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Russian Espionage: How Real Is the Threat?

Moscow doesn’t hide that it perceives USA and EU as main, mortal and implacable enemy, an aggregation of world’s evil, a creator of world terrorism, and the direct threat to the very existence of Russia. Accordingly, Russia powers see their task as to maximally weaken USA and Europe, to undermine western democracy, to destroy existing institutions, with one purpose only: to make these countries dependent from Russia in one way or another, and being unable to oppose the Russian aggression all over the world.

These Scary Abbreviations

The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB, intelligence service on federal level), The Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU, military intelligence), and the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation (SVR, foreign intelligence) — a Russian passion for three-letters abbreviations of special forces names outlived the USSR, and put it roots on the territory of modern Russia.

Since the time of KGB, not a single three-letter abbreviation caused such a worry to West as GRU does. In modern media GRU serves as a trendy boogeyman for a layperson. In fact, there is no such department of Russian Federation Ministry of Defense as GRU — it was reformed few years ago and renamed into the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. But the abbreviation GRU is often used by western journalists, so we will use it as well.

In recent time the topic of Russian espionage in US and Europe appeared again in western media. It is worth of note that most cases are connected to the failures of GRU.

A German government accuses GRU hackers of cyber-attacks on computers of Bundestag and other institutions.

Twelve GRU officers are mintioned in the list of Mueller: in 2016 they supposedly hacked into e-mails of candidate for US president Hillary Clinton. United States Department of Justice presses charges against seven Russian agents which conducted espionage in the United States Anti-Doping Agency.

Netherlands expelled four suspected members of Russian special forces, whose aim supposedly was Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in Hague. And the failed attempt of murdering of Skripal…

The only thing you can write in the “assets” column for GRU would be a successful annexation of Crimea four years ago.

So what is behind the failures on Russian spies? Could the failed operations of last months be an evidence that Russian military intelligence simply lacks skills? According to Aleksandr Baunov, a politologist and a chief editor of web site “”, GRU is still an organization which should be treated very seriously, but it stopped to be a crème de la crème — in a way it was on Soviet times. We will see further, if this is indeed the case.

But still, apparently GRU failures doesn’t hurt too much to Putin’s image inside the country. Each disclosure and accusation from West just makes more credible a myth that Russia is surrounded by enemies akin to a besieged fortress. And Russians should stay united against those enemies — this is the Kremlin’s narrative for domestic use. That’s why Putin reacts quite calm to the his special forces being exposed.

And not everyone on West considers the work of Russian special forces against USA and Europe that unsuccessful. According to some former Russian and American agents, many of recent “failures” of Russian in the sphere of intelligence are in fact not failures. A CIA veteran Dan Hoffman, who was a resident in Moscow for some time, considers that among the recent Russian operations were quite a few where disclosure was a part of a strategy. For example, the organized by Russian Federation special services meeting between Donal Trump Jr., Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and the campaign chairman Paul Manafort was from the start conceived to be discovered , to better fit the double goal of Putin: “to create even more chaos in American government” and to demonstrate the power of Russia on the world arena. Hoffman also considers the attempted murder of Skripal and his daughter to be a successful operation for Russians, initially planned in a way that “Russian trail” would be discovered. Putin expected to use this to raise the voter turnout on presidential elections in Russia. And he succeeded.

An operation in Austria allowed to identify the Russian spy, but the fact that this agent was supplying Russia with secret information since 1988 tells of highest professionalism and a meticulous work of Russian intelligence. They succeeded in protecting the agent from disclosure and maintain contacts with him even when USSR came apart and government institutions collapsed.

More even, these blatant “disclosures” of GRU aggressive actions abroad may help to cover up more important secret work of GRU, SVR and FSB.

The Fight of Russian Special Forces for Putin’s Grace

The first rule of Russian world of intelligence is a loyalty to Vladimir Putin. Since the universal Soviet KGB service was destroyed, Russia has many intelligence services. Internal security of FSB, foreign intelligence of SVR, military intelligence of GRU, the Federal Protective Service (FSO), National Anti-Terrorist Committee — this web of special forces is akin to a hydra of Greek mythology, and each head of it does whatever it wants and spends quite a lot of time and efforts in attempts to bit the other heads.

