Russia's GRU military intelligence service has become a political instrument for President Putin -- in the poison attack in Salisbury, hacking against the West and even in dealing with his country's doping scandal. Lately, though, the secret service can't seem to stay out of the headlines.
Each autumn, Russia's GRU secret service celebrates its birthday. Falling on Nov. 5, the festival is officially called the Day of the Military Intelligence Agent and commemorates the founding of the Soviet military intelligence service in 1918. At the GRU headquarters, a modern, functional building located in northwest Moscow, the defense minister gives an inspiring speech, followed by medals for deserving employees.
This year, though -- on the GRU's 100th birthday -- the mood is far from cheerful. Instead of a party atmosphere at headquarters, the Defense Ministry held a crisis meeting instead. And it was apparently open season on the GRU. "Complete incompetence" and "unbridled sloppiness" were a couple of the accusations leveled at the agency, one journalist learned, and a jokester apparently even asked why GRU agents abroad "don't just put on budenovkas?" Budenovka is the name of the striking pointed caps adorned with the Soviet star that members of the Red Army began wearing in 1918.
At the moment, Russia's military intelligence service is having trouble staying out of the headlines. That in itself is a sign of crisis, given that spies generally prefer to keep themselves out of the news. Until recently, only a handful of people abroad even knew what the abbreviation GRU stood for: Main Intelligence Directorate. For most people, Russian intelligence was synonymous with the domestic FSB intelligence agency once headed by Vladimir Putin.
Leaving Tracks Everywhere
That, though, has recently changed, with new details about the GRU emerging on a regular basis in recent weeks. Whether it's the poison attack on ex-double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, Britain, or a cyberattack in The Hague, the exposing of coup plans in the Balkans or the hacking of anti-doping agencies, of the U.S. presidential campaign, of the German federal parliament's computer network or of the Malaysian public prosecutor's office investigating the shooting down of an airplane over Ukraine, the GRU has been leaving its tracks everywhere. The series of blunders is surprising. But so too is the fact that this intelligence service has become so ubiquitous. Is it still even a military secret service or has it morphed into something bigger? And if so, how did GRU get there?
Andrei Soldatov also finds himself asking such questions recently. The Moscow-based journalist has spent years reporting on the world of the Russian secret services. Now, he no longer even understands it himself. He sounds a bit like a music critic who has been forced to listen to a jackhammer instead of a string quintet.
Until recently, the GRU had been regarded as professional, if not particularly squeamish. But the latest news -- such as the March 4 attack in which ex-agent Skripal was supposed to be killed in Salisbury using a neurotoxin -- has cast the agency in a different light. Two men suspected by the British in the incident claimed on Russian television that they had been nothing more than harmless tourists. The performance was ridiculously implausible, and it didn't take long for it to be refuted. The investigative journalism platform Bellingcat recently revealed that both are high-ranking GRU officers and recipients of Russia's highest government award, the "Hero of the Russian Confederation." The site identified the men traveling under the aliases Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov as Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin.
Another clumsy operation also ensued in The Hague only one month after Salisbury. Four GRU employees attracted the attention of Dutch intelligence agents when they tried to hack the computer network of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons from a parking lot. The four had entered the country with diplomatic passports and had been picked up at the airport by an embassy employee. Their computer still carried traces of an attack on an anti-doping conference. Soldatov describes the story as "a nightmare," adding that it is far more bizarre than the action in Salisbury. How, he asks himself, can a secret service act in such a dumb way? And what is going on in the heads of military officers who are sent to attack sports organizations rather than military targets?
To answer these questions, one has to look at the GRU's past. Since the dismantling of the Soviet Union's once all-purpose KGB, Russia has been home to a broad palette of intelligence agencies. The KGB's First Chief Directorate became the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation. The agency is regarded as chic and elegant, and it is located "in the forest," as its shielded headquarters are referred to in agent jargon. The KGB's Ninth Chief Directorate became the Federal Protective Service (FSO), which is responsible for providing protection to Putin and the Kremlin. The agency is feared primarily because proximity to Putin is synonymous with power in the country. The rest of the KGB became the Federal Security Service (FSB), the domestic intelligence agency. It's the best-known agency and it also took over KGB headquarters at Lubyanka Square. Unfortunately, it also adopted some of the Soviet secret polices' methods.
