On the 3rd of April, a dark, tinted off-road vehicle drove into the small town of Otaci, located 250 kilometers north of Chisinau. It was heading towards the border checkpoint. From that site – if you walk along the Friendship Bridge – you’ll find yourself in the Ukrainian border checkpoint, and from there you can reach the city of Mogylev-Podolsk. Within minutes, two men walked that way. They were linked with Ukrainian security services, but the border police wouldn’t know that yet.
Media reports would say later that the two men had connections with the kidnapping of a former Ukrainian judge, Mykola Chaus, who had been hiding in Moldova from Kiev’s justice for years.
The ex-magistrate disappeared in Chisinau in the afternoon of 3 April. The man had been hiding in Moldova for years, fleeing from Ukraine over corruption allegations. He hoped to get political asylum in the neighboring republic and avoid extradition to his homeland. He had battled in Moldovan courts during the last years to prevent his extradition, but no final verdict has been issued yet. And it looks like Mr. Chaus would not need it. Moldovan Interior Minister Pavel Voicu said that after abduction the former magistrates may have been smuggled out of the country.
Journalists from the investigative outlet RISE Moldova and their colleagues at Слiдство.инфо unearthed important details of this mysterious incident. In particular, they learned that the people suspected of the judge’s abduction may be connected to Ukrainian intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
Also, in this story, we found traces of a secret special operation, since some of the persons who appear in our investigation could have used fake IDs to cross the border. In conversations with journalists, at least two men confirmed they had visited Moldova during those days.
In Moldova Mykola Chaus had been hiding from Ukrainian law-enforcement agencies for more than four years. Details of this story appear in RISE Moldova’s investigation called “A Judge Under Cover”.
One month ago, media in Moldova and Ukraine reported that Chisinau declined Chaus’ application for political asylum for good and that he was due to get an extradition ticket to Kiev. This wasn’t true. The legal battle continues. We can’t rule out that the dissemination of fake news on this topic was a preparatory stage for a special operation we want to share with our readers right now.
Days after the abduction of Mr. Chaus, the Moldovan interior minister announced that the fugitive judge was probably taken to Ukraine. Moldovan police officials assure that one of the abductors has been held and that they identified in part the persons and vehicles involved in the crime.
Moldovan media claimed that the Ukrainian Embassy to Moldova had offered a car for this operation, but Ukrainian diplomats denied this allegation and assured the Moldovan side of no involvement whatsoever.
We have identified independently the main motor vehicle with embassy plate numbers, studying records from video cameras in Otaci, where a journalist from RISE Moldova was on 7 April.
Having collected records from various cameras in Otaci and Chisinau, RISE Moldova have found a few more vehicles that might have been used by abductors.
We also obtained copies of passports on the names of all ten men. RISE Moldova sources in Moldovan police say that investigators were looking for evidence or their participation in the kidnapping of the Ukrainian magistrate. They are all Ukrainian nationals. A part of these IDs were published in the press but we decide to check and compare everything in detail.
Mysterious guests from Ukraine
Sources in the border police service of Moldova told RISE Moldova that two men in their middle ages entered Moldova from Ukraine through the Mogylev-Podolsk / Otaci checkpoints, crossing the Dniester River on the Friendship Bridge.
They showed Ukrainian passports on the names of Yuri Kovalenko and Eduard Stavitsky. On the day Mykola Chaus disappeared, it was 3 April, they will return together to Ukraine. Our sources at the border said they crossed the border backwards afoot again.
Both men are linked with Ukrainian intelligence. You won’t be convinced of this fact at first glance.
It’s hard to find anything about Yuri Kovalenko in open sources. No employment or education records, or at least the real residence of his. Journalists were only able to find a mobile phone number he’s used. From this piece they could move on to solve the puzzle: they found Mr. Kovalenko’s Facebook profile.
His Facebook profile page contains pictures of the man jumping with a parachute; they were posted in 2012. One particular picture features a military helicopter, with Yuri’s comments „winter jumps„. Therefore our journalists are tempted to believe that Mr. Kovalenko is familiar with warfare/defense.
Слiдствo.Инфо received from their own sources copies of documents that contain classified aspects of Yuri Kovalenko’s biography. Those documents allowed us to reach the conclusion with a very high degree of probability that the face in the passport printscreen, which we obtained from Moldovan sources, and the Ukrainian national Yuri Kovalenko belong to each other. The 34-year-old man is a graduate from a military training academy in Odessa, a city-port in southern Ukraine.
From his personal data files we learned that as of 2015, Mr. Kovalenko lived at a Kiev military base coded A2659, 81 Melnikov Street (today Ilyenko Street). that base hosts the “Yevgeny Bereznyak” Military-Diplomatic Academy, which trains among other professional intelligence officers.
“I believe that being armed with the skills you have acquired at the Academy, you’ll continue contributing your experience for the development of Ukrainian intelligence,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Andrey Taran addressed the school’s graduates in 2020.
As of 2018, Yuri Kovalenko registered his place of residence at 33 Electrikov Street, which is on the Ribalsky Peninsula in the capital. This is the official address of the Defense Ministry’s Principal Intelligence Directorate.
We got in touch with Yuri Kovalenko on 7 April. He declined to comment on his connection with the intelligence community. “I am sorry, I don’t have anything for comments as yet. I can’t tell you anything in connection with your topic,” Mr. Kovalenko told reporters.
