This Russian Spy Agency Is in the Middle of Everything
Only a few years ago, the GRU looked like it might be dissolved. But Putin found new uses for it: covert war in Ukraine and ‘active measures’ that helped Trump get elected.
Russia’s military intelligence agency, known as the GRU, is getting blamed for all sorts of things these days. Robert Mueller indicted 12 GRU officers for hacking into computers of the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The GRU allegedly was behind the recent poisonings of four people in Britain, including former GRU officer Sergei Skripal, who survived, and a woman accidentally exposed to the powerful nerve agent used, who died.
The 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine has been laid at the door of the GRU. And recently there were reports that GRU hackers are directing their efforts at the U.S. power grid. Russian mercenaries serving in Syria and in Africa are largely drawn from GRU ranks. Three Russian journalists investigating their activities were murdered last month.
Igor Korobov, the head of the GRU, was singled out personally for U.S. Treasury sanctions in March, along with his organization, even though he had already been sanctioned by the Obama administration in late 2016 for interference in our elections.
Maybe Trump’s people felt they had to make the point after Korobov was invited, along with chiefs of other Russian secret services, to Washington, D.C., in late January—just weeks before the new sanctions were announced. The visit was supposed to be a secret, but the Russians leaked it. The others in attendance were Sergei Naryshkin, the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), and Aleksandr Bortnikov, director of the Federal Security Service (FSB).
Steven Hall, a former CIA station chief in Moscow, told Radio Free Europe it is always considered a “big political win” when a Russian spy chief meets one-on-one with his U.S. counterpart, because it puts them on equal footing.
The intelligence chiefs reportedly discussed with the Americans their mutual struggle against global terrorism, but it would be remarkable if the talks were limited to that subject. As a veteran of the FSB explained to a TV audience in Russia, “Many questions cannot be discussed by phone. It was necessary to look each other in the eye and talk about issues that threaten us and the Americans.”
Hall had a different take: “Given the political conditions in the United States now, it’s flabbergasting, to be honest. I can’t imagine who would have signed off on that.”
At home in Russia meanwhile, Korobov is riding high. In 2017, conceivably for his work helping to get Trump elected, Korobov was promoted to colonel-general, and Putin bestowed on him the highest state honor—Hero of the Russian Federation.
It is hard to believe that just a few years ago there was widespread talk in the Russian media about the GRU being on its last legs, perhaps even about to be disbanded. In November 2010, at a celebration of the anniversary of the founding of the GRU in 1918, GRU officers one after another toasted mournfully “to the bright memory” of their agency. The new 70,000-square-meter GRU headquarters, built in 2006 on Khoroshevskoye Shosse, was emptying out, they said.
By one estimate, of the 7,000 GRU officers working in the Soviet era, only 2,000 remained. This included a 40-percent reduction among GRU staff at foreign embassies. The GRU’s famed special combat brigades, the so-called Spetsnaz units, supposedly were going to be transferred to the regular army.
Lt. Gen. Dmitry Gerasimov, who had directed the GRU’s special-purpose brigades, told The New Times: “I am deeply convinced that the GRU special forces are completely devastated. Of the 14 brigades and two GRU training regiments, at best there are not more than four brigades left.” There was also talk of placing GRU signals intelligence systems under the command of the SVR, the foreign intelligence service.
There were several reasons for the GRU’s decline. In the 2008 conflict with the Republic of Georgia, it failed to alert the Russian military that Georgia had received anti-aircraft missiles from Ukraine. Moreover, in Moscow’s intramural spy-vs.-spy rivalries, the GRU had its own channel of information on corruption and money-laundering by the Russian elite that represented a threat to the interests of the FSB and SVR.
According to this analysis, there was a shadow intelligence network, consisting of a clan close to Putin from the FSB, the SVR, and the regular police that was running the country. And this group did not like having a competitor agency capable of independent comparative analysis. Significantly, the chiefs of both the FSB and the SVR sit on Putin’s National Security Council, but not the GRU head, who reports only to the armed forces general staff.
Miraculously, however, the GRU bounced back after Igor Sergun became chief of the agency in 2011. According to security expert Mark Galeotti, writing in War on the Rocks, Sergun was “an able, articulate, and effective champion of his agency’s interests… He was particularly good at managing relations with Putin and those to whom the president listens.”
Sergun managed to have several Spetsnaz units transferred back to the GRU. These troops are roughly comparable to U.S. special operations forces. They perform reconnaissance, diversion, and combat operations in various hot spots where there is ethnic strife, such as Chechnya, where they were widely deployed.
Then came the Crimean invasion and the Ukrainian conflict.
As Galeotti pointed out: “The chaos in Ukraine was a boon for the GRU, which was one of the lead agencies both in the seizure of the Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent destabilization of the Donbas [Eastern Ukraine]. If the future means more ‘hybrid war’ operations, more interactions with warlords, gangsters, and insurgents, then this is much more the forte of the GRU than the SVR.”
Some members of GRU units became mercenaries in private military companies like the Wagner Group, under the command of reserve GRU Lt. Col. Dmitry Utkin. In 2014-15 Wagner was one of the main forces in battles fought on the territories of Donetsk and Lugansk in eastern Ukraine. Subsequently Wagner moved to Syria, where it has played a vital role as the Kremlin’s proxy force supporting Syrian government military offensives.
When some of its operatives were involved in an attack on oil installations controlled by U.S. allies on the ground, the Americans counterattacked from the air, allegedly killing several Wagner personnel. In April, a Russian reporter writing about Wagner operations and casualties died under mysterious circumstances, supposedly falling accidentally from the balcony of his fifth floor apartment.
