NATO governments, often the post-Cold War ones in East Europe are increasingly going public with details of Russian espionage operations, especially the use of assassination of those Russia considers traitors or simply enemies of the state. The most recent release of such information may not have been official. A French newspaper published an article describing a Russian GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) “Unit 29155” that had recently been operating from a secret logistics base in France near the Swiss border. From there at least fifteen GRU undercover agents engaged in espionage, sabotage and assassination operations. Also described was a joint British, Swiss, French and American intelligence operation to track down details of Unit 29155 and what it was doing between 2014 and 2018. The Unit 29155 base was apparently moved around Western Europe frequently to avoid detection and concentrate efforts on specific tasks.
One of these was assassination, including attempts on the life of Sergei Skripal in Britain early in 2018. This incident did make the news, mainly because the GRU agents used a form of nerve gas called novichok. That incident caused an international uproar. In mid-August 2018 the U.S. imposed its first round of new sanctions on Russia for its March 2018 use of nerve gas in Britain. The details of this use of Russian nerve gas had been confirmed. British investigators identified the Russians who were involved with the use of nerve gas to try and murder Sergei Skripal on March 4th. Skripal was a former Soviet intelligence officer who worked for Britain as a double agent. He was found unconscious on March 4th, with his adult daughter, on a park bench near a British pub they had visited. The two were hospitalized and survived what turned out to be an assassination attempt using a form of nerve gas (novichok) developed in Russia and, as far as anyone knows, not held anyone but Russia. Three of the police officers who responded to the call about the unconscious people on the park bench also fell ill, one of them seriously. Everyone recovered and provided information on what happened. Four months later the container (a small perfume bottle) the Russian assassin carried the liquid novichok in was found. This was because a couple had found the discarded novichok bottle nine days after the March attack and kept it. The assassin had tossed the bottle away in a park. Eventually, the couple opened the bottle and both ended up in the hospital, where the woman died. When her companion regained consciousness he provided information leading to the novichok container and further analysis of it. Worldwide, four different labs analyzed the samples and all agreed it was novichok, a chemical weapon never manufactured outside Russia.
In response to the March incident, Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats suspected of being intelligence agents and Russia responded by expelling 23 British diplomats. More nations said they would expel Russian diplomats and after the June confirmation that it was Russian novichok, the U.S. ordered into effect a series of additional sanctions on Russia. These could be limited if Russia admitted it used novichok and provided assurances it would never do so again with any banned weapons. Russia said it will do neither and denied any involvement.
This assassination effort was nothing new for Russia. Skripal was still working for British intelligence when he was arrested in Russia at the end of 2004 and prosecuted for espionage. He was sent to prison in 2006 but got out in 2010 when Russia agreed to use him as one of the three imprisoned spies exchanged to get back several Russian illegals who were caught in the United States. Russia was reluctant to part with Skripal, who had apparently done enormous damage to Russian overseas spying efforts. But they wanted their imprisoned agents in the U.S. back. This was not the first time Russia had gone after people like Skripal in Britain. This sort of thing has happened elsewhere in Europe before and after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Russia insists that it does not do this and have been saying that since the Soviets started hunting down and killing “traitors” overseas back in the 1930s.
What was not revealed at that time was the joint investigation of Unit 29155 and how many of the growing number of Russian espionage efforts in Europe could be traced to it and similar GRU or KGB operations in East Europe. The Russians have been quite active in Serbia and Bulgaria where local intel agencies have more experience with Russian methods. That’s because until the 1980s Bulgaria was ruled by a Russia-backed communist government that had close ties to the KGB and GRU. It was these former communist states in East Europe that were the first to detect and warn their NATO allies of the resumption of major Russian espionage efforts. Even journalists in East Europe were able to identify some Russian agents on their own.
Decades of Russian-imposed communist rule in East Europe left bitter memories of how ruthless the Russian espionage services could be, and many victims are still alive to provide personal testimony. Western Europeans, except those in East Germany, did not experience this and were slow to accept the fact that the Russians were back, since the late 1990s, at their Cold War espionage efforts. That attitude is changing as more details of recent Russian efforts are made public.
For example, in late 2012 Germany revealed it was prosecuting two Russians (a married couple) who were arrested in 2011 on suspicion of espionage. Russia insisted that the two Russians were not active Russian agents, but retired Cold War era spies. Germany is charging the couple with recruiting and using a local spy three times between 2008 and 2011. When the police came to arrest the couple the woman was found listening to coded messages. There is apparently much more evidence as well that the couple was spying. Exactly who they were spying for has not yet been revealed.
The two 51 year olds are Russians sent to Germany (via Austria and false Austrian IDs) in 1988, to serve as "sleepers", agents that spend most of their time doing nothing until activated from time-to-time for some simple, but essential, mission. While Germany let a lot of its own Soviet era spies off easy, there is still a lot of animosity towards Russian spies. That's because Russia is still very much involved with espionage. In Germany that means stealing economic secrets, which hurts the German economy. The Germans are not in a forgiving mood because of this Russian aggression.
Germany believes that this couple are but two of many other Cold War sleeper agents that Russia, or someone, is reactivating. Prosecuting these two may well be an attempt to get them to reveal details of how the sleeper program operates. This would help the Germans track down other sleepers and get an idea of how many of them are out there.
