The Russian GRU is back in charge. Be it in the Mueller indictment, the annexation of Crimea, the Skripal case, the downing of MH17, in Syria, cyberwar or a failed coup attempt in Montenegro: everywhere we see footprints of the military intelligence agency. According to our columnist Mark Galeotti it has to do with 'its relatively aggressive, military mindset, where accomplishing the mission is more important than avoiding risks'.
The Vostok batallion, set up by the GRU, played an important role during the uprising in Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine
Suddenly, the GRU, Russian military intelligence, is all over the news, from its starring role in the latest US presidential hacking indictment to allegations about the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal in the UK. One would be forgiven for thinking the GRU was Putin’s main foreign instrument, but this is not the case. Rather, the sudden prominence of the agency tells us something about the state of Russian-Western relations.
Technically, the GRU – Glavnoe razvedyvatelnoe upravlenie, or Main Intelligence Directorate – is actually now called the much more anonymous Main Directorate of the General Staff, although its former name is still ubiquitous. Having been founded during the Russian Civil War and survived Stalin and the collapse of the USSR, it is emerging from a time in the doldrums. During the 2008 Georgian War, while its Spetsnaz special forces were deemed to have performed well, the overall quality of its work was criticised. It was blamed for a failure to appreciate the strength of Georgian resistance, and such blunders as the bombing of abandoned airfields. With its head, General Alexander Shlyakhturov spending much of his time on medical leave, and the new defence minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, focused on military reform, the GRU found itself in crisis.
Such is the carnivorous nature of Russian security politics, even within the uniformed services, that to be out of favour is to be in the cross-hairs. The regular military wanted to take over the Spetsnaz, the other intelligence agencies wanted to seize its electronic and cyber assets, there was even talk that it would be turned into just a regular directorate of the General Staff, losing much of its access and autonomy.
However, fate would turn the GRU’s fortunes around. In 2011, the able and energetic Igor Sergun succeeded Shlyakhturov on his retirement. In 2012, Sergei Shoigu replaced the disgraced Serdyukov as minister of Defense and he and his Chief of the General Staff, Nikolai Makarov, were much more supportive of the agency. Above all, the war in Ukraine was the perfect showcase for what the GRU could do, as a service which historically had worked in trouble spots and war zones and specialised in forming and running militias and insurgents. The Crimean occupation, heavily based on GRU information and spearheaded by GRU Spetsnaz, was a textbook operation. The Donbas conflict, while hardly a success in hindsight, nonetheless leant heavily on the GRU. Later, the service would also play a particular role in Syria.
'Little green men' in 2014 seized Crimea under guidance of GRU Spetsnaz
As a result, the GRU is back. Its budgets are buoyant, its confidence high and its role in international operations reflect its relatively aggressive, military mindset, where accomplishing the mission is more important than avoiding risks. Under new chief (since 2016) Igor Korobov, It is certainly not always successful, witness its role in the failed coup in Montenegro, but it is certainly busy.
Programme of covert activities
However, it is not as though Russia’s other foreign intelligence and security services are not also active. The SVR, the Foreign Intelligence Service, has absorbed the undoubted hit that was the multi-national campaign of expulsions that followed the Skripal case and continues to operate a full-spectrum programme of covert activities, from conventional espionage to ‘active measures’ – political subversion. Having been involved for a decade in seeking to stir up trouble in Macedonia, for example, SVR agents were recently expelled from Athens for both trying to subvert Greek officials and connections with a Russian businessman bankrolling unrest in Macedonia.
Likewise, the Federal Security Service (FSB), while primarily a domestic security agency, has become increasingly involved in overseas active measures campaigns, both in cyberspace and real life. It is worth remembering, after all, that they also hacked US networks during the presidential elections, for all they are absent from the latest Mueller indictment.
One key reason why the GRU is currently making the headlines – beyond the usual process whereby one story creates more media attention – is that the service is at heart a warfighting one. Of course, the majority of its work abroad is conventional military intelligence gathering, as second defence attaches and the like gather data on defence priorities and unit strengths, and try to sneak a peek at the next generation of weapons systems. However, the core ethos of the service is that it is a military one with a gung-ho culture to match; one officer admitted to me that while most of them didn’t have a Spetsnaz background, they liked to act as if they did.
Now that Putin appears to consider Russia at war – albeit a political one – with a West which he feels wants to constrain his country and change its system and values, then the GRU feels empowered and unleashed. Aware of its brush with downsizing, it is eager to show the boss what it can do.
But the other reason for its recent prominence is that through chance, design and legacy, it is especially well placed for the new battlefields, ones marked as much as anything else by chaos. There are the undeclared or uncontrolled war zones of the Donbas and Syria, as well as the potential crisis spots and badlands of the Balkans, North Africa, Afghanistan and the wider Middle East. Here, the diplomatic-cover officers of the SVR find it harder to work, and the secret policemen of the FSB generally don’t want to work. It is in these wilder regions that the GRU has traditionally been at home.
Then there is also the equally uncontrolled realms of cyberspace. All the intelligence agencies have their cyber programmes, but the GRU and the FSB are the main players. The FSB tried short cuts, to recruit (indeed, in essence conscript, on pain of prison) criminal hackers to their service, and the result has been a mix of some clear successes – and a series of embarrassing cases culminating in an internecine set of investigations and arrests.
The GRU took a more conservative and measured approach, hiring smart young computer science graduates and training them up to be intrusion, security and disruption specialists. After all, the Russian military has to live with the spectre of a potential war against enemies – today the West, conceivably China tomorrow – with greater technological capacities. If you can’t match those capacities, the next best thing is to disrupt them, which explains the Russian military’s particular focus on information warfare in all its forms.
The 'Troll Factory' in Petersburg orchestrates desinformation to the world
So the current furore about the GRU may be slightly misleading, but it does also tell us something about how Moscow sees the world and the threats and opportunities before us. The Kremlin sees geopolitics as something being played out increasingly in an environment of chaos and ungovernability, not least but also not just in cyberspace. Regarding itself at war, it is unleashing its spooks, empowering a GRU culture that is willing to take chances and break rules. The question must be, at what point may the backlash persuade Putin to muzzle his dogs again – and what can the West do to accelerate that process?