It is not a secret that Russian special forces have a peculiar trait, they never was “friends” to each other, and sometimes their competitiveness for being close to Putin took devious forms. Many know about the competitiveness between two Russian special forces of GRU and FSB. GRU always competed with FSB — for projects, for budgets, for influence on the administration. And now, with great pleasure, FSB is watching how GRU agents receive a walloping for Salisbury, and expect for some changes in the circles of intelligence.

But this is not the simple feud between the competing special forces. They are united by the first rule of Russian world of intelligence — loyalty to Putin. And the artificial upholding of competitiveness between these allow Putin to keep his forces on their toes, and to control each and every their step.

There is no doubt that as of now, FSB holds the leadership in Putin’s Russia special forces. The administration of FSB today consists of so-called KGBists — the former employees of regional KGB departments in Leningrad, Leningrad oblast — those whom Putin knew personally, or those whom he met while working in St. Petersburg. The only experience of operative work for Putin and his comrades were in 90s, where intelligence and counter-intelligence were of little interest to government, and the hot topic was a criminal fight for influence and control over resources. And there’s little surprise in the fact that the times of criminal Petersburg left some traces in the operative signature of Vladimir Putin — perhaps it has more in common with criminal methods and approaches than with intelligence.

All this could not but put a leave its imprint on all Russian special forces, and first and foremost on the successor of KGB — Federal Security Service, the FSB. It is FSB that controls most of public organizations in the country, all the large business, organizations of compatriots abroad, many cultural programs, funds and foundations, and so on. This is not a classic intelligence or counter-intelligence organization — this is a corporation, which makes money with means and methods of Russian organized crime. These are people who take part in racketeering, aggressive seizure of property, prostitution services, illegal weapon trade — all through their agency network.

With the background of Putin’s love to FSB, GRU lost a lot of former glory in the beginning. The military reform of 2008 hurt military intelligence a lot. The former Minister of Defense Anatoliy Serdyukov first took what made GRU special in comparison to other services — it’s special task forces units. And more humiliations, GRU was stripped of its symbols: the name was shortened to GU, and the bat on its emblem (which many veterans made into tattoos) were changed to a dianthus flower.

But, after 2012, on the eve of Ukrainian Maydan events, on the eve of Donbass intervention and Crime annexation, GRU was suddenly on the rise, which is connected to the appointment of Sergey Shoygu for Minister of Defense — one of the most powerful and most arrogant people in the Putin’s inner circle. Shoygu brought back the task forces to GRU, and let it prove itself during the Ukrainian crisis. It was GRU troops in the uniform without the insignias which accompanied the annexation of Crima and who fought against Ukrainian army on Donbass. The annexation of Crimes was based on the plans devised by the main operative department of General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation — which mostly relied on the intelligence data from GRU. GRU studied the region in detail, tracked the Ukrainian troops based in Crimea, wiretapped their communication lines, organized a cover-up legend for “green men” which stormed to capture the strategic points of peninsula. Many of these fighters were active of former members of GRU special task forces units.

It was after Crimea when Putin got this belief that the only argument Russia can put on the world arena is a secret force operations, and that GRU will become a tool to conduct them.

Since the end of 2014 GRU started to play a major role in cyber operations, and polished its skills in Syria and on the east of Ukraine, in fact becoming a favorite attack dog for Putin, who is apparently not interested any more in playing by rules. And since 2016 GRU turned into a proper political instrument of Kremlin’s policy, and started to act. The hacking of computers of American democrats and campaign office of Clinton, the attempt of the coup planned by pro-Russian forces in Montenegro, hackers attack on the computers of sport bureaucrats in Rio de Janeiro and Lausanne, which aimed to limit the consequences of Russian doping scandal on Olympic games of 2014…

And we can state that on this day GRU is getting the points in the competition with FSB, and the main reason for that is a successful operation of annexation of Ukrainian Crimea peninsula.

Skripal Case: A Failure or a Show of Force?

After the accusations against GRU agents in the special operation in Salisbury, there is still a question: what was that? Was the attempt of Skripal and his daughter murder a hack job, or something else?

After the explicitly comical interview of Petrov and Bashirov on Russian TV, after the demonstrations of videos from street cameras of them wondering the Salisbury streets, one could get the feeling that both western and Russian media create an image of Russian GRU as of bunch of losers and dilettantes, fond of non-traditional relations. In other words, that GRU does not pose any threat to western values, as anything they put their minds to easily disclosed by western special forces. But perhaps Putin aims for exactly this effect?