What makes the GRU so special is the fact that it is the only intelligence agency that has nothing to do with the former KGB and its legacy. It was and still is subordinate to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. It even possesses what amounts to its own army. The GRU's Spetsnaz brigades are elite troops trained for action in enemy territory. They also serve to attract new agents. Those who prove themselves in the GRU's Spetsnaz military service stand good chances of advancement within the apparatus.
This is why typical GRU agents differ from their civilian counterparts in the SWR foreign intelligence service. Broadly speaking, they typically aren't sharp analysts with good manners, but social climbers who lack finesse. Though they know how to bury an explosive device and feel more comfortable under enemy fire than in a provincial part of England. At first glance, the two Salisbury suspects, GRU officers Chepiga and Mishkin, seem to fit that mold. Both of them have traveled an impressive path from remote villages on Russia's fringe to the officers' clubs in the capital.
While KGB colleagues had to watch the monument to their idol Felix Dzerzhinsky, who founded the Soviet secret police, being dismantled on Lubyanka Square in 1991 and their authority later divided, the GRU didn't have to reform at all. The organization still doesn't even have its own press office. But the agency suffered all the more after Putin entered the Kremlin in 2000. Under Putin, the GRU lost influence relative to FSB, which became ever more powerful. And the radical Russian military reform beginning in 2008 struck the agency right at its core. Then-Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov initially stripped the GRU of the Spetsnaz brigades, the very thing that distinguished it from the other secret services. "The idea was to get rid of the Soviet legacy," says military expert Alexander Golts. "Serdyukov didn't foresee at that time that a new Cold War would break out."
It's perhaps no coincidence that GRU also had its power symbolically curbed at the time. The traditional abbreviation was shortened to GU -- from the "Main Intelligence Directorate" to the "Main Directorate" of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, even though the old designation has been retained in everyday usage. Meanwhile, the bat in the organization's original coat of arms, which some GRU veterans proudly wear as tatoos, was replaced by a carnation.
"They don't like Putin at the GRU," says Sergei Kanev, a prominent investigative journalist in Moscow. Kanev's reporting helped shed light on GRU activities in Salisbury. He helped expose supposed tourist Ruslan Boshirov as GRU Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga and also discovered that officials at the Defense Ministry are furious at the GRU right now. "There were angry people at the weekend meeting," he says, adding that he learned about the atmosphere there from a reliable source. If Kanev's source can be believed, then President Putin already summoned GRU head Colonel General Igor Korobov to a meeting back in mid-September for a dressing down. Korobov is said to have collapsed at home afterward.
Kanev explains all this by way of video chat because he had to flee Moscow for the Baltic states. A friend had warned Kanev that he was likely to be taken to court in Russia. Kanev works for a journalism project financed by exiled businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky and has never shied away from controversial issues. Most recently, he conducted reporting on the Wagner Group, a private Russian military force that is led by a former GRU officer and conducts its training at a GRU base in southern Russia. The man considered to be at the helm of the group is an entrepreneur from Putin's circle in his home city St. Petersburg.
Kanev doesn't consider the strange secret service failures in recent years to be a problem specific to GRU. "The whole state system is being degraded," he says. If officials in Russia sell access to the country's passport database, which is likely what made the reporting in the Skripal case possible in the first place, then why should military intelligence be an exception?
Based on the number of times the agency has been caught red handed recently, it seems safe to assume that the GRU has recently expanded its remit. That expansion is tied to a remarkable turnaround at the agency that began in 2012. That year, Defense Minister Serdyukov was replaced by Sergei Shoigu, one of the most powerful and ambitious men from the president's inner circle -- and a frequent companion on Putin's outdoorsy vacations. Shoigu partially reversed the military reforms of his predecessor while increasing the army's prestige and opening up new resources and recruiting possibilities. Under his leadership, the army in 2013 announced its "big hunt for programmers," recruited students from universities and began bankrolling hacking competitions.
