Vesti 24 via informnapalm.org)
Tveritin Igor Yurievich (Vesti 24 via informnapalm.org)

Igor Tveritin, the oldest pilot, married with three children, was born in Melitopol, Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. His skillset is by far the most sophisticated, as Tveritin was originally trained to fly the Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bomber, a supersonic aircraft capable of launching nuclear missiles, akin to the American-made Rockwell B-1 Lancer.

When Bohdan first made contact with him, at the end of March 2022, Tveritin was based at Engels Air Base — a bomber air base that was struck twice by Ukrainian drones in December despite being far from the frontlines. In fact, he can be seen standing in front of his then-bomber, the Valery Chkalov (named after a famous Soviet test pilot), in a video recorded by Russian news outlet Vesti in 2013. Tveritin told reporters that “firing a missile is the main dream of a military pilot, we all aspire to this.” The Valery Chkalov was known for also firing cruises at rebel targets in Syria as of 2015, the year Russia directly intervened in that country’s civil war on behalf of dictator Bashar Assad. At some point, Tveritin was reassigned to fly missions in a Tu-22M3 strike bomber in Ukraine.

“I don’t want to die,” Tveritin texted Bohdan in Russian on April 29. “I am a realist, no one knows how things will work out. I agree to your conditions, but let there be two transfers of $7,000. That makes me calmer.”

On May 1, Bohdan asked him to confirm his identity and location by making “a five-second video of the aircraft with a slip of paper with number 377 in the background or written on your hand.” Tveritin obliged.

A Tu-95 strategic bomber from the Russian air force prepares to take off from an air base near the Volga River
A Tu-95 strategic bomber from the Russian air force prepares to take off from an air base near the Volga River. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

Bohdan used a crypto exchange to anonymously wire the funds to a Russian Sberbank account. Once Tveritin collected that money, he’d be on the hook to the Ukrainians. He only grew more nervous as they steadily worked through the logistics of how, where and when the pilot would defect — and how he’d somehow get his wife and children safely out of Russia.

Tveritin was especially worried about his family, and asked for an advance of $50,000 — 5% of the $1 million for his airframe. He also stated that it would arouse suspicions if he removed three young children from school at the same time, especially as the whole family was living on a military base where “we are all boiled in the same pan, all is transparent.”

Bohdan told Tveritin that Ukraine was ready to make arrangements to get Tveritin’s family out, which would precede his own defection. A problem for them, as for all three pilots and their relatives, was the lack of passports allowing for international travel, leading to circuitous escape proposals. First, they’d have to go to either Armenia or Belarus, both of which accept Russian internal passports. Once there, they’d receive new documents, obtained for them by the Ukrainians, to enable travel to one of the Baltic states.

Belarusian border guards
Belarusian guards in the Brest region of Belarus, near the border with Ukraine. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images)

“I don’t know how safe your method is,” Tveritin told Bohdan on May 20. “Please, understand my concern. If they leave Belarus with their documents, they will notice in Russia that they crossed the border. I don’t want to have the same story as Skripal,” he added, referring to the Russian double agent who was poisoned in England by assassins of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. “I need documents with different names and surnames and entrance records to Belarus. This is a matter of principle for me.”

Bohdan countered that changing everyone’s names would be riskier than getting them valid passports under their real names. Tveritin said he preferred to resettle in Germany.

Bohdan also promised to open a bank account in Tveritin’s wife’s name and deposit $150,000 before the family made it to Belarus.

Another outstanding issue was how, where and when Tveritin would fly to Ukraine. He was understandably afraid of not only being interdicted by his Russian comrades but of being shot down by Ukrainian air defense systems, which would mistake his plane for an incoming enemy. Tveritin planned to fly at a very low altitude to avoid being shot down by either side’s air defense systems.

A Russian Tu-22M3 bomber
A Russian Tu-22M3 bomber. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

A big wrinkle was that Tveritin would be apprised of his flight mission only a day before it was set to take place, and given his takeoff time only three to five hours in advance.

Tveritin bristled when Bohdan’s group gave a landing approach in Kharkiv, the region in northeast Ukraine where some of the heaviest fighting was taking place at the time.

“When you approach Kharkiv, you will be intercepted and escorted by our two fighters and you will keep communicating with them via a certain frequency,” Bohdan wrote.

“Are you serious about Kharkiv?” the pilot shot back. “Kharkiv is almost surrounded. Apart from the concentration of all kinds of air defense there. The sky in that area is densely protected and pushing an aircraft to fly there will be suicide!” So Bohdan proposed an alternate route.

