As protests here against a rigged presidential election overwhelmed the capital
last fall, an alarm sounded at Interior Ministry bases outside the city. It was just after 10 p.m. on Nov. 28.
More than 10,000 troops scrambled toward trucks. Most had helmets, shields and clubs. Three thousand carried guns. Many wore black masks. Within 45 minutes, according to their commander, Lt. Gen. Sergei Popkov, they had distributed ammunition and tear gas and were rushing out the gates.
Kiev was tilting toward a terrible clash, a Soviet-style crackdown that could have brought civil war. And then, inside Ukraine's clandestine security apparatus, strange events began to unfold.
While wet snow fell on the rally in Independence Square, an undercover colonel from the Security Service of Ukraine, or S.B.U., moved among the protesters' tents. He represented the successor agency to the K.G.B., but his mission, he said, was not against the protesters. It was to thwart the mobilizing troops. He warned opposition leaders that a crackdown was afoot.
Simultaneously, senior intelligence officials were madly working their secure telephones, in one instance cooperating with an army general to persuade the Interior Ministry to turn back.
The officials issued warnings, saying that using force against peaceful rallies was illegal and could lead to prosecution and that if ministry troops came to Kiev, the army and security services would defend civilians, said an opposition leader who witnessed some of the exchanges and Oleksander Galaka, head of the military's intelligence service, the G.U.R., who made some of the calls.
Far behind the scenes, Col. Gen. Ihor P. Smeshko, the S.B.U. chief, was coordinating several of the contacts, according to Maj. Gen. Vitaly Romanchenko, leader of the military counterintelligence department, who said that on the spy chief's orders he warned General Popkov to stop. The Interior Ministry called off its alarm.
Some of the help we were aware of. The SBU had recorded the conversations of Yanukovych's lieutenants about fixing the elections and made those public. But the rest of this was not known.
This might go a long way to answering why the troops stood down when everyone knew that a strike was afoot. We all waited for it but it never happened.
UPDATE: I would never have thought I could say this about a successor agency to the KGB, but after reading this article more closely, I think it is clear that there were members of the SBU that were heroes and patriots. That would be heroes with a capital "h." They saved lives and probably the revolution.
This, I think confirms what I have been arguing all along, that the revolution depended on people to stand up in the right places when it counted. The very fortunate thing is that they did.