The GRU also profited from these developments. Shoigu even handed back the Spetsnaz brigades to the GRU. But the agency benefited even more from the radical shift in Russia's foreign policy since the Ukraine crisis. In 2014, GRU troops in unmarked uniforms were on the ground during the annexation of Crimea and fought against Ukrainian troops in the Donbass region. That was also when the two suspects in the Salisbury case received their medals, which were awarded by Putin himself. In 2015, GRU prepared the Russian military intervention in Syria. Officials at the Kremlin were satisfied with the result.
A Tool for Secret Operations
"Enthusiasm for the 'Little Green Men,' for secret operations with Spetsnaz people in unmarked uniforms, began in Crimea," says military expert Alexander Golts. "There was an impression that the world could be ruled by something like this." It also marked the start of the GRU's increasing interference in areas it had not previously been interested in. "That's the logic of the Russian leadership: The only instrument Russia can boast of internationally is military force. And as long as there's no open combat, the GRU is the tool through which secret operations are conducted."
In 2016, for example, the GRU had become so active that the agency and its head, Korobov, were slapped with sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department before the end of the year. In April 2016, the organization hacked the computers of the Democratic National Committee and of Hillary Clinton's presidential election campaign, something that a competing Russian intelligence service had also succeeded in doing. But GRU went well beyond hacking -- the agency also saw to it that the emails were ultimately made public. The fact that the GRU, and not other hackers, was the source of the emails that found their way into the public light is confirmed in U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller's indictment. After a year of investigating (and shortly before the summit between Trump and Putin in Helsinki in July), Mueller's indictment listed the names of 12 officers in charge of the operation.
The GRU also conducted some spectacular offline operations in 2016. In October of that year, the cover was blown on an attempt by pro-Russian forces to overthrow the government in Montenegro. A GRU officer involved in the plot was arrested in neighboring Serbia and Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Russian Security Council, rescued him after a speedy trip to Belgrade. The matter may have been embarrassing, but it was quickly forgotten by the international community.
That same year, the GRU also kept busy hacking sports officials' computers in Rio de Janeiro and Lausanne in efforts to limit the consequences of the Russian doping scandal at the 2014 Olympic Games. The GRU's involvement seemed odd given that the systematic doping in Russia actually took place under the aegis of the FSB, as whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov confessed. Why would the GRU help its competitor FSB out of that mess? "Because it has the ability to do so," says British intelligence expert Mark Galeotti. He says all the intelligence services seek to serve Putin in ways that prove how useful they can be to him. "That's the most important thing for Russian officials: to guess what Putin is going to want tomorrow."
Journalist Soldatov says that "by 2016 at the latest," GRU developed into a "political instrument." This, he says, is something new: "The military hasn't interfered in our politics since the Decembrist revolt of 1825. This is very dangerous and the consequences are unpredictable."
The question is how Vladimir Putin sees all this -- whether he wants to continue using the GRU to pursue unconventional objectives or whether he has now come to regret the idea. The recent mishaps aren't the first for the agency. In 2004, Russian secret service agents, presumably with the GRU, killed Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in Qatar. But the agents' identities were ultimately exposed, resulting in their arrest. It didn't do any damage to the agency at the time.
Soldatov says everything hinges on the defense minister. In contrast to FSB and SVR, GRU doesn't report directly to the president, but rather to the General Staff and the defense minister. And given that Putin has so far been very pleased with ambitious Shoigu, it may well be that the GRU's stumbling won't hurt it this time, either.
But many in Moscow have been just as surprised by the constant new scandals plaguing the GRU as the West has been. It's like an abyss opening up in front of them. "The country has changed completely since 2014," says Soldatov, "but we haven't come to understand that yet and we are living as if everything were still just as it once was."
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