The fact that former Russian spy and his daughter survived many take as a proof that the task was failed in the end. But such point of view relies on the assumption that agents of military intelligence was initially aiming for the murder of Skripals.

And few are confused by the fact that Skripals not only did not die from the deadly “Novichok”, but also are getting better. And the fact of choosing the military poison as a weapon of killing, which requires a particular handling, and in case of misuse poses a threat first and foremost to the poisoners themselves, and also is easily identified as “Novichok”. And noone is surprised that murderers knew the exact and carefully concealed whereabouts of Skripals, easily got access to the house doors, covered the handle in poison and just as easy made their way mack home.

Western media already formed the public opinion that Skripals were saved only because of amateurish skills of Petrov and Bashirov.

But perhaps the true goal of GRU special operation was not Skripals murder, but demonstrating the capabilities of Russian special forces, and proving that Russia can make an attack on the territory of Great Britain, under the nose of British intelligence, and there will be no punishment for this?

This version is backed up with the fact of how negligent Petrov and Bashirov were, disposing of flack of poison, which led to a death of Dawn Sturgess and to poisoning of Charlie Rowley.

The illogical nature of Skripal attack allow for another possible scenario of this crime — an attempted murder may have been a result of the competition between different services, between FSB and GRU. Even though FSB is aimed for domestic security, it works abroad more and more, where often acts in both amateurish and aggressive manner.  It is hard to believe that Russian president ordered this kind of attack on British soil right before the world championship. No doubt that Skripal falls under Putin’s definition of “traitors”, but attacking the person who went through the process of official exchange undermines the very logic of this protocol set in times of Cold War, and makes any future negotiations of such exchanges questionable. Under the unwritten law of special forces, the agents caught on espionage and traded under the agreement between states are left alone. More even, the days when Skripal was a colonel of Russian military intelligence and a valuable informer for MI-6 are long gone. But if one would presume that attack was an act of Russian elimination team of FSB, acting on their own will, then everything fits. This attack might also be a vengeance from GRU officers, whose careers were destroyed as a result of Skripals treason back in 1990s (by some estimates he disclosed up to 300 agents and officers). And this is a much more worrying option, that Putin’s control over his special forces is failing.

Germany In the Circle of Russian Special Forces

Even many years after the fall of Berlin Wall, for Russia Germany is still one of the most important targets for intelligence operations in Europe. Not a single other intelligence was as active in Germany as Russian intelligence were. Russian powers, led by the former special forces agent Vladimir Putin, are interested first and foremost in the internal political life of Germany, in the information of different economic strategies, for example, of the status of united European energy policy.

The members of German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz) possess the information that Russian spies aim for Bundestag members, and actively recruit young members of political parties, and also the scientists. Their goal is to get the actual insider information, and also recruiting of agents with promising professional perspectives. For these goals, Putin directed all three structures, FSB, GRU and SVR. Internet and phone lines of Germany are under tight control of FSB. Any German who often visits Russia in business or in personal matters, should be worried that he is of interest for FSB.

A so-called legal residents are located in the embassy and consulates of Russian Federation in Germany. And special forces are not skimping. We have all the reasons to suppose that a big number of Russian diplomats and journalists, who work in Germany, are also paid by Russian special forces. Thanks to diplomatic immunity, the criminal prosecution of the employees is not possible. In Germany, anyone who became of interest to intelligence, first founds that his meeting with a special agent is arranged. In the friendly and welcoming atmosphere Russian agents, many of which speak German, try to charm their vis-à-vis. They soon switch from nice small talk to a conspiracy…


Each intelligence has two ways to prove to its worth to its government: to be of real help, or to cause fear and loathing amidst opponents. But when Russian special forces do both, their value is of no doubt. Since the beginning of Ukrainian crisis, Kremlin has no doubts in the importance of special forces for influence in the modern world. Special operations of GRU, SVR, FSB in Syria, Ukraine, Great Britain, Germany, France, Spain not only have shown how Kremlin can use special forces as an important tool of foreign relations, by tearing Europe apart with its agent networks and a large amount of weapons and special tools. They also have shown to the whole world how Russian intends to fights its future wars: with a mix of total blackmail, pinpoint political murders, extortion and bribing of influential western politicians.

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