Apparently, many, if not all, the sleepers were cut lose in the 1990s, as the KGB back home was reorganized and saw its budget cut sharply. But after 2000 the FSB (the rebranded and reorganized domestic operations branch of the KGB) and SVR (foreign operations of the KGB) revived a lot of Cold War era operations. In large part that's because KGB men hold many senior jobs in the Russian government. The president of Russia for most of the last decade, Vladimir Putin, was a career KGB man. So the SVR and GRU got more money to operate in foreign lands.
There are two foreign intelligence services: SVR and GRU. The first one is the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. It is the former First Chief Directorate of the Soviet era KGB, which has managed most foreign intelligence operations for decades. Its activities are well known throughout the world.
The second one is the GRU, Russian military intelligence. It is a part of the Defense Ministry. Its full name is much longer, as in “The Chief Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Army”. GRU has retained its Soviet era name and just about everything else. GRU is seen as a living relic of Soviet times. That is why GRU is so much more secretive than the "Westernized" SVR. GRU officers are considered more patriotic (and old school) than those of the SVR. During the Cold War there were fewer GRU defectors, still a point of pride. GRU prefers to stay in the shadows, which makes the exposure of Unit 29155 activities all the more unusual. Westerners have not written many books about the GRU, compared to the KGB. This is largely because GRU keeps its secrets better and, in the West, is considered an obscure part of Russian intelligence. It's possible that the GRU activated these sleepers but the Germans were not going public with a lot of information. The Germans were sharing their information with the clandestine investigation of Unit 29155.
Both GRU and SVR perform the same functions: Political Intelligence, Scientific and Technical Intelligence (industrial espionage), and Illegal Intelligence. Because of this the two agencies have a very real rivalry going.
But there was, and remains, one area where only the SVR (and its predecessor, the KGB) participates, running counter-intelligence abroad. This was long a KGB monopoly because it was the KGB's job to make sure the armed forces remained loyal, while GRU was and is very much a part of the armed forces.
Thus when GRU officers are working abroad, they are monitored by Directorate “K” (counter-intelligence) of the SVR. Those who serve inside Russia are watched by the Directorate of Military Counter-Intelligence (The Third Directorate) of the FSB (Federal Security Service, inheritor to the KGB). Interestingly, in the Soviet period, it was also called the Third Directorate. It is not a coincidence but a continuation of the Soviet tradition. The Third Directorate of the FSB is still assigned to monitor the Defense Ministry, of which the GRU is a part. The head of GRU does not even report directly to the Russian president. GRU reports have to go through the Head of the General Staff and the Defense Minister before reaching the top man. Thus GRU is very much number two in the Russian foreign intelligence business. As such they tend to try harder and consider themselves more elite than those pampered wimps over at SVR.
On the other hand, there also is one function monopolized by the GRU: battlefield intelligence and NATO countries are now considered potential battlefields. The battlefield intelligence is run in peacetime as well. For example, in preparation for future wars, the GRU sets up illegal weapons and ammunition dumps in the territory of many foreign countries. This is a risky operation. It usually involves groups of junior Russian diplomats secretly going into rural areas to bury rifles, machine-guns, and other weapons. They have to do this discreetly and in a hurry, to avoid detection by the local counterintelligence service. It is considered a hard job.
Western analysts regard the GRU as the most closed Russian intelligence service partly because it does not even manage its own press relations. That's because GRU is one of many components of the Defense Ministry and is not eligible to have its own press relations staff. The FSB and SVR are higher up in the government pecking order and entitled to their own press relations operations. Formally, GRU is nothing but one of the numerous Chief Directorates of the General Staff of the Defense Ministry. It does not even report directly to the Minister of Defense. That is why those foreign journalists who have questions about GRU must address them to the Press Service of the Russian Defense Ministry. The questions are often handled by some press aide who knows little about intelligence work, while FSB and SVR press people are very well informed. So foreign journalists tend to seek out the SVR press department when seeking information on Russian intel operations.
During the Second World War GRU worked in close contact with the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB. For example, in March 1941, both intelligence services jointly carried out a successful operation aimed at overthrowing the pro-German government of Yugoslavia. During the entire war, GRU and NKVD were managing a joint network of foreign agents in Europe. The current system of two separate intelligence services competing with each other only came about in the 1950s, after Stalin’s death. It was done by the Central Committee of the Communist Party in order to protect itself from a coup inspired by either intelligence service. Thus the GRU not only competes with the SVR, but it is also supposed to keep an eye on the SVR for signs of disloyalty.
In Soviet times although the GRU was monitored by the KGB, both organizations reported to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. In case of emergency, the Central Committee could control the KGB using the GRU. The communists believed it best that someone guards the guards. Nowadays, GRU does not monitor the SVR anymore. GRU, the military, and the rest of Russia are all subordinate to the FSB/SVR.
SVR has more money and resources. It's long been like that, and the GRU has developed a tradition of getting by on very little. GRU methods are considered more aggressive and crude than those of the SVR. GRU operatives tend to think they are at war even during peacetime. Thus the SVR assigns its officers to do some job in the form of tasks, not orders. The task is not supposed to be necessarily accomplished, while the order is to be carried out by all means. The GRU prefers ordering and expects results no matter what.
In the GRU nobody cares how their officers obtain secret information, like parts of missiles and other weapons. They may even buy it legally or semi-legally or even steal. The SVR officers are not allowed to do so. They are supposed to use foreign collaborators for it. In the GRU you just go get it. That’s why tracking Unit 29155 was such a big deal.