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.

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1 Comment

  1. Edwin Pace

     /  October 20, 2020

    Very perceptive, particularly about the apparent mindless vindictiveness of the siloviki. But might the latter actually be a cultural relic from Stalin’s time? In the thirties “the services” were purged of most of the Old Bolsheviks, to be replaced by Byednyaks from the provinces. But until the Soviet period, their usual way to address perceived wrongs was through surreptitious revenge. Stalin, of course, was more than a Byednyak. But if his minions retain that mindset, we ought to expect them to favour short-term vengeance over long-term calculation. It may thus be no accident that a slum kid like Putin is a good tactician, but a lousy strategist. Or that his mindset reflects the outlook of a good many “GRU minions” to this day.

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