In March 2021 there was another incident of Russian Cold War era espionage in a NATO country. In this case it was Italy where a navy commander (one rank below captain) working for the Defense Staff was caught passing a thumb drive full of documents on NATO plans to a Russian diplomat. The naval officer was in charge of NATO secret documents Italy received from other NATO nations, and men like this were key targets for Russian espionage efforts during the Cold War. Back then it got so bad that many NATO members, including the United States, restricted the quality and quantity of secret documents shared with NATO and had separate sharing agreements with more trusted NATO and non-NATO allies.
Russian success in gaining NATO secrets reached the point, late in the Cold War, where U.S. and many other NATO nations used an informal system, based on experience, to estimate how many months it would take for shared NATO secrets to reach the Russians. The worst offender was West Germany, which did not admit how thoroughly it had been compromised by Russian and East German spies until after Germany reunited. At that point many East German documents and participants of the Cold War espionage confirmed that West Germany was far more vulnerable than West Germany ever realized or was willing to admit. Second to West Germany was Italy, which had a large and active Communist Party throughout the Cold War and many Italians who saw the Soviet Union in a more favorable light. Some, but not all of that attitude was demolished with post-1991 revelations. But during the Cold War Russian intelligence agencies developed a lot of contacts within Italy and a few other NATO countries and those old networks began coming back to life in the late 1990s when a former Cold War Russian KGB officer, Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia. As many Russians feared, Putin is still the elected leader by way of getting laws passed so that he could evade term limits in the post-1991 Russian constitution. The KGB was renamed (as the FSR) after 1991 and lost most of its manpower and privileges. For the last two decades Putin has been restoring the FSB and the smaller GRU (military intelligence) to some of its peak Cold War era power. Putin also declared that the Cold War was on again, with NATO plotting against Russia. That has backfired but one KGB success has been increased success in stealing foreign secrets.
NATO governments, often the post-Cold War ones in East Europe, are increasingly going public with details of the revived Russian espionage operations. This is especially true when it comes to GRU or FSB assassinations of those Russia considers traitors or simply enemies of the state. That practice had declined towards the end of the Cold War but has been revived by Putin.
In the last decade NATO nations have become more active in uncovering Russian espionage activities and the assassinations were something all NATO nations could agree was very bad and worth concentrating on. By 2019 it became public that French intelligence had discovered and was tracking a Russian GRU “Unit 29155” that was operating from a secret logistics base in France near the Swiss border. From there at least fifteen GRU 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. The move often took the base closer to where agents had to concentrate efforts on specific tasks. Russia covert efforts like Unit 29155 avoided East Europe because the new NATO members there are full of people who lived through the Cold War Russian domination of their countries, which allowed the KGB to do as it pleased. Joining NATO was seen as a way of gaining more protection from the Russian threat. In East Europe Russian undercover operations are more likely to be noted and stomped on.
The renewed West European diligence in detecting Russian espionage efforts has led to a lot of embarrassing moments for the Russians. A 2018 assassination attempt in Britain led to the expulsion of 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 confirmation that it was Russian novichok (nerve agent in solid, gel like, form) used in the British incident, 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 refused and denied any involvement. Since 2018 more details of these Russian assassination efforts have emerged. This has not halted the Russian assassinations but it has slowed down the program and forced the Russians to proceed with more care, especially since several of the Russian assassins have been identified and that has restricted their movement outside of Russia.
This 2018 assassination effort was nothing new for Russia. The target was a Russian security official who secretly worked for British intelligence and was responsible for causing enormous damage to Russian overseas spying efforts. This was not the first time Russia had gone after such agents 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 in 2018 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, but smaller and less effective 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 level 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 were not active Russian agents, but retired Cold War era spies. Germany charged 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 was 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.
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. After 2000 Vladimir Putin came to power 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 are 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 armed force intelligence efforts to find out what foreign militaries were up to.
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. 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 SVR wimps.
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 quickly, 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. 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. Because of this 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 and similar secret organizations was such a big deal.