Near the end of the Second World War in the Soviet West Ukraine there existed clandestine guerilla forces with nationalist beliefs. In order to establish an “Autonomous Ukraine” these terrorists, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its militia the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), were resisting Soviet influence in the region and had murdered no less than thirty-thousand Soviet military and Communist party members. The United States and Britain, afraid that the Soviet Union was planning to start a third world war, covertly used these forces to exploit internal tensions in the Soviet Union and undermine their system of government during a time of perceived weakness.
OUN propaganda stated that there would be an imminent coalition war against the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. The OUN claimed that with the support of Britain, the United States, and remnants of the German military they would mount an offensive against the Soviets. By February of 1946 the Soviets believed that the OUN was loosing traction and that this was simply a list ditch effort to rally support. It was not until Winston Churchill’s famous Fulton speech in March of 1946 where he coined the phrase “iron curtain” that the Soviets became concerned.
One of the key leaders of the OUN was Stepan Bandera. The Soviets had requested that he be tried as a war criminal upon his capture, to which the Americans agreed. However, Bandera was a key contact for a former German intelligence officer on the eastern front named Reinhard Gehlen. In turn Gehlen was working for U.S. Army Intelligence, a fact which they hid from the Soviets as well as other U.S. government agencies. Through espionage the Soviet’s discovered in June of 1946 that Bandera was under the protection of U.S. forces.
By late 1946 the Soviets had found multiple documents, along with the Bandera situation, that constituted nearly concrete evidence of Western involvement with the OUN. In December of that year Soviet General Riasnoi declared that, “Work in the struggle against OUN rebels is simultaneously a struggle against agents of foreign intelligence services.”
In response to their early intelligence information and Churchill’s speech at Fulton the Soviets simply began a propaganda campaign against Churchill and Western capitalism, but after this additional information came to their attention they completely adjusted their military and intelligence approach. In 1947 the Soviet Union differentiated normal crime from that of espionage and insurgency in order to better deal with spies and insurgents.
Since they conclusively linked the internal insurgency on their west with international espionage efforts, they were forced to search for enemies within their borders. They now knew that if they did not search for foreign agents on their own soil then they would be subjected to even more acts of sabotage.
The Soviet reaction to the Western involvement with Ukrainian insurgents happened quickly once they were sure of the involvement. It appears that it took them almost a year to conclude that foreign agents were involved with the insurgency, but even in retrospect it is difficult to determine exactly how much of the OUNs propaganda was valid. In any case, the Soviets appear to have been reacting to actions of foreign governments before the foreign governments knew that they were involved, or at least before the were willing to admit involvement.
Originally written April 26, 2010