GRU seems still in Putin’s favour

GRUlogo2I’ve written elsewhere both that we should be wary of making easy assumptions about the GRU‘s supposed “incompetence” and also that I didn’t expect to see any purge or other visitation of Putin’s wrath. Apart from the fact that we don’t know how many missions are succeeding, the GRU’s high tempo of operations and – seemingly – the mandate it has been given to operate without much regard for the political fallout are most important in explaining the recent spate of cases brought to life.

That the GRU has not, as some claim, angered Putin , and that GRU chief Korobov is not out of favour and out of time, seems confirmed. Yesterday, 2 November, Putin attended a gala to mark the hundredth anniversary of what he called “this legendary service,” and he delivered an enthusiastic eulogy: ”

As supreme commander, I of course know with no exaggeration about your unique abilities including in conducting special operations. I am confident of your professionalism, of your personal daring and decisiveness and that each of you will do all that is required by Russia and our people.

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He was especially enthusiastic about the GRU’s role in Syria, something that stretches from its intelligence elements through to its Spetsnaz special forces:

Our intelligence officers, as is mandated by the Russian military tradition, never fled and always carried out their orders. The credit for the return of peace to many parts of Syria, the end of bloodshed and an open path to finding reconciliation should definitely go to a large degree to the military intelligence. No less important is the fact that we have dealt a blow to the terrorists and are preventing their return to our territory.

Indeed, he also suggested it was time the GRU regain its old name,  given that since 2010 has technically been known as the GU, the ‘Main Directorate’, even though in practice everyone still calls it the GRU. (Will it also regain its cool bat logo?) Of course, there is the chance that this is part of maskirovka, deception, keeping any recriminations behind closed doors, but there comes a point when Occam’s Razor ought to cut away some of the most implausible product of the rumour mills. Sure, Putin may feel an obligation to demonstrate his loyalty to his spooks – but that is primarily because they are doing what he wants them to do.

 

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GRU (GU) facing a little purge? If so, it’s not to spy less, but spy better

GRUlogo2As is inevitable, in the wake of the Dutch hacking bust, the US DOJ indictment, and Bellingcat’s claim that the second member of the Skripal hit team was a naval doctor turned spook, Alexander Mishkin, that there is talk of Putin’s displeasure, of GRU* director Gen. Korobov being on medical leave after being hauled over the coals, of heads about to roll. That may be, although so far we really only have one source, and that being one bankrolled by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has his own axes to grind. But it’s not at all implausible given not just that several mission have failed of late, but that there has also been evidence of sloppy tradecraft. However, two points need to be made:

  1. Let’s not overplay the sloppiness. Sure, in hindsight it is always easy to see what was done wrong, just like every inquest after every tragedy, disaster or intelligence failure concludes that they were avoidable. That’s like saying every student could have passed an exam, if they had given the right answers: true but meaningless. Every service makes mistakes, and the GRU has, and if – as the Russians are – you’re operating at flat-out tempo, you’re going to make even more mistakes. Yes, there was some clearly sloppy tradecraft (though still the revelation of 305 GRU officers’ details in Moscow because they registered their cars at their unit’s address was arguably the biggest such breach), but keep it in perspective.
  2. And let’s not overplay any ‘purge.’ There is no evidence the GRU has been operating beyond Kremlin orders, none of the kind of paralysis that, for example, followed the Nemtsov murder. If Putin is showing his anger, it is not because they are spying and hacking and killing, but because they are not doing it well enough. Any purge would be for political purposes (to help distance the Kremlin from these operations) and also to encourage greater professionalism.

*Yes, I know that since 2010 it’s technically the GU, but everyone, even in the Russian military, still calls it GRU. It’s one of those MI6/SIS things.

The Russian Mafia: unmasking a global menace [video]

MobMuseum-Sept2018On 27 September, I was delighted to give a talk at the splendid Mob Museum (formally the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement) in Las Vegas, in their Wiseguy series. My talk was based, inevitably, on my book The Vory. The video of the presentation is available here.

Russia heading for the apocalypse? I think not

Post Apocalyptic Russia by myjavier007Everyone who is serious about Russian studies knows about the indispensable Johnson’s Russia List, a daily mailshot of a collection of the day’s relevant English-language stories, good, bad, and sometimes ugly. I may sometimes cavil at David Johnson’s determination to include a – to me – disproportionate selection of determinedly ‘counter-mainstream’ bloggers determined to find anti-Kremlin conspiracy at every turn, but one of the List‘s great virtues is precisely to puncture those comforting bubbles of consensus with which it is so easy to surround ourselves. We can be surprised.

