Friday, October 19, 2018

Russia's GRU Military Intelligence Service is Putin's Personal Political Instrument

At Der Spiegel, "Doing Putin's Dirty Work: The Rise of Russia's GRU Military Intelligence Service":
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.

Diminished Influence

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...
Still more.