By late May there was another snag — one that Bohdan believes was decisive in the scuttling of the operation. Ukraine’s defenders in the port city of Mariupol had finally surrendered their last position, meaning the city was now fully under Russian control. Tveritin made it clear that he was one of the Russian bombers routinely pulverizing Mariupol in the weeks and months prior. “The situation has become difficult for me,” he wrote Bohdan on May 23. “Your people surrendered Azovstal and we stopped flying there. Now we fly less, towards Odesa and Mikolaiv,” well to the west of Mariupol.

Rescuers sifting through the debris of buildings destroyed following the bombardment of Kharkiv, April 16, 2022
Rescuers sifting through the debris of buildings destroyed following the bombardment of Kharkiv, April 16, 2022. (Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images)

A new flight and final plan was introduced in which Tveritin would approach from Russian-occupied Crimea, headed toward southwestern Ukraine.

Still another matter to be resolved was what to do with Tveritin’s crew. His 130-feet-long Tu-22M3 has a pilot, a co-pilot and two technicians. Tveritin planned to report errors in his instruments, confusing all three, then dip into a low altitude, shouting at his crew, if they objected, that all systems were still functioning normally. While his “young” co-pilot was still discombobulated, Tveritin would change course and blame it on a faulty flight navigation instrument. By the time anyone was the wiser, Ukrainian planes would have intercepted their bomber, escorting it down.

Soon it became clear that Tveritin was no longer keen on the plan — or rather, he appeared a little too keen. “This combat aircraft will not help you much,” he messaged Bohdan. “You do not have pilots of that sort. That’s why I am your only hope. Only I can lift this bird into the air.” Tveritin seemed to be suggesting that he be seconded into Ukraine’s air force and fly missions against his former compatriots. That hint, especially from someone so concerned for his safety and that of his family, suggested to the Ukrainians that the pilot may have been discovered by FSB and now communicating under their control.

“This is when we began to suspect they were playing him back to us in a double cross,” Bohdan told Yahoo News.

From there on, Tveritin’s chatter fizzled out. And then he was gone. 

Pilot 2: ‘I am planning to depart with another woman’

Sukhoi Su-24 bombers at the International Army Games 2017 outside Tyumen, Russia, Aug. 6, 2017.
Sukhoi Su-24 bombers at the International Army Games 2017 outside Tyumen, Russia. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

Bohdan first made contact with Andrei Maslov, based in Lipetsk, western Russia, on May 4, 2022. A pilot of a Su-24 tactical bomber, Maslov and his navigator Igor Kupchinsky had won a bronze medal during a military aviation competition in Russian-occupied Crimea.

When first approached, Maslov appeared to suspect that Bohdan was himself an undercover FSB officer looking to entrap him. He refused to accept a wire transfer via crypto exchange and said he’d only take cash — dollars or euros only — delivered to him by hand. “I am sure handing over cash is not a problem for you,” Maslov told Bohdan.

Bohdan arranged for a courier to deliver $4,000 in cash to Maslov at a train station. “There will be two girls. The password is: ‘From Maxim,’” Bohdan wrote. “One girl will be with a cap and a bright T-shirt. The second is shorter ... in blue jeans and a khaki jacket. The girls will ask for the last digits of a phone number: 2200.”

Maslov agreed to meet and said he’d be wearing a blue military jacket and “blue summer pants.”

Maslov would defect with his Su-24 and a woman, but not his wife. (Yahoo News is declining to identify the pilots’ friends or family members out of an abundance of caution.)

“My wife is out of the question,” said Maslov. “It’s a complicated relationship. I am planning to depart with another woman but have not discussed moving with her yet.”

A Ukrainian Su-24 bomber
A Ukrainian Su-24 bomber lands during an air force exercise at Starokostyantyniv military airbase. (Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images)

Yahoo News was able to confirm the identity of this other woman as a 28-year-old pediatric fitness instructor specializing in, among other things, children’s yoga. In order to get her an international passport, Bohdan asked for her internal one. It was shortly thereafter he realized Maslov was burnt even before Bohdan approached him. For one thing, “she was way too attractive for this guy,” Bohdan told Yahoo News. “She looked like she belonged with an oligarch.” For another, Bohdan and his team found her on Instagram: She had been in Turkey in 2021, proving she did indeed have an international passport up until recently. Further investigative digging found her still-valid passport was reported “destroyed” at around the time Bohdan started communicating with Maslov.

In mid-June, Bohdan messaged Maslov: “We have started the process of submitting documents in order to get a travel passport for your girlfriend and the base is informing us that she already possesses a valid travel passport. How would you explain this situation, Andrei?”

Andrei couldn’t. He said he’d get to the bottom of it.

“I have checked,” he responded shortly thereafter. “There was a passport, but her ex-boyfriend destroyed it.”

