Quick thoughts about the GRU’s Unit 29155

GRUlogo2The New York Times has an interesting piece about a GRU unit known as Unit 29155, which is describes as “an elite unit inside the Russian intelligence system skilled in subversion, sabotage and assassination.” Apparently, its job is to “destabilise Europe.”

I am perfectly prepared to believe such a unit exists, but I have to say that attempts to frame it as some kind of all-Europe, all-roles kind of force sound a little bit of a stretch.

  • If this is the destabilising super-unit (and let’s set aside how far “destabilising Europe” as such really is Russia’s aim – I think it’s a bit more nuanced than that), then the implication is that it is behind everything from killings to hacks to disinformation. That means a massive and wide skill and capacity set. Apart from the fact that the GRU, perfectly sensibly, tends towards have specialist sections that do one thing well rather than jack-of-all-trades, the need to keep interacting with other units responsible for aspects of that would make keeping it “so secret, according to assessments by Western intelligence services, that the unit’s existence is most likely unknown even to other G.R.U. operatives” impossible.
  • The GRU tends to be quite strong in maintaining the integrity of operations within its territorial directorates, and the operations mentioned would cross the jurisdictions of the First Directorate (Europe) and the Second (Anglosphere). For specific, targeted missions such as a killing or a hack, that’s not an issue, but for quite complex and coordinated operations this gets into the unexciting but serious questions of jurisdiction and security. At the very least, keeping this a unit “so secret” is again going to be hard in such circumstances.
  • Was the attempted Skripal hit really about destabilising Europe? What was this “destabilization campaign in Moldova”?

The members of the unit cited and the nature of the operations to which one can plausibly link Unit 29155 look to me much more indicative of a dedicated Spetsnaz special forces unit committed to mokrie dela, ‘wet work’, assassinations and sabotage. (It is indicative that it is apparently now based at 161st Special Purpose Specialist Training Centre, a Spetsnaz facility, and its reported head, Maj. Gen. Aver’yanov, is an ex-commando, not a spook.) Sometimes officers might be deployed in ones and two, as in the Skripal case, sometimes what is sometimes called a boevaya gruppa, a larger ‘combat group’ such as for Montenegro. Ultimately, though, heavies deployed as and when needed in the pursuit of wider goals and typically charged by the territorial or other directorates (which, movie-style exaggerations notwithstanding, do not all have their own supplies of hard-eyed gunmen ready to sally forth at a moment’s notice).

This is a noteworthy story, I should stress, although others had already noted the existence of Unit 29155 before. But before Unit 29155 becomes the modern-day SMERSH, behind every real and alleged Russian covert operation, it is worth keeping it in perspective. The Russians are not unique (or “organically ruthless”) – although I wouldn’t want to draw too sharp a parallel, one could mention the Paramilitary Operations Officers within the CIA’s Special Activities Center – and the presence of such a team is an interesting insight but tells us nothing about Russian intents we didn’t already know. Moscow considers itself in a state of political war, and its various covert agencies as key operators in that conflict. However, that does not mean that they want to bring down the whole foundations of the international order, or bring anarchy to Europe…

A first thought on “Vadim Sokolov”: FSB

tass35094529On 23 August, Chechen-born Georgian-citizen Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a long-time enemy of the Kremlin and its Chechen satrap Kadyrov, was gunned down in Berlin. The assassin shot him in the shoulder, and then twice at close range in the head, using a silenced 9mm Glock 26 pistol.

The killer then ditched gun, wig and his very 21st century escape vehicle – an electric bike – in the river Spree. What could have been a clever move to change his look and profile and make sure he was not caught with the murder weapon on him proved his undoing. He was observed doing this suspicious thing, reported to the police, and soon arrested.

sokolov-photoIt turns out he is a Russian going by the name ‘Vadim Sokolov’, although with characteristic speed Bellingcat has burned through this legend. There seems to be no such person, the address he gave for his visa was spurious, and his passport seems to be a cover one issued for the purpose.

Inevitably, given their role in the Skripal case and certain similarities about the way the passport was issued, some have assumed this is another GRU*, military intelligence, operation. My own take, though, this that this looks more like an operation carried out by the FSB, the Federal Security Service. Why?

