As chaos ensued following the Russian military onslaught on Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, a World War II-era Enigma encryption machine went missing from the local museum. An advertisement selling the device – the only one known to be in Ukraine – was then posted on an online marketplace.
Artem Starosiek, the CEO and founder of Molfar, a consulting company specializing in open-source intelligence (OSINT), was contacted by one of his clients – an avid collector of World War II items – asking to check a classified he stumbled upon on OLX, a Ukrainian version of Craigslist.
Among thousands of ads selling everything from second-hand clothes to used home appliances, this particular one casually offered what it said was a three-rotor Enigma machine, a notorious cipher device used extensively by Nazi Germany to send secret messages. The machine was missing some parts, including a case, but seemed otherwise intact.
The asking price was the equivalent of $84,500, a bargain considering that a similar model – although in original condition and still fully operational – fetched $441,000 at Sotheby’s auction in 2021. The seller said the machine was inherited and noted that “constructive” price negotiation was welcome.
“The machine did not have the case, so that is why the price could have been lower. It also seemed like they were rushing to sell it as fast as possible,” Starosiek said. He also found the fact that the advertisement was posted shortly after Russia launched its attempt to take Kyiv as highly irregular, suspecting theft.
“It seemed like someone stole it from the museum because there was a lot of panic in Kyiv at the time,” Starosiek said, noting that many people who worked as security guards joined territorial defense units at the start of the war, leaving some institutions vulnerable.
His suspicions were confirmed after running an image search. The results showed the identical machine to be part of a museum collection belonging to Ukraine's Foreign Intelligence Service, or SZR. Further background check of the seller revealed him to be an unlikely owner of the historical artifact.
“It was just a regular fellow who worked as a food delivery guy,” Starosiek said of the suspect, whom his team found to have a history of petty crimes. The seller’s identity is known to Cybernews. Starosiek noted that the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, asked Molfar to arrange a meeting with the suspect.
Cybernews received the records of two subsequent phone calls. Believing he was talking to potential buyers, the seller said in one of them that the Enigma machine was bought at a flea market – even though the original advertisement stated it was inherited. He also said he preferred to be paid in dollars or euros rather than in Ukraine’s national currency.
“Not hryvnia. Because you understand – we have such a situation now, wartime,” he is heard as saying, in Russian.
Starosiek said that SBU took over from there, caught the suspect, and returned the machine to the possession of the SZR museum. SZR said in an email that the machine was currently at their disposal. Cybernews also contacted SBU for comment.
“Justice should work even in war,” said Starosiek, whose team of 35 analysts and 200 volunteers use their skills to track and document Russian war crimes in addition to their regular work.
Mark Baldwin, a leading expert on Enigma machines, said the device in Ukraine was made by Ertel-Werk fur Feinmechanik in 1944, in Munich, rather than in 1943, in Berlin, as the advertisement said. Instead of the classic oak case, it would have had a metal Panzerholz case, which replaced the wooden ones in the later stages of World War II.
The breaking of the Enigma is thought to have played a crucial role in defeating Nazi Germany, which believed its coding system to be impenetrable.
“They trusted it to provide total security for several million wireless messages sent during the war, never realizing that many – not all – were being read by the Allies,” Baldwin said, noting that about 60 to 70% of the German wireless messages enciphered on Enigma machines were cracked.
Polish mathematician Marian Rejewski was the first to achieve a significant breakthrough in decoding Enigma ciphers in 1932. Aided by fellow cryptologists Henryk Zygalski and Jerzy Rozycki, he continued to develop techniques to decrypt the ever-changing Enigma ciphers. On the eve of World War II, Poland shared its findings with Britain and France.
Further work by the British mathematician Alan Turing meant that Britain’s code-breaking center at Bletchley Park could decipher up to 3,000 Enigma messages daily by the end of the war, possibly saving millions of lives.
“Although the advantage this gave the Allies cannot be accurately quantified, an often-quoted judgment is that it shortened the war by two years. Who knows what might have happened had the war been prolonged by a further two years?” Baldwin said.
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