“Andrei,” Bohdan wrote back, “are you sure you trust her entirely and there is no risk of information leakage? Otherwise, this fact may jeopardize our implementation.”

“I absolutely trust her,” Maslov replied. “I have not provided details to her. She only knows that we are going to travel abroad together. She is an orphan. She does not ask too many questions. She trusts me.”

Bohdan said his side obtained her call data and found that she had repeatedly communicated with an officer from FSB’s counterintelligence department. “We also found out all her girlfriends were hookers called by the FSB for their ‘special projects.’” Moreover, she “had been in Barcelona during the time of the Catalan referendum in 2017. One wonders what, or who, she was doing there.”

Maslov continued to talk to the Ukrainians off and on from that point, but it was now obvious to the latter that he’d never pull the trigger. Then he too disappeared.

Pilot 3: ‘F***, this is like a movie’

The Sukhoi Su-24M
The Sukhoi Su-24M is a supersonic, all-weather attack aircraft of the Russian air force. (aviation-images.com/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

“One of the most intense conversations we had was with Roman Nosenko,” Bohdan said. “He was the toughest.”

“I will move my family,” Nosenko wrote on April 30, “but what will happen to it there if this is not a joke. ... The money is huge, it looks like a scam. What are the guarantees that I will not be scammed? F***, this is like a movie.”

Nosenko confirmed to Bohdan that he flew the Su-34 Fullback and the Su-24 Fencer bombers, both of which have two-man crews. When asked to provide proof in exchange for $2,000, Nosenko shared images of his Fencer. As requested, he held up to the camera, in front of the plane, a piece of paper with the number “339” written on it.

Nosenko said that he had little information on his targets — claiming: “We carry the payload to a point. After that it does its own thing. They don’t give us the details.” This suggests they were using standoff munitions of some kind, possibly Kh-59 cruise missiles or Kh-31P anti-radiation missiles. As with Tveritin, Nosenko stated that his operational plans are not shared with him in advance. “The direction we fly in cannot be predicted, it’s always different. It gets known only at the last moment.”

Nosenko also admitted to not feeling particularly patriotic about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “I don’t need this war either!” he messaged.

“Before we continued with the next phase of the operation,” Bohdan told Yahoo News, “we started asking Nosenko a lot of technical questions that were important for the Ukrainian intelligence such as how many types of aircraft are in his unit, how often they go on flight missions, and what regions they fly to in Ukraine. He gave us the names of commanders of different units — we double-checked all the info, and it all checked out.”

Russian army Su-34 fly in formation
Russian aircraft in formation over St. Basil's Cathedral during the rehearsal for the Victory Day parade in Moscow, May 4, 2019. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

His defection plan was similar to Tveritin’s: He’d drop to an extremely low altitude upon approach, switch to a secure communications channel with Ukrainian interlocutors and land safely in a designated airfield.

Nosenko agreed to leave Russian-controlled airspace, “fly over my troops at high altitude and then start descending over the frontline.” Nosenko’s biggest fear was Ukrainian air defenses. “I’ve heard they are handsomely paid for shot-down planes,” he wrote. “I would be more confident if I knew at least the areas of their deployment in order to confidently go around them and start maneuvering on time.”

As Nosenko had only one other person in the cockpit with him, his navigator, he decided it would be easiest to tranquilize him by drugging his coffee before they took off. He mulled the sedative he wanted to use. “I cannot buy it without a prescription,” Nosenko lamented. “With the wrong dosage, one can end up with a stroke.”

Whereas Tveritin had too many family members to exfiltrate from Russia, Nosenko had just one: his wife. Her escape wouldn’t be easy under any circumstances because she is a military psychologist and therefore also a member of Russia’s armed forces. Yahoo News was able to establish that Nosenko’s wife was attached, as of 2020, to a military unit in Morozovsk, in the Rostov region, home of Russia’s 559th Bomber Aviation Regiment, which operates the same model aircraft as her husband’s: Su-24s and Su-34s. In fact, Nosenko claimed he and his wife were in the same unit. We even uncovered photos of her conducting team-building exercises with soldiers at the military base in Morozovsk.

Belarusian border guards
Belarusian border guards patrol the crossing point between Belarus and Ukraine in the Brest region, Feb. 15. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images)

The same route was proposed for her travel as for Tveritin’s wife and children: She’d leave Russia and go to either Armenia or Belarus, acquire a new passport there, and then proceed to one of the Baltic states. “I don’t know about the wife,” Nosenko messaged Bohdan on May 11. “It’s hard.” She would have to defect from the Kremlin’s military too.