But he confirmed he was in Moldova between 24 March and 3 April. He refused to explain what was the purpose of his visit to the neighboring country. Asked straight if he participated in the abduction of the former judge Mykola Chaus, Yuri Kovalenko said: “Let me put down your phone number, and perhaps I’ll get back to you. It looks like your conversation is not construction this time.”
RISE Moldova has published a video record with the phone conversations of our Ukrainian partners from Слiдство.инфо with the men mentioned in our investigation.
Links with intelligence and dual identity
The records in possession of RISE Moldova also show that Mr. Kovalenko had a companion during his trip to Moldova. The man who crossed the border from Ukraine into Moldova together with Yuri Kovalenko is Eduard Stavitsky. Curiously, the latter received his passport one month before the Moldovan journey. After extensive searches we found no person with the same personal data as in the passport on the name of Mr. Stavitsky.
However, we found a Kiev resident in social media who looks very much like Mr. Stavitsky. His Facebook profile name is Kut Andrey, which is short for Andrey Kutsenko. In the video, the man identified as Eduard Stavitsky and the man who owns the Kut Andrey page are strikingly resembling. We also found a picture of his in Telegram, another social media.
The files on Andrey Kutsenko, according to Слiдство.Инфо, demonstrate his connections with the intelligence agency. In the 2000s he officially resided in Kiev at 6 Vozdukhoflotsky Prospekt. This is the address of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry and a military base. From the same files we learned that in 2009 Andrey Kutsenko enrolled in the military and served at the same base on the Ribalsky Peninsula – it’s where the Defense Ministry’s Principal Intelligence Directorate operates. The above-mentioned Yuri Kovalenko formally lived there too.
In a phone conversation, Andrey Kutsenko denied that he was working for the military intelligence and when reporters asked more specific questions he hand up the phone.
Mr. Kovalenko refused to speak about his relations with Mr. Kutsenko.
In the video obtained by RISE Moldova and Слiдство.инфо from the Otaci border checkpoint two men resembling Kovalenko and Stavitsky/Kutsenko walk towards the border control on 3 April 2021, the day Mykola Chaus was kidnapped. The video file and their itinerary will be published later.
From sources in the law-enforcement structures, RISE Moldova has obtained a passport copy on the name of another interesting Ukrainian national who may have been involved in Chaus’ abduction.
His name is Alexander Kostenyuk, 36. It was quite easy to identify this man, given that he is a former police officer and regularly published his declarations of revenues in the past years. The picture of him that we have left us convinced that it’s his face in the passport copy.
Until June 2018 Mr. Kostenyuk had worked in the national police force of Lvyv Region, in western Ukraine; he held a leading rank in the homicide unit.
We learned from judiciary records that Kostenyuk was under suspicion of being part of a police gang that used to extort civilians out money and valuables. A few years ago, his subordinates handcuffed a man to a metal bar and robbed him at gunpoint out of 4,000 dollars and one kilogram of amber. The suspects were finally put under charges – and the case is still scrutinized in a court of law – while Mr. Kostenyuk, whose job was to keep an eye on his men – was fired from the police force. Alexander Kostenyuk later got back his job after a legal battle against the police department, but then quit for good. He now runs a detective business in Ukraine.
In a conversation with a reporter from Слiдство.Инфо, Kostenyuk turns down allegations of his involvement in the abduction of Mykola Chaus, but gave no clear answer whether he visited Moldova lately. The ex-cop assured that he knew neither Kovalenko nor Stavitsky/Kutsenko.
Having studied all ten passports of Ukrainians who are being checked for participation in Chaus’ abduction, Слiдство.Инфо found out that most of them lived in Lvyv Region. One is an employee of a private security firm. Another one – Oleg Stadnik – had been sentenced conditionally to three years in prison for thefts of oil from oil pipes during several years. A court removed this conviction later.
“Moldova is a land of wine”
Mikhail Buleha, a 30-year-old man whose passport copy was examined by journalists, used to be a senior instructor in a special unit of Ukraine’s National Guard. He decommissioned on will in 2019 but continued his martial arts training, and now Mr. Buleha runs a division of the Universal Military and Sport Fighting Federation of Ukraine.
In a conversation with a Слiдство.Инфо reporter, Mikhail Buleha confirmed that he stayed in Moldova for “a couple of days,” a holiday alone, without family, but he would not remember the name of the hotel.
“Let’s say I traveled for pleasure. Moldova is a wine country,” Buleha explained.
Mr. Buleha called a coincidence the fact that his visit to Moldova and the abduction of his compatriot took place on the same day.
“Perhaps it sounds funny – but it’s a coincidence. I don’t have any business with this story,” the former military said.
Mr. Buleha tried to convince Слiдство.Инфо that he never met the other characters in this case – say Kovalenko or Stavitsky/Kutsenko. The truth is Mikhail Buleha exited from Moldova via the same checkpoint, with a two-hour difference. On foot too.
So, as we can see, there’s a clear trail of Ukrainian special services and former military or police operatives in the Chaus kidnapping story. They all arrived in Moldova almost at the same time and left the country almost simultaneously; and they all were in Moldova exactly at the time Chaus disappeared.
Vladimir Thorik (RISE Moldova)
Vasily Bidun, Dmitro Replyanchuk, Yevgenya Motorevskaya (Cлiдство.инфо, Ukraine)
Fact-checking: Inna Kivyrzhik