Adventures in Hackery continued: the latest GRU indictment

The new US Department of Justice indictment of 6 Russian military intelligence hackers and, through them, their agency and the Russian government, is the usual piece of painstaking detail work. Although these cases are never going to come to court, they represent a fascinating set of documents that can be mined for years to come. I just wanted to touch on a few first and sometimes slightly left-field points:

Why is it always the GRU*?

We keep hearing about their hackers – are they the only Russian spooks doing this kind of naughtiness? Not at all, the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and Federal Security Service (FSB) also have their cyber units. However, the focus is often different. The GRU, as befits a military intel outfit, does do spying but is also disproportionately involved in more direct measures, sabotage, the virtual equivalent of blowing up bridges and poisoning water supplies, the way their Spetsnaz commandoes might. These kinds of op are (1) more likely to be uncovered, (2) more likely to anger their targets and (3) more worth publicising to show what the Kremlin is up to.

The SVR is more a conventional, quiet intelligence gathering service, while the FSB concentrates its overseas operations especially on Russian enemies of the Kremlin or some influence operations. These are not hard and fast boundaries – Russian services overlap more than most Western ones – but they help explain the key roles.

(* And a PS to the DOJ: although everyone still calls it the GRU, technically these days its just GU, the Main Directorate of the General Staff.)

Are the Russians rubbish?

It would be tempting to think so, given the detailed information presented on the subjects of the indictment and also in all kinds of past investigations, including ones by non-state actors such as Bellingcat, Proekt and the Insider. It is certainly true that they can sometimes be sloppy (can’t we all?), and Russia is also a place where a lot of semi-classified or confidential information is available freely on the darkweb or on sale, providing particular opportunities for assiduous investigators. However, we should not get complacent and write them off as Keystone Konspirators. First of all, obviously, we don’t know which operations work (even in the case of the OPCW hack team uncovered in 2018, this was in part precisely because they had already carried out similar ops). Secondly, it is in part a reflection of the modern, interconnected, social media world, in that it is very hard to remain hidden. This is especially a problem for human intelligence services in the age of biometric visas and ubiquitous CCTV, but applies across the board.

One particular Russian vulnerability, though, is the interpenetration of criminality and espionage. It does mean that Moscow can ‘weaponise’ organised crime abroad, as I’ve written about elsewhere, but there is also a high level of corruption and criminality within the services. This creates its own vulnerabilities, while also distorting the tasking of the agencies. One of the defendants, Anatoly Kovalev, appears to have been a naughty boy:

Why on earth go after the Korean and then Japanese Olympics?

There would seem to be no real strategic rationale here, but this is a useful reminder why the study of international relations ought not totally to be surrendered to theory and qualitative study. Policy is determined by people, and especially in authoritarian regimes there tend to be fewer decision-makers and above all lighter checks and balances. The Kremlin was undoubtedly deeply peeved by the sports sanctions placed on them after the state doping campaign was uncovered. (There are two kinds of liar: the sort who accepts being found out as an occupational hazard, and the sort who has half convinced himself and is outraged at exposure. The Kremlin is definitely the latter.)

The current Kremlin leadership is consumed with a sense of geopolitical injustice and a desire to see Russia recognised as a ‘great power.’ They feel they have been singled out unfairly for boycotts, sanctions and bans – including the sporting ones – and I think they also believe that it undermines their global status if such slights go unavenged. Thus, if they are excluded from an event, they want the event to go badly. It may seem childish, but we should never discount the extent to which emotions drive politics.

Of Novichoks and Novichoks

The breaking news is that Alexei Navalny’s German doctors say he was poisoned by an agent of the novichok family. I’m not no toxicologist, but I recall that at the time of the Skripal affair, a point was made of saying that the agent used was military-grade. In other words, ruling out that it had been made in a school lab or someone’s shed – which is possible, if dangerous – but in an advanced, sterile, professional facility.

Of course, they had samples from Mr Skripal’s house and the infamous perfume bottle to work from. I’ll be interested to hear if in Navalny’s case it is at all possible to make the same determination based on the effects on his body.

It is not that proving it is of similar purity and strength necessarily proves the Kremlin was behind the attack – sadly, for the right people whose wealth and power is inversely proportionate to their scruples, almost anything is accessible. But it certainly rules out anyone but the richest and most powerful – no local FSB officer or city mayor would be likely to be able to access such a nerve agent. Instead, someone would presumably need to be able to access the modern successors to the old Soviet ‘Kamera’ poisons lab (the SVR Foreign Intelligence Service is believed to have inherited the KGB’s, but it would not at all surprise me if the FSB had its own counterpart).

