Espionage scandals show Russian army's growing clout

09 October 2018 - 18:03 By Reuters
Russian president Vladimir Putin and then-defence minister Sergei Ivanov visited the new GRU military intelligence headquarters building in Moscow, Russia, on November 8 2006. File photo.
Russian president Vladimir Putin and then-defence minister Sergei Ivanov visited the new GRU military intelligence headquarters building in Moscow, Russia, on November 8 2006. File photo.
Image: Presidential Press Service/Itar-Tass

Russia's military spies are being mocked abroad as bunglers but the army's influence over Kremlin foreign policy is growing and there is little likelihood it will halt its "black operations".

The GRU military intelligence agency is blamed by the West for several botched attacks this year, including attempting to kill former spy Sergei Skripal with a nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury and trying to hack the global chemical weapons watchdog OPCW in the Netherlands.

What Russia is doing is operating by wartime rules, which means particularly that the GRU has been let off the leash
Mark Galeotti

Russia's denials of wrongdoing have at times caused incredulous laughter in the West and some of the world's media have cast the GRU, which helped annex the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, as blundering amateurs.

But Western intelligence experts and Russian sources familiar with policy-making in the Kremlin say the West must stay on its guard.

"It’s easy to laugh at some of the GRU’s poor tradecraft and their ability but we should not underestimate them nor indeed the dangerous and reckless use of nerve agent on our streets," British security minister Ben Wallace told a security conference in Britain on Tuesday.

Intelligence experts say the GRU has stepped up its activities including black operations - covert missions that are not attributable to the organisation carrying it out - as tensions mount between Russia and the West, which has imposed sanctions on Moscow over the annexation of Crimea.

The army's influence will rise - Putin believes Russia is in a state of war
Analyst Tatyana Stanovaya

"What Russia is doing is operating by wartime rules, which means particularly that the GRU has been let off the leash," said Mark Galeotti, a fellow at the European University Institute in Florence.

"As the East-West confrontation worsens that empowers these combative agencies and the GRU is being much more active," he said, adding that the GRU at times had freedom to choose how best to carry out orders from higher up.

If the West hopes public shaming will prompt Russian president Vladimir Putin to muzzle the GRU, whose official emblem features a bat hovering above the globe, it is likely to be disappointed.

A source close to the defence ministry, who declined to be named, said the GRU would continue its work. "We are under attack," said the source. "We need to be robust."

Asked on Monday if there would be a shake-up at the defence ministry, Putin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the low quality of the allegations levelled at GRU did not justify such changes.

"Russia believes there's no point in reducing the GRU's activities because that would be a unilateral concession that would not yield anything and probably be seen as a sign of weakness," said Tatyana Stanovaya, who is well connected to the political elite and runs political analysis firm R.Politik.

"I think that malicious operations could even be conducted more often than in the past," she said.

The Kremlin is dismayed by fraying informal communications channels between Western and Russian intelligence agencies, she said, and sees the espionage world as a realm without rules.

Putin, a former intelligence officer himself, sounds defiant. He said last week espionage was one of the world's most important professions and dismissed Skripal as a traitor.

Despite Western media allegations about the GRU's alleged incompetence, there has been pride in some quarters in Moscow. "If anyone had doubts that our employees work everywhere they shouldn't have any now," Konstantin Zatulin, a lawmaker, told state TV, while declining to confirm the allegations.

The GRU has become much more active since the annexation of Crime because of a broader foreign policy.

Before 2014, Moscow mainly confined itself to the former Soviet Union. But since then, Russia has become more active in the Middle East and Africa, while the United States and European countries have accused Moscow of interference in their affairs.

In a sign of the military's and his own growing influence, defence minister Sergei Shoigu has ordered a giant cathedral dedicated to the armed forces to be erected in Moscow and only last week spoke of the need to create a second capital city in Siberia.

"The army's influence will rise," said R.Politik's Stanovaya. "Putin believes Russia is in a state of war." 

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