Wagner also runs significant operations as far afield as the Central African Republic, where it bolsters government forces, negotiates with rebels, and guards valuable diamond, gold, and other mineral deposits—activities being investigated by the Russian journalists murdered there.
These ad hoc GRU operations have had some negative repercussions for Moscow. A joint Australian and Dutch investigation determined that the missile used to down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014 originated from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile brigade, a unit of the Russian army from Kursk in the Russian Federation. The respected Bellingcat group has now found that the order to fire the missile was approved by GRU Gen. Oleg Vladimirovich Ivannikov, who supervised several divisions of fighters in Donetsk, including those of Ukrainian separatists and the Wagner Group.
Korobov got off to a rocky start when he assumed the post of GRU chief in early 2016. For starters, there were questions raised about the sudden death in January that year of his predecessor, Sergun.
Officially, Sergun died of natural causes in Moscow, but there were reports that he perished in Lebanon. The decision to appoint Korobov took an entire month, reportedly because of a conflict within the Kremlin elite over who should get the job from a choice of four candidates. A group that was allied with the FSB and the SVR, led by Sergei Ivanov (then head of the presidential administration and an old KGB colleague of Putin), wanted one of their own to head the GRU, while those representing Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu were pushing for Korobov.
The army clan, proponents of an aggressive, confrontational approach toward the West in Ukraine and elsewhere, won out, and within several months Ivanov would lose his Kremlin job.
It is said that Korobov, who specialized in strategic military intelligence, is a pragmatist who is not interested in Kremlin politics and just wants to get the job done, whatever that might be. So it must be unsettling for Korobov to be the only high-level Russian official with staff members under indictment in the United States.
In fact, back in 2006, at the opening of the new GRU headquarters, a journalist asked a GRU general whether U.S. elections were a topic that was followed by their intelligence analysts. The general responded, “That is primarily a task for the SVR. We follow [the elections] but to a much lesser extent than the SVR."”
So how to explain that 12 years later the GRU is in the forefront of election meddling in the U.S.?
According to Vadim Birstein, an authority on the Russian security services, “In the past, the ‘active measures’ deployed for decades by the KGB/SVR against the West referred mainly to HUMINT (human intelligence) and disinformation campaigns in the media, rather than cyber warfare operations which are a new level in intelligence wars.”
Although the SVR has cyber weapons—and in fact was reported to be behind the initial 2015 attack on the DNC under the guise of “Cozy Bear”—the GRU, Birstein says, “has more technical resources to conduct operations like those described in the Mueller indictment.”
A persistent question is how Mueller’s team got the information detailed in the indictment. As Alexei Venediktov, editor of Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio, noted: “When you read parts of the indictment you just freak out. Because they [Mueller’s team] know everything—time, place, login, password, career. And this supposedly just by remote methods.” As Venediktov and others say, the FBI must have had insider information.
Where did the leak come from? Putin obviously wants to know. When he spoke at a news conference with Trump in Helsinki on July 16, he suggested that Russia and the U.S. cooperate in the investigation by having members of Mueller’s team come to Russia and take part in questioning the GRU officers. (As The Daily Beast reported, this is not nearly as generous as it sounds. When British investigators looking into the murder of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko went to Moscow, they found themselves thwarted and put under surveillance.)
Although it is the job of the FSB, as a counterintelligence agency, to find spies and potential traitors within the military, there is some speculation that FSB officers passed information about the GRU’s hacking operations to American intelligence.
Back in December 2016, by which time the GRU had been exposed, some high-level FSB officers in the FSB’s cybersecurity unit were arrested and charged with treason. (One, Sergei Mikhailov, was physically removed from a meeting with a black sack over his head.) The treason case has been kept a closely guarded secret, but Russian insiders suggest that Mikhailov and his colleagues were motivated by the long-standing rivalry between the FSB and the GRU to betray the GRU. According to some sources, money was also a motive.
Of course, the GRU is no stranger to defections and international scandal. The first major spy case to erupt after World War II, igniting the Cold War, occurred in 1945 when a GRU cipher clerk from the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa defected, taking with him reams of secret documents that showed the Soviets had an atomic spy ring in North America.
Then there was the infamous GRU Gen. Oleg Penkovsky, who tipped off Britain that the Soviets had missiles in Cuba—and was executed for treason in 1963. Much later, Sergei Skripal, who for several years cooperated with MI6, provided hundreds of names of his fellow GRU agents before he was caught in 2006 and charged with treason. In 2010 he was handed over to Britain as part of a spy swap, and earlier this year he was poisoned.
British authorities are now saying that the GRU carried out the U.K. murder attempt on Skripal, apparently because Skripal betrayed the agency. Investigators reportedly have evidence that the GRU hacked into the email of Skripal’s daughter, Yulia. But revenge against traitors is traditionally up to the FSB. Recall that the 2006 poisoning of Litvinenko in London, shown by the British High Court Inquiry to be the work of the FSB, was preceded by the July 2006 enactment of a new Russian law that specifically authorized the FSB to carry out assassinations abroad.
But maybe we in the West should stop trying to figure out which Russian security service has been doing what to us. After all, the buck stops in the Kremlin. Putin is a hands-on leader—a KGB veteran himself—who calls the shots on just about everything from assassinations of alleged traitors to revenge against Western politicians he resents, like Hillary Clinton. As the widow of Alexander Litvinenko told me once, “with Putin everything is personal.”