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The GRU, Putin’s not-so-secret service

Natalia Kolesnikova, AFP | The GRU headquarters, nicknamed 'the Aquarium', in a northeastern suburb of Moscow.
5 min

From the attempted assassination of former spy Sergei Skripal to interference in the 2016 US presidential election, the spies from Russia’s military intelligence agency the GRU seem to be everywhere.


In an unprecedented move in the post-Cold War era, the British, American and Dutch intelligence agencies all expressed their anger with the GRU on October 4. The UK accused it of being behind five cyberattacks since 2015; the US issued search notices against seven of its agents; and the Netherlands published details of the agency’s attempts to spy on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in the Hague.

The three Western countries were sending a clear message to the GRU. The Russian spy agency is suspected of perpetrating the attempted assassination of former double agent Sergei Skripal in the idyllic English cathedral city of Salisbury in March 2018, as well as allegedly orchestrating the hacking of Democrat internet servers during the 2016 presidential race.

That is while GRU agents were said to be involved in a coup attempt in Montenegro in October 2016 and allegedly hacked the World Anti-Doping Agency in 2018. Finally, the spetsnaz special ops forces under its control were the first to enter Crimea during the 2014 takeover.

Emerging from the KGB’s shadow

This is a lot of publicity for a spy agency that was overshadowed by the all-powerful KGB during the Cold War. After the fall of the USSR, Russia divided its foreign intelligence operations between the GRU and SVR.

The latter is the “civilian intelligence agency, similar to MI6 or the CIA in its way of operating”, said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian secret services and a researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.

“By contrast, the GRU has much more of a military mentality – it’s a lot more willing to take risks to achieve its objectives,” Galeotti told FRANCE 24.

For a long time, the FSB was in the limelight as the KGB’s designated successor, while the GRU acted as something of a secret weapon for the Kremlin. By 2008, the military intelligence’s agency’s influence was declining, mainly because of perceived failures during the conflict in Georgia.

“The GRU made several errors – including underestimating the strength of Georgian resistance – and consequently became a scapegoat for a conflict that, in the Kremlin’s eyes, did not unfold as well as it should have done,” Galeotti explained.

But everything changed in 2014. The Kremlin thought of the invasion of Crimea as a textbook example of how to use military intelligence. “It wasn’t just the spetsnaz’s effectiveness that was hailed in Moscow – the entire campaign was, it seems, planned by the GRU,” Galeotti noted.

Ergo, the GRU seemed more adapted to the new geopolitical realities than any other Russian agency.

A weapon against the West

Perhaps the biggest reason for the GRU’s recent successes is the transition to the digital age.

Moscow’s military intelligence agency has long considered telecommunications to be an important part of its work. When the Internet rose to worldwide prominence in the 1990s, the GRU naturally trained agents for in-house cyber operations. Contrastingly, the FSB tends to rely more on outside groups, nicknamed ‘friendly pirates’.

Overall, the GRU’s methods align with President Vladimir Putin’s way of doing business. “The Kremlin sincerely believes that the 2014 Ukrainian revolution was fomented by Western secret services, so Putin felt that he was in an unofficial war of sorts with the West, and that he needed to act accordingly,” said Galeotti. The SVR’s more subtle forms of espionage – which were favoured in the early Putin era, so as to not offend the big Western powers – fell out of fashion.

“Putin is no longer afraid of diplomatic consequences, so he has unleashed the GRU,” Galeotti continued. The specific nature of the accusations by the UK, US and Netherlands against the military intelligence agency reveals a lot about what Russia was trying to do.

“These actions serve to carry out Russia’s strategic objectives at the same time as sowing division among Western countries [for example, the spreading of misinformation online], and they also act as plumbers – dealing with leakages; repairing errors,” Galeotti said. The hacks of the OPCW and the World Anti-Doping Agency, and the attempted assassination of Skripal, fall into the second category.

‘Aim to show West that Russia can act on its soil’

And it doesn’t matter if the GRU isn’t exactly discreet. The ease with which British investigators identified the two suspects in the Skripal poisoning attempt – and with which the Dutch authorities found the computers and identity papers used in the OPCW espionage attempt – give an impression of amateurism. But, while “there have certainly been human errors, we have to be honest and say that the aim was to show Western countries that Russia can act on their soil – and from this point of view, it was mission accomplished,” Galeotti noted.

That said, it would be a misleading shortcut if the West were to think of Russian spying as just a matter of the GRU. The military intelligence agency might be in the ascendancy, but the SVR is still active, while the FSB is playing more and more of an international role, despite its traditional mission of dealing with internal threats.

There is a general mobilisation of Russian spies abroad, stemming from Putin’s understanding that NATO is not equipped to counter this type of threat, thus providing an opportunity to exploit. As Galeotti puts it, “NATO was created to respond to direct attacks by military forces, not computer attacks or targeted special force operations.”

This article was adapted from the original in French

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