  • When it’s not actually Chechens tasked by Ramzan Kadyrov, it’s more often the FSB (whose anti-terrorism/political security remit gives them primacy on Chechnya-related cases, and which is increasingly interpreted to include foreign operations) that goes after Chechens
  • The tattoos on ‘Vadim Sokolov’ (crown, snake, panther) preclude him from being a regular intelligence officer, and also don’t sound like military ones of the sort some ex-para/ex-Spetsnaz GRU officers sport. Rather, they sound like criminal/prison tattoos.
  • The FSB has form hiring gangsters to kill Chechens, something I explore in my ECFR Crimintern report, such as the carjackers from Moscow who murdered Ruslan Israpilov in Turkey in 2016.
  • There has been the suggestion this may have actually been a settling of personal scores, but the capacity to have a fake passport** issued is not totally beyond criminal figures, but increasingly expensive and problematic. It would have been much easier to use a hitman already in Europe.

Of course, these are just first thoughts, and we’ll have to see how the case develops.

(*Yes, I know technically they are called just GU these days – but everyone still uses the older name, and it is likely to be restored.)

(**Yes, from a the FMS office that previous provided GRU fake passports, but I suspect this just means it’s the “spook’s office” rather than specifically servicing only one agency.)

Some thoughts on the security side of Saturday’s Moscow crackdown


I enjoy going to Moscow for all kinds of reasons. One of, perhaps, the most recondite is the chance to take an up-close look at the security forces when there are some major public order deployments. I’m not in Moscow at the moment, so I’ve been mainlining photos and videos of Saturday’s heavy-handed operations (some especially evocative and useful ones here), and here are a few observations:


1. There seems to have been something of a split between the police and the National Guard. Both were deployed in riot gear, but the regular police seemed less enthusiastic to get heavy with the crowd. When actually in close quarters, they didn’t seem to hold back (in fairness, equips someone with a stick and put them in a scary, high-adrenaline situation, and they generally won’t), but they were much less likely to launch actual sallies.

Now, in part that may well be because that wasn’t their role. Remember, all the dedicated stormtroopers such as the OMON are now blue-camouflage Rosgvardiya, so these would be regular cops given some riot training. I’m sure those organising the operation would be more likely to use OMON and other Rosgvardiya assets for the more aggressive missions, while the police handled processing arrests and the like. But it also speaks to a wider issue, in that for a while now there have been quiet indications that the police (and the MVD as a whole) is not comfortable with the stormtrooper role. Indeed, this was one of the reasons for the creation of the National Guard out of the MVD’s OMON, Interior Troops, etc. We’re nowhere near the point where the regime seriously needs to worry about defections and refusals to obey orders, but it’s an interesting straw in the wind.


2. Sticks and stones may break their bones, but gas and guns were absent. The authorities have no lack of other means to deploy, from tear gas and water cannon, to armed officers and more exotic means. This was an entirely old school shield-and-baton operation, suggesting that the authorities wanted to ensure a degree of control and didn’t want to let the city look under siege. Once you start wafting gas into the air and blasting the streets with water cannon, then you may look powerful, but you also look desperate. They were happy for Hong Kong to steal the international front pages (there’s one positive outcome of the Sino-Russian accord…). As near as I can tell – and again, I have to acknowledge the problems of working just from third-hand info – they didn’t even have armed snatch squads kept behind the lines as backup, suggesting they knew full well that they weren’t going to face serious trouble from the protesters.



3. Who was in charge? Just as there are real questions as to how far Mayor Sobyanin actually made the decision about this protest, so too there seems a distinct lack of clarity about the chain of command amongst the security forces. The FSB’s Service for the Protection of the Constitutional Order along with the Investigative Committee is taking point on prosecutions, but while Lt. Gen. Oleg Baranov, Moscow’s police chief (and a career cop with no particular security/public order background), took “personal control” of the operation by some accounts, there have been other suggestions that this may not have been the case. It would be interesting to know, for example, what the command structure between police and National Guard was, and how far this was being driven by the MVD or the Kremlin. Time will tell.


4. Who was there? There were regular police, National Guard Interior Troops and National Guard OMON.* Without being able to peer at badges, look at truck registration plates, etc, it’s hard to be categorical, but the police all appear to have been from the Moscow City force – they don’t seem to have brought people in from the Moscow Region. Likewise, the OMON appear to have been Moscow City or Region. The other National Guard troops were largely from Moscow (1st ODON, the so-called ‘Dzerzhinsky Division’, and other Moscow region units). So what? This was clearly not an operation anywhere near the kind of force drain that the 2011-12 Bolotnaya Protests were, which necessitated bringing in forces from other locations to secure the capital. In short, the security forces are nowhere near yet being at overstretch.