Then again, the government’s cover up, the determination to find no crime having taken place, is more than just its usual, wilful refusal to extend the protection of the law to Navalny. It is a strong indication that the attack was either ordered by the Kremlin (still the more unlikely scenario, in my opinion) or else down to someone sufficient close to Putin and deemed either in his ‘crew’ or necessary to the system such that they cannot be held accountable. After all, we’ve seen this before with Boris Nemtsov and, in a different way, Alexei Ulyukaev. Putin might not be happy with what you do, but if he feels he needs you, or you’re one of his closest cronies, you can quite literally get away with (attempted) murder.

The FSO’s surveys and the Kremlin’s conservative bias

The Meduza news outlet continues to be at the top of its game, and today it published an excellent piece by Andrey Pertsev and Maxim Solopov called ‘What Putin reads,’ with the subtitle ‘Vital policymaking in Russia relies on sociological research conducted by the Secret Service. Here’s how it works.’ It’s about the polling carried out by the Federal Protective Service, the FSO, which at first glance may seem an anomalous role for an agency mainly known for its Kremlin Regiment and the black-suited ‘bullet-catchers’ of Putin’s close security detail.

However, it reflects the FSO’s wider mission, a more holistic sense of quite what protecting the federal centre – and ‘the Body,’ Putin – entails, a product of previous FSO director Evgeny Murov. He was something of a legend in his circles, and not only kept the FSO more honest than, say, the FSB (please note, that hardly means wholly uncorrupt) but also became what in some ways was Putin’s unofficial national security adviser, in the sense of the relatively loyal, well-informed figure who could and would warn the boss when some of what the other security agencies were telling him deserved greater scepticism. His retirement in 2016 and replacement with General Dmitry Kochnev – a perfectly competent protection officer, but not a figure with the same weight of experience and reputation – did reduce the FSO’s clout but above all deprive the system of this informal check and balance. Now the only real national security adviser in the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, the hawk’s hawk, whom I recently described as “the most dangerous man in Russia.”

Every day, the FSO – like the FSB and SVR – provides Putin with an intelligence brief, although in their case largely on what’s going on within the elite. However, their massive network of polling, part of their wider mission to monitor potential risks to the stability and security of the state, also feeds not just into these briefings but their and the Presidential Administration’s general work.

To this end, Pertsev and Sopolov do an excellent job of exploring not just how this is done, but what biases appear in the FSO’s polls.

“Usually what I did was I took an FSO survey and a VTsIOM survey, I added up the numbers, and then I divided them by two. And that’s how I got a result close to the truth,” a former Kremlin official told Meduza with a smile. He says the FSO’s sociological work is “gloomy, maybe even too gloomy,” while VTsIOM’s analysis has the opposite problem: it’s too rosy. According to a source in the Putin administration, the Kremlin’s current domestic policy team also believes that the FSO’s polling “lays it on too thick.” A source with ties to Russia’s government cabinet told Meduza that the Federal Protective Service offers “more pessimistic and bad numbers on average” than VTsIOM and FOM (the Public Opinion Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works primarily with the Kremlin).

“The FSO’s job is to red-flag threats and identify them clearly. They consider themselves ‘the eye of the sovereign’ and they think it’s better ‘to be safe.’ Maybe they’re right,” a source close to the Kremlin told Meduza when asked about the agency’s “gloomy numbers.”

I thought this was especially interesting, especially when combined with examples of their political impact (such as in convincing Putin that lockdown needed to be eased to placate the public). I had heard several anecdotes and indications about this polling, but not this clear assessment of the bias. Given that the FSO surveys do tend to be taken seriously in the Kremlin, this tendency to focus on the threats is especially important given Putin’s own risk-averse nature. In theory, they could be spun as evidence of reasons for a change in policy, but my suspicion is that they will instead only reinforce the essentially conservative nature of the regime: change is destabilising, change is scary.

