MS Risk Blog

GRU in E. Europe

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GRU acts with impunity in Easter Europe because Russia’s secret organizations are not secret anymore, it seems they don’t care. What has become clear is that to expect the Kremlin or its secret services to be embarrassed when they are unmasked is to miscalculate greatly.

Security Services in Bulgaria and Czech Republic are connecting the dots to a string of sabotage activities and assassinates, dating back since 2011. This month Bulgarian prosecutors stated that they are looking at whether four explosions at weapons depots over the past decade are part of a Russian effort to disrupt the flow of arms from Eastern Europe to battlefields in Ukraine and Georgia. The investigations into the explosions, which took place between 2011 and 2020, are part of wider probes in Europe linked to suspected Russian military intelligence agents.

Bulgaria’s announcement followed claims by Czech authorities last week that they suspect two agents from Unit 29155 in Russia’s GRU intelligence agency were linked to blasts at an arms warehouse in the Czech Republic in 2014. The agents they named were the same suspects as those British authorities linked to the 2018 poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2018 in Salisbury, Britain. Both Czech and Bulgarian authorities have linked consignments of arms in the targeted warehouses to the Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev, who survived a 2015 poisoning in which Bulgaria had initially charged three Russian agents. Two other Bulgarians, including Gebrev’s son, were hospitalised after presenting symptoms consistent with Novichok poisoning. Prosecutors are pointing to his arms deals at a time when Russia had interests in preventing weapons flowing to its adversaries in Europe. At the time Gebrev was poisoned, Russia was in the thick of its war with Ukraine. Therefore, on April 17, Prague announced that 18 diplomats would be expelled over the scandal, and Moscow retaliated by expelling 20. Saying the retaliation was stronger than expected, Prague then announced that it would expel dozens more Russian diplomats to bring the staffing at both embassies in line. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania have all expelled diplomats in an expression of solidarity with Prague, with Russia announcing more expulsions in return. Also relevant is this month counterintelligence operation in Sofia were 8 of its security services officers were arrested after they were caught spying for the Russians.

When Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was determined to get the GRU back on its feet. For that, the GRU needed more people, but where to get these new people from? The only source of recruits available was the special forces. These were tough guys, brutal, brave and ready to kill, but by no means intelligence operatives. It was these kinds of operatives who were assigned to the operation in Easter Europe, and they changed the modus operandi of Russian intelligence. They get caught red-handed, but they are not afraid of that, and that provided the Kremlin with a sort of protection from the new world of transparency.

Unlike traditional spies, this lot are not afraid of being exposed, or expelled from the country. They have no diplomatic positions in an embassy to fear losing. They don’t ask questions about the operation because they live in a world with no difference between war and peace, so no questions about collateral damage either. The training for this kind of operative is cheap, and the supply of potential recruits plentiful.  Putin, an intelligence officer by training, understands this well. Besides, if you are dealing with a country already accused of so many things, from downing a civilian plane to invading a neighbouring country, another accusation won’t change much and could have a liberating effect.

The accusations might be even used for internal purposes to paint the country as a besieged fortress facing an incessant information offensive from hostile foreign powers. Thus, the GRU has come full circle since the Soviet times. Despite moving into ultra-modern headquarters fully equipped with a helipad, the GRU remains staffed by people who view the world through a 1950s lens and indulge a Stalinist appetite for liquidating traitors.