* Simplistic and unreliable way quickly to tell them apart: police are in dark blue uniforms, NG in blue stripy urban camouflage, but OMON generally wear black body armour, and other troops camouflage vests. This doesn’t always apply, though, so caveats aplenty!

New Book (4): Armies of Russia’s War in Ukraine

Armies of Russia's War in UkraineIt’s actually been out a couple of weeks now, but a quick note that my latest Osprey book, on this dismal, running conflict, is now out. The usual Osprey approach: some history, some analysis, orders of battle (I was quite pleased with the listings of forces on both sides that I compiled, although given how fluid things were, this is always a work-in-progress), photos and pretty artwork plates, in this case by Adam Hook.

Of course, as ever with this conflict, terminology had its own challenges. Is this a Russian-Ukrainian war? (It’s not that simple: yes, Russia agitated, facilitated, arms and pays, but it is also a civil war.) Should one use fighters or militants, militias or terrorists? (I regularly get hassled for now using the last term for the L/DNR fighters, but it really isn’t appropriate, this would be a political epithet, not a correct term of art). Alexander or Olexander? (I let myself be guided by what the individuals themselves use.) Anyway, it was an interesting project and a challenge to try and fit this complex, sprawling, multi-dimensional conflict into 64 pages, but I hope it’s of use.

Ivan Golunov, Jan Kuciak, and the politics of the last straw (or the last straws…)

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I’m always wary of grand claims that “everything has suddenly changed”, not least because specific events tend rather to be the dots on the graph that show us wider processes and trends rather than true historical junctures in their own right. But I have just got back from Slovakia, where the 2018 murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírováled to the downfall of a government and — arguably — the political backlash against a cronyist status quo that saw the rise of the brand-new Progressive Slovakia party, and the election of their presidential candidate, Zuzana Čaputová. People knew that their politics were corrupt, that cosy deals between businesspeople, gangsters are officials were commonplace, and that it was not necessarily safe to probe too deeply into them. The 27-year-old Kuciak did, though, and when he died, it somehow catalysed a long-building public anger at the status quo. Somehow, this felt different, and not just within Slovakia’s relatively small and tightly-knit political and media classes.

So too the arrest of Russian journalist Ivan Golunov feels as if may be another of these catalytic moments. He dug a little too deeply into too many corrupt deals in Moscow, and the shabby and pretty transparent frame-up and subsequent beating at the hands of the police has become a cause celebre. People have queued up to protest ever since the arrests, cultural figures are openly criticising the case, and three heavyweight newspapers – Vedomosti, RBC and Kommersant – are all running covers tomorrow that say “We are Ivan Golunov.”

On the one hand, it is easy to be a little skeptical. After all, such cases happen all the time in Russia, alas — but not usually in Moscow. That people are still willing to be investigative journalists in the provinces, a career every bit as safe and comfortable as being a war correspondent, continues to inspire and amaze me. Their cases fail to make the same splash, though, even when they lead to murder, not mishandling. It would be easy to snark, to say that Golunov’s status as a member of the Muscovite media family is what made this one prominent, that it is his friends and colleagues who have made this such a big deal — or those who fear they might be next. But so what? It is not just journalists who are protesting, and there is often a degree of arbitrariness as to which stories catch the public attention and which do not. Several people in Slovakia, after all, said that Kuciak’s age was a crucial issue, that even for members of the elite they could feel that it could have been one of their children.

On the other, it is easy to get carried away, to see this as some tipping point, the beginning of the end for a corrupt system. Obviously, we’ll have to see, as the truth of the matter is that we rarely spot those pivotal moments at the time. The scale of the protests and the way these newspaper have coordinated their very public responses are striking, to be sure, but I don’t think this is the cause of some sea change. Rather — and actually I think this is a more optimistic perspective — I think it is a symptom.

I faced some pushback last week when, in response to a story about Levada polling that showed growing willingness to join protests, I suggested that even though many of the issues ostensibly causing them were very specific and local, this should be seen as demonstrating a shift in attitudes. Ultimately, however much even the protesters might try to deny it, everything is political.