“After a 24-48 hour period in Belarus she will receive a European permit for residence in one of the Baltic states,” Bohdan wrote. “Upon her arrival she similarly will have a rented apartment and all amenities at her disposal. She will confirm to you the availability of money on her bank account, and only after that you will be taking off.”

Nosenko turned over their personal documents to Bohdan, including their internal passports, which allow for travel only in Russian Federation territory and countries with no visa requirements. Still, he was nervous. “I have already said that I will allow her to go only when the documents are ready and I am sure about everything,” Nosenko wrote Bohdan. “It is not a kitten I am sending you,” he wrote, referring to his wife.

Yet somehow Nosenko persuaded her to fly to the Belarus capital of Minsk in exchange for another installment of $4,000 to cover travel and expenses. Bohdan promised Nosenko that upon her arrival, a bank account in her name would be opened with $150,000 on deposit.

By June 24, the wife was indeed in Minsk and had been there for about three days. “If nothing changes, she will fly tomorrow to Moscow. Still no money has arrived on the card,” Nosenko wrote Bohdan.

The same day, Bohdan messaged Nosenko back. “We trust you,” he wrote, “but we have one question regarding your wife. The number you gave us for her is not her main number. So now, we can see that she had calls with an FSB man, Yevgeny Kashlach.”

Bohdan’s team, which by now consisted of Ukrainian intelligence officers, had acquired her phone records and determined she had recently rung a Russian security officer.

People walk along a street in the Belarusian capital of Minsk
Residents of the Belarusian capital of Minsk. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images)

“At that moment we talked with Roman and told him directly that his wife has been talking to counterintelligence,” Bohdan told Yahoo News. “We said we cannot continue for now because we have questions, and then he agreed to talk to his wife.”

A military psychologist might understandably talk to FSB officers attached to military counterintelligence as part of their day-to-day work requirements. But the fear was she might be dropping a dime on her husband’s plan to defect with one of Russia’s prized bombers. “It was 50-50 she was either doing her job or ratting him out,” Bohdan explained.

It was about a month into his conversation with Nosenko, who, assuming his offer to defect was originally legitimate, was by now too far deep into the operation to claim innocence. “He understood that we could record him. He understood that he had provided information. And he understood that he already could go one way only. But his wife was in a different situation. She was still clean at the time.”

It remains unclear if Nosenko’s wife informed on her husband, persuaded him to turn himself in or if one or both spouses had been working for the FSB from the beginning. Bohdan believes that by the time she went to Minsk, she was under surveillance, if not being controlled by the Russian security service. “They clearly wanted to see who would come to Belarus and with what kind of documents,” Bohdan told Yahoo News. “When no one turned up because we suspected her, the FSB cottoned on to what was happening and terminated the operation.”

“Then they preemptively claimed success.”

A dubious end game

Members of the Moscow police and the Russian National Guard
Police and the Russian National Guard patrol Red Square in Moscow. (Alexander Nemenov /AFP via Getty Images)

“Success” for the FSB took the form of Russia firing missiles at Ukrainian airfields, whose locations, it later claimed, were only disclosed by Bohdan and his team. In reality, those air fields had already been bombed since the start of Moscow’s invasion.

Russian state media publicly joined the fray. The news channel RT channel ran a 10-minute segment on what it depicted as an elaborate sting operation from the get-go — and an unmitigated failure for Ukraine. RT claimed to interview two of the pilots, neither of whom can be identified from the footage (one wore a face-obscuring helmet on camera, the other had only the back of his head filmed). They did produce some of the messages Bohdan’s team had with the pilots, along with audio recordings of phone calls.

More compellingly, RT exhibited surveillance footage of the two women sent to hand-deliver Maslov’s $4,000. They also claim to have arrested an unnamed man who hired them. “This could mean Maslov was himself working for the FSB from the beginning or that he was being monitored,” Bohdan told Yahoo News.

We may never know what happened to Tveritin, Maslov and Nosenko. Bohdan insists Tveritin is not currently flying sorties in Ukraine — a claim Yahoo News cannot independently verify — but can’t be sure about Maslov and Nosenko. If they were working with the FSB from the get-go, then they may well be decorated heroes. If they were unmasked midway through genuine plans to defect, there is almost no chance any of them would ever set foot in the cockpit of a Russian fighter jet again. They’d be imprisoned or killed for treason.

If this saga signifies anything, it is that war doesn’t just make orphans, widows and corpses; it furnishes opportunities premised on self-interest. Russia is notoriously corrupt, and it is plausible that three Russian pilots, more interested in self-enrichment than in conquering their next-door neighbor, set out to make a pile of cash at great risk to themselves and their families — then were exploited by Russian intelligence to try to and catch the very same Ukrainians who made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.