Special Operations: Russia Lost It’s Subversion Skills


April 26, 2024: Among the many losses Russia has suffered in Ukraine, one of the more obscure ones was the loss of Russian destabilization skills. A century ago, the new communist government in Russia came to power because of the communists’ ability to subvert their opponents and eliminate opposition without a lot of bloodshed. A more recent destabilization effort involved an effort to destabilize countries in Africa to distract attention mass media paid to the Russian campaign in Ukraine. Russian mercenaries and spies are busy trying to cause as much distracting chaos as possible in the rest of the world. This includes covert operations in Europe, mercenaries operating throughout Africa, and establishing links with Moslem organizations in Central Asia and Europe.

Russia believes that conventional warfare waged in Ukraine and the unconventional warfare carried out worldwide complement each other. Russian efforts to destabilize Africa are supposed to divert attention and resources headed to Ukraine. To make this happen Russian spies, assassins, and propagandists continue their efforts.

Revolution and subversion efforts worldwide have long been used by the Soviet Union and later Russia to use whatever opportunities were available to disrupt and diminish support for groups hostile to Russia while encouraging local leaders that support Russian objectives. For example, in 2016, Russian operatives recruited criminal gangs to cause trouble in the tiny Balkan state of Montenegro and disrupt efforts by that country to join NATO. That attempt failed when several foreign agents and pro-coup Montenegrin politicians were detected, arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned.

In February 2022, Russian agents tried to organize widespread protests that would justify Russian military intervention, aided by pro-Russian factions in the Ukrainian government. These factions were supposed to make it possible for pro-Russian groups belonging to the Ukrainian parliament and government to seize power. That effort failed because the Russians overestimated the number of pro-Russian officials in the Ukrainian government and the Russian invasion did not immediately succeed, as the Russians expected. There were too many Ukrainians willing and able to fight and defeat the Russian invaders.

A similar situation took place in neighboring Moldova, a poor, landlocked country that borders Ukraine in the west, near the port of Odessa. During 2022 and 2023, Russian FSB operatives tried to encourage anti-Ukraine protests that would offer an excuse for pro-Russian Moldovan politicians to call for military intervention by Russia. That failed because the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 failed and continues to fail as Russia suffers enormous losses in manpower and military equipment.

The Russian FSB (Federal Security Service) is the post-Soviet version of the KGB but has demonstrated a shortage of skills and ability to match the performance of the KGB in its prime. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was made possible, in part, because the KGB had also lost its ability to get things done.

The Soviet and Russian competition for the KBG and FSB, the smaller GRU military intelligence organization, often outperformed them. That was not the case in Ukraine, where the GRU also failed. This was not as bad as it seemed because the GRU specializes in operations outside Russia. The FSB has a component that does that and it is called the SVR. Foreign operations are often carried out by the GRU and SVR operating together.

When GRU officers are working abroad, they are monitored by Directorate K (counterintelligence) of the SVR. Those who serve inside Russia are watched by the Directorate of Military Counterintelligence. This is the Third Directorate of the FSB. 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 wimps over at SVR.

On the other hand, there also is one function monopolized by the GRU; battlefield intelligence. NATO countries are, and always have been, considered potential battlefields. 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. 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 managed 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. As a result, 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 cruder than those of the SVR. GRU operatives tend to think they are at war even during peacetime. The SVR assigns its officers to do some jobs in the form of tasks, not detailed 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.

Russia is having problems with its secret agents and spies because of its invasion of Ukraine. NATO nations heeded the advice of Ukrainian intelligence that Russia was expanding its espionage operations in Ukraine and elsewhere. These warnings included some information on the expansion of Russian espionage and assassination efforts in Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of Europe. For example, in late 2022 Germany arrested a former soldier who held a senior position in the BND (Federal Intelligence Service). The interrogation of the prisoner has confirmed he was spying for Russia, and this led to the arrest of the Russian courier who took classified information to Russia while bringing the BND mole, as in a spy working for a foreign intelligence agency, his cash compensation. The Germans feared there were more such moles. There were a lot of them during the Cold War but most of those were arrested after 1991 or surrendered voluntarily. Not all the cold war era moles were identified, and Russia revived its espionage program in the 1990s, even before former KGB officer Vladimir Putin took power in Russia. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Putin was a KGB officer in communist East Germany. He spoke German and apparently knew about the West German mole network and sleeper agents operating in the West.

Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there were problems with Russian sleeper agents, also known as illegals. During the last decade Russia has activated more of these sleeper agents and used them for a variety of tasks besides espionage. Since the Russians invaded Ukraine, more sleepers have been activated to gather information on NATO efforts to supply the Ukrainian war effort. These sleepers are trained to do this discreetly, but some used commercial quadcopters too frequently and attracted unwanted attention. European counter-intelligence agencies have prepared profiles of likely sleepers and that has made it easier to detect and arrest sleepers even if they have not been activated.

As a result of all this activity NATO governments, often the post-,Cold War ones in East Europe. have increasingly gone public with details of Russian espionage operations, especially the use of assassination of those Russia considers traitors or simply enemies of the state. There has been more of that since the Ukraine invasion and more Russians have fled their homeland.

In 2019 French journalists uncovered evidence of a Russian GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) Unit 29155 that operated 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, particularly as a British civilian was killed. 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 attempt to murder Sergei Skripal, a former Soviet intelligence officer who worked for Britain as a double agent.

In response to the March 2018 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 would have been 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 happened elsewhere in Europe before and after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Russia insists that it does not do this and has 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 1990s 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 a Russian 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 accused the couple of 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 apparently much more evidence as well that the couple was spying.

The two 51-year-old Russians were sent to Germany via Austria using 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 included attempts 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. These two sleepers were apparently not very cooperative.

Some details of the sleeper operation were gathered from the investigation of so many sleepers. Many, if not all, sleepers were cut loose in the 1990s, as the KGB back home was reorganized and had 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 SVR and GRU got more money to operate in foreign lands.

In the GRU nobody cares how their officers obtain secret information, like parts of missiles and other weapons. They may buy it legally or semi-legally or even steal it. One enterprising GRU agent in the 1970’s shipped a stolen Sidewinder air-to-air missile from West Germany to Moscow via United Airlines air freight. 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. These are all reasons why Unit 29155 is still active.


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