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The social contract of late Putinism allows a degree of protest, activism, even democracy — as long as it does not seem to be a threat to the core interests of the state and Putin and his close cronies personally. Civil society, even politics, exist, but the etiquette is to protect that there is not a direct connection between the irritants, whether road tolling, environmental damage, or whatever, and the overall political situation. Of course, though, everyone knows there is; everyone understands that the fundamental root causes are corruption, inefficiency, clientelism and unresponsiveness within the ruling elite.

The Kremlin presumably assumes that, like the fake party politics of the Zyuganov ‘n’ Zhirinovsky circus, this bleeds off pressure and helps maintain the status quo. But a key difference is that these protests are generated from below, not choreographed from above. Little by little, they create the organisational habits, structures and skills of protest, and also a culture of calling power to account. When an especially egregious case such as Golunov’s comes along, one that has the right characteristics — it’s in Moscow, it’s patently unfair, it’s close to the heart of the mobilising media, and it fits general assumptions about how “they” punish “us” — then not only does it push these processes forward a little, but we get to see them at work.

It is not likely to be the last straw, by any means. In Slovakia’s case, after all, there was a free media and genuine democracy not only to turn popular dissatisfaction into political change, but also to help encourage people that such an outcome was possible and worth fighting for. But it may prove to have been one of them.

Mueller, Putin, Trump, and the Russian ‘adhocracy’

Picture1For some time now I have been pushing the notion that Putin’s Russia is best understood as an ‘adhocracy’, which I define in my ECFR report Controlling Chaos as a system

in which the true elite is defined by service to the needs of the Kremlin rather than any specific institutional or social identity. They may be spies, or diplomats, journalists, politicians, or millionaires; essentially they are all ‘political entrepreneurs’ who both seek to serve the Kremlin or are required to do so, often regardless of their formal role.

The activities of the ‘adhocrats,’ and those of the myriad lesser ‘political entrepreneurs‘ who aspire to that role, are occasionally directly tasked by the Kremlin, sometimes indirectly tasked through hints, nods and winks, and often their own initiatives, acting in ways that they hope will please the boss(es). I talk about this system more fully in my new book, We Need To Talk About Putin.

In this context, an initial quick skim of the ‘Mueller Report’ is gratifyingly supportive of this notion. Of course, the report does highlight cases of clear, direct, Russian government action, notably the GRU’s hack-and-leak operation. Far more frequent, though, are indications of a Kremlin that not only did not want or expect Trump to become president (in my opinion the Russians were convinced Clinton would win and were simply trying to disrupt her assumed presidency, fearing she would embark upon a concerted campaign against them), was if anything worried about its lack of traction with the campaign, and relied on the actions of sundry political entrepreneurs.

Consider, for example, what Petr Aven, head of Alfa-Bank, said:

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In other words, the Kremlin was disconnected from the campaign, and felt that this was a concern. Figures such as Aven saw this as both a threat to their own interests, and also an implicit instruction from the Kremlin, and acted accordingly.

So all kinds of different actors set out to use whatever opportunities they had to try and open lines of communication, from the lawyer Veselnitskaya, through to Russian Direct Investment Fund CEO Kirill Dmitriev:

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But here’s the thing: not only was it in the direct interests of these individuals to try and build bridges with presidential contender and then the transition team of the president elect, it was also entirely normal. All kinds of countries, businesses and interests were doing the same, from the Saudis and Emiratis to Marine Le Pen. If anything, the evidence of the report – and of subsequent developments, in which once one strips away Trump’s bizarrely enthusiastic rhetoric about Putin, one can see that US policy towards Russia is tougher than at any point since 1991 – is of a Kremlin as bewildered by the prospect of the new presidency as anyone else, and thus interested to see if any of its adhocrats could get a meaningful line into the campaign and transition teams. And, despite various meetings and overtures, the answer is that they did not.

So, please, put away those onion-dome-on-the-White-House graphics, abandon those excitable claims of Trump as a Russian agent and the Trump Tower Moscow project as anything but the overheated hype and hopes of some grifters who didn’t understand how modern Russia works. Trump and his circle can be damned in all kinds of ways, from obstruction of justice to incompetence. But this is an American story and sin, not a Russian import.


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