Sneaky, Sneaky

U.S. Eyes Russian Spies Infiltrating Ukraine

Moscow claims it hasn’t invaded anyone. That’s because Russia is slipping into Ukraine special units of spies and saboteurs, senior U.S. officials tell The Daily Beast.

Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty

In the run-up to Russia’s paramilitary invasion of Crimea, U.S. intelligence saw Vladimir Putin’s saboteurs and mercenaries coming, and not stopping at Crimea either.

During the last week of February, a summary of U.S. intelligence reporting said there was a very low chance that the ordinary Russian troops doing military exercises on Ukraine’s border were going to invade the country, according to a description of the document by a senior American official. But the intel report did predict accurately that Russian special operations forces would do all they could to reunite Crimea with Russia—and cause trouble in eastern and southern Ukraine.

Russia’s activities in Crimea have been widely described in the west as an invasion. But while some Russian military forces did cross into Ukrainian territory, the Moscow government still claims that all of its military forces in Crimea are abiding by the terms of its agreement with Ukraine.

This, U.S. officials believe, is because Russia is invading Ukraine with its Spetsnaz—the special operations units and battalions attached to both the military and the country’s intelligence agencies.

U.S. intelligence officials now say Russia’s Spetsnaz are expanding into eastern and southern Ukraine, as well. The intelligence report from February assessed that Russian provocateurs would look to instigate low-level street brawls or “skirmishes” in eastern and southern Ukraine. The report also predicted that Russia’s shadow warriors would seek to pay off Ukrainians to attend pro-Russian rallies and in general fan the flames of separatism. And since then, eyewitnesses say, that’s exactly what’s happened.

One U.S. official said the U.S. military intelligence analysts suspect elements of the 45th Spetsnaz regiment of Russia’s military intelligence service known as the GRU were conducting the provocations in Ukraine. On Thursday the White House added Igor Sergun, the 57 year old chief of the GRU, along with 19 others to a list of Russian officials sanctioned for the invasion of Crimea.

“This is the use of deniable special operators under GRU control to create provocations and really these are quasi-deniable operations,” added John Schindler, a retired NSA counter-intelligence officer and specialist in Russian affairs who now teaches at the U.S. Naval War College.

One U.S. official read into American intelligence reporting on Ukraine and Russia pointed to German press accounts of German businesses in Ukraine being approached in a menacing fashion by so-called “people’s self defense committees” as an example of such Russian provocations.

Last week, the Ukrainian press reported that a member of Russia’s GRU was arrested trying to enter the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson carrying heavy weapons and phony identification documents. According to a second press account, the Security Service of Ukraine arrested a Ukrainian citizen that it claimed was leading a spy ring to conduct surveillance on sensitive military installations in Kherson.

Schindler said the GRU Spetznas were following a similar playbook of provocations or “active measures” taken in the Republic of Georgia following the country’s 2005 Rose Revolution. “This sort of Spetznas special operations, intel-driven exercise is the continuing Russian refinement of the same model used in Georgia,” he said.

These kinds of Russian intelligence activities often take place in the shadows, but at least in the case of Georgia, U.S. diplomatic cables disclosed by Wikileaks provide some insight into Moscow’s game plan.

A July 20, 2007 cable from the U.S. embassy in Tblisi, Georgia, for example, details a series of attacks—some quite serious such as a 2007 helicopter gunship attack on the building of a pro-Georgian government organization in the break away province of Abkhazia—on Georgian police and others inside the country from Russia. Russian spokesmen have denied any involvement in these attacks.

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The Russian provocations however did not end there. In 2010, the Georgian interior ministry charged a Russian GRU Major based in Abkhazia named Yevgeny Borisov with orchestrating a string of bombings and near bombings of targets inside their country. This claim has also been officially denied by the Georgian government.

Giga Bokeria, who served as the last Georgian president’s national security adviser, said he expects Putin will continue to use its intelligence units and Spetznas to destabilize Ukraine as he did in Georgia.

“If Putin creates the perception that the Crimean move is accepted, that means for any leadership in Ukraine or anywhere there is further trouble,” Bokeria said. “He will continue strengthening all those who will create direct destabilization in eastern Ukraine. His goal is to reverse the results of the cold war.”

In the meantime, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence is continuing to review the U.S. intelligence assessments leading up to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The committee’s Republican chairman, Rep. Mike Rogers, told The Daily Beast this month that some House members left a briefing from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence with the impression that Russia would not invade Ukraine. A day later, the invasion began.

But while the ODNI “downplayed an invasion,” in the words of one senior U.S. official, The Daily Beast has learned that—in one key respect—American intelligence reporting from Ukraine was prescient. As the senior U.S. official told the Daily Beast, the American intelligence community assessed there was a “high likelihood” Russia would take action through its special operations forces instead.