And good heavens, I was surprised by a piece in the latest, ‘Putin is Here to Stay, and the Russian State Will Die with Him,’ by one Brandon J. Weichert in the American Thinker of 8 September. I confess I don’t know Mr Weichert, nor for that matter more than the name of the American Thinker. I have no idea if it is considered a purveyor of fringe nonsense or a serious intellectual powerhouse. I have my suspicions which is more likely. I could go and google it, but frankly I was more fascinated – entranced – horrified by the analysis put forward.

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Putin the Recruiter and Trump the Potential Asset? Agent-handling and the Helsinki summit

putin-trumpAny political leader meeting another is seeking to get something out of the exchange, whether a specific deliverable or simply developing the relationship. In this respect, the Helsinki summit will be no different from any other. What makes it more noteworthy is the personalities of the two interlocutors and that one was trained to recruit and run assets – and the other seems almost custom-built to be managed and manipulated.

Of course one can push the fact that Putin was a KGB case officer too far. Not every KGB officer is the same, it was a long time ago, and by all accounts he was at best an adequate one. He was not a high-flier, and former foreign intelligence chief and then KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov once tellingly said that he had never heard of Putin when he was in service.

Nonetheless, when Putin said that his particular talent was “working with people,” there is more than a little truth in that. He has managed his own elites very effectively, and also has had considerable successes framing relations with other leaders, as well as leveraging his carefully-created ruthless, cool, macho image.

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‘Orion’, MH17, and the GRU

bellA fascinating and imaginative joint international open source investigation, led by Bellingcat, has identified the figure with the callsign ‘Orion’ connected to the downing of the MH17 airliner over the Donbas as Oleg Vladimirovich Ivannikov, a Russian GRU military intelligence officer. And, indeed, a busy little soul, as he also appears to be the ‘Andrey Ivanovich Laptev’ who served as chair of the self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia’s Security Council between 2004 and 2006, and then its Minister of Defence and Emergencies until 2008. Beyond a first-class exercise in open-source sleuthing, this once again emphasises the role of the GRU today and four of its particular features:

It is aggressive and adventurous. A significant element of the GRU is its Spetsnaz special forces and other battlefield reconnaissance assets. While by no means every GRU officer has a Spetsnaz pedigree, it has infused the service with a certain degree of forward-leaning élan. This was especially encouraged by former head Igor Sergun, not least as a way of recovering the GRU’s prestige after a time in Putin’s disfavour.

It has a particular role in the ‘Near Abroad’ – and especially its rougher corners. The regular spies of the SVR are barred by treaty from operating within the CIS, and frankly are happier in diplomatic cover and white-collar legends. The GRU is thus, along with the FSB, particularly active in the former Soviet ‘Near Abroad’ and even more so in the battlefields, contested territories and pseudo-states. As soldiers first and foremost, they are less deterred by the risks and conditions, and more suited to the kinds of less-subtle operations these territories permit. In 2012, Ivannikov was appointed director of the Russia-Caucasus Research Centre of the International Institute of the Newly Established States, a Moscow-based think tank which appears to be a GRU front or affiliate agency (in some ways akin to the ways RISI is connected to the SVR) also championing an expansion of Russian influence in ‘Near Abroad.’

It concentrates on the sharper end of the ‘political war.’ While the FSB and SVR engage in campaigns of disinformation, subversion and demoralisation, rely on the GRU for the more kinetic stuff. Just ask Montenegro (where the GRU was involved in backing the abortive pre-NATO coup), or the good citizens of the Donbas, or the Georgians. It is hardly a coincidence that Ivannikov’s graduate thesis was on ‘The Complex Nature of the Information War in the Caucasus: socio-philosophical aspects’ and in the Donbas he appears to have been the ‘curator’ handling not just Igor Plotnitskii, then defence minister of the LNR, but the Wagner pseudo-mercenary force.

It is, like all Russian intelligence agencies, its compatriot spooks’ friends and rivals at once. In the Donbas, the GRU and FSB are clearly in competition, and ‘Orion’ was part of the former agency’s network of handlers and operators. One point not in the report which may or may not be significant, is that I certainly heard some suggestions that the FSB were aware of Bellingcat’s attempts to track and identify ‘Orion’. That Ivannikov was still using a phone tagged to his address and even confirm his name when rung on spec implies either poor operational security – which is not generally a GRU characteristic – or else that this warning had not been passed on to their ‘cousins’…

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