Hubris Alert: Recent Internet Events

How far one could call it an upside to the locking down of the world (and in fairness, if in the longer term it leads to less needless business travel, that is a good thing), but everyone now seems to be organising online talks, webinars and the like. It does mean that we get to talk to and hear from people all over, without a single passport stamp. Anyway, here are some recent ones in which I was involved:

THE IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON RUSSIA’S POLITICS AND FOREIGN POLICY

A webinar held by the Clingendael Institute’s new Russia & Eastern Europe Centre (CREEC), 26 May 2020

RUSSIAN STRATEGIC THINKING

Webinar with the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress’s Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs, 4 June 2020

RUSSIAN OVERSEAS STRATEGY IN THE COVID ERA

Talk on Russian foreign policy and ‘active measures’ for the Institute of International Relations Prague, 5 June 2020

RUSSIA AND PUTIN IN THE AGE OF COVID

Short webcast interview for the Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, 9 June 2020

Russian Newspaper Coverage of the US Time of Troubles

Seeing America tear itself apart again is a depressing sight; watching police wade into protesters along streets where I’ve walked my dog or eaten ice cream gives it a particular poignancy. I’ve already received some media requests for comment on Russia’s ‘role’ in the current US conflagration. (What to call; it? ‘Riots’ puts the blame squarely on the protesters, which is hardly accurate. That Russian word bunt, or explosion of violence works perhaps. Even better, smutnoe vremya, ‘time of troubles’) The common themes from US journalists seem to be (1) what is the Russian role in instigating the violence and (2) how are the Russians spinning and enjoying the sight of America in flames. What a sad insight into the knee-jerk assumptions in play.

Of course, you can absolutely count on Moscow using this the next time America wants to lecture Russia on human rights and police abuses, and I am sure there are some examples of toxic propaganda on both sides being magnified by Russian-linked or -sympathetic channels. But I have seen no evidence of anything more than that, and the almost touchingly-lunatic nonsense we have seen on the net of police departments being brainwashed into violent abuses by Russian military intelligence (I’m not going to magnify it with a link – if you really must, do Google it) says much more about contemporary desperation to find an outside force to blame than anything else.

But on the media coverage, looking at Russia’s newspapers, at least, what strikes me is that actually it is relatively low-key and factual. The story tends to be some way down the running order (the SpaceX shuttle mission gets more play), and pretty factual. Let’s see:

The government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta headlines its story ‘Trump hid in a bunker during riots in Washington‘ (hang on, wasn’t he meant to be Putin’s willing acolyte?)

Izvestiya, another government-close paper and one often inclined to waspishness, again provides a pretty factual account under the title ‘More than 4 thousand people arrested during the riots in the United States.’

The tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda takes a different, personal approach, interviewing ‘Nina’, a migrant who had moved from Berdsk to Minneapolis, ground zero of the current troubles: ‘This city never seemed to the girl criminal and troubled, even the coronavirus did not frighten the Siberian woman.’ Now, ‘a Russian girl describes the pogroms in Minneapolis.’ It is obviously more emotive, but frankly not that different from so many eyewitness accounts we are hearing, and nor is there an obvious bias. As she concludes, ‘I don’t know how to react. On the one hand, the police are to blame. On the other hand, I do not support the riots.’

Meanwhile, Moskovskii Komsomolets turns to Valery Garbuzov, director of ISKAN, the Institute of the USA and Canada, for expert commentary, wondering in its subtitle ‘Who can end the riots in the USA?’ Again, this strikes me a pretty fair-minded, with a note that ‘Trump has a reputation as a racist, [and] will take advantage of all these events’ but also a statement that ‘I would not say unequivocally that it is Trump who is to blame for what is happening. What is happening today has happened before and, I am convinced, will happen during this century from time to time, the deepest reasons still lie in the fact that the problems of the black population in America by and large have not been resolved.’ It seems hard to disagree.

When asked about the claims of a Russian hand in all this, he is rightly dismissive: ‘Such logic is, of course, quite primitive. Nevertheless, it is in demand today. The evidence regarding alleged interference… is also obviously superficial. Sometimes it comes to some kind of mania, but there is nothing surprising here…’

The business paper Vedomosti doesn’t really cover the story, but Kommersant suggests that ‘America is starting to get tired of riots.’ Hardly sounds that delighted.

I could go on, and I am sure the tone is going to be rather different on some TV programmes (although these are often really entertainment – of a sort – masquerading as news analysis), but the truth of the matters, America, is that

  1. The Russian media is not delighting at your misery; and for that matter
  2. The Russian media isn’t that interested in you…

New Book: Combat Vehicles of Russia’s Special Forces

NVG CVoRSF-Cover-Whimsy

My author’s copies of this new Osprey book have arrived, so this clearly is still on track to be published on 28 May, as planned, COVID-19 be damned! It’s available for pre-order, and you can find more details (including some shots of inside pages) in my earlier post on this book, here.

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