Whether Russian military intelligence actually paid bounties to Taliban fighters to kill US troops in Afghanistan – and some senior US military leaders still doubt it – is yet to be determined (RELATED: No Hoax – Trump’s Better Response to ‘Russian Bounties’ Issue). Nevertheless, there is little doubt that Vladimir Putin is relying more on Russian intelligence forces to attack the West, and the US.
When Putin does approve covert actions against the West, including assassinations, and to conduct election interference and influence operations, he often uses Russian military intelligence (Main Intelligence Directorate – GRU) rather than descendant of his old foreign intelligence agency, the KGB, now known as the SVR.
In times of high stress, these brazen ongoing GRU attacks could easily spark a conflict with the US.
GPB.org reported that Kendall-Taylor, a former Russian analyst at CIA, notes Putin seems to rely on the GRU because the KGB was dismantled after the Soviet Union collapsed and reconstituted as the SVR. The SVR is also more cautious. The century-old GRU, founded by Leon Trotsky, remained mostly intact. It is also more action-oriented.
“They have a much more aggressive and risk-taking culture, which is why I think we’ve seen Putin rely on the GRU,” she added.
Well-known Russia expert, Mark Galeotti provides more insights in a policy brief:
The Foreign Intelligence Service is quite traditional, not least in its penchant for long-term, deep-cover spy rings, inherited from the KGB…The GRU’s aggressive and risk-taking culture reflects its military background and its broad portfolio of assets, which include substantial electronic, satellite, and battlefield reconnaissance capabilities, and Spetsnaz (special forces). Though part of the General Staff apparatus, it enjoys a degree of operational autonomy and its chief can brief the president directly.
While the “Russian Bounties” intelligence is still being assessed, the GRU’s fingerprints are seen on a host of other nefarious GRU actions against the US.
Though discredited in many ways, the Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election included charges against 12 GRU members. GPB explains that to “show how much information the U.S. gathered, the indictments included the full names, ranks, addresses and even the individual computers used by the GRU suspects.”
But the GRU is known for a lot more than election interference. It seems to have become Putin’s go-to agency after its successes during Russia’s 2014 attack on the Ukraine. It has since been implicated in the 2016 coup attempt in Montenegro and is believed to be directing Russia’s “private mercenary groups” like the Wagner Group in Syria and elsewhere throughout Africa, and even in Venezuela.
More specifically, according to the New York Times and Business Insider reporting, Unit 29155 is the GRU’s team for foreign assassinations, subversion, and destabilization activities in Europe and the US. Reportedly formed in 2008 in the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia war, the GRU unit has been tied to attempted or successful assassinations in the UK, Germany, and Bulgaria.
Business Insider reported that Unit 29155 is also suspected of politically destabilizing activities in Spain and Moldova; a 2018 assassination attempt on a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, working for British intelligence, via the use of a nerve agent in England; and a 2015 assassination attempt on a Bulgarian arms manufacturer, via the use of poison.
The two alleged assassins implicated in the UK assassination attempt – where an innocent British bystander died after ingesting the nerve agent discarded by the Russians – were later identified as GRU officers. The British Government claimed that the operation “was almost certainly also approved outside of the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state.”
Business Insider added insights on these reckless GRU operations from a European intelligence official:
Some people will point to the sloppiness of some of their operations but in each case they were able to hit the target and in some cases even eliminate it. The real issues seem to come in trying to make an escape without being detected.
Matthew Rojansky at the Wilson Center was quoted by GPB.org as saying it’s important to understand the GRU.
This is not the well-oiled machine that it would ideally be. There is tremendous internal competition between and among the Russian intelligence agencies…If you’re trying to score points against a rival service, that’s where you might get a little bit ahead of your skis. You take a risk and you’ll either succeed or you’ll fail.
This combination of ruthlessness, recklessness, and Russian state sanction – likely by Putin himself – makes the GRU an extremely dangerous agency. It also might make it increasingly likely that the GRU could spark a real conflict with the US.