Russia's once shadowy spies cast into the light. Why now?

Dutch Defense Ministry/AP
Four Russian GRU officers are escorted to their flight after being expelled from the Netherlands on April 13 for allegedly trying to hack into the UN chemical watchdog OPCW's network, in this image released and edited by the Dutch Defense Ministry on Oct. 4.
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The GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency, is squirming under a storm of revelations about its misdeeds. And the Kremlin is learning the hard way that old cold war methods of international espionage no longer work in the new online world. This realization comes amid an unprecedented public outing of GRU agents by Western officials and journalists. The revelations are coming through mundane means: for example, via an open-source database that revealed hundreds of potential GRU agents who registered their cars at the Moscow headquarters of the GRU. Experts say the GRU has not yet adapted to the easy availability of such information. But it is also falling prey to a new approach by Western governments, which in the past would have remained quiet when it uncovered spy activity. Now they are publicizing it. “There were similar problems with the Chinese at some point, but what seems to have stopped them was public ‘naming and shaming,’ ” says Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russian security services. “[Naming] names and [calling] out particular GRU activities in detail is aimed at deterring the Kremlin from doing this sort of thing in future.”

Why We Wrote This

Few intelligence agencies are immune to scandal. But the foibles of elite secret forces tend to be kept under wraps. Recent Russian fiascos have thrust the notoriously secretive GRU into public view.

For lovers of spy lore, the past few years have brought unprecedented glimpses behind the curtain of international espionage.

In part thanks to the unpreparedness of many intelligence agencies to grasp the implications of rapidly advancing information technology and the ubiquity of social media, more than one has seen some of its most precious secrets spilled over newspaper front pages.

The latest to suffer this fate is Russia's largest spy agency, the Main Directorate of the Russian General Chief of Staff – still widely known by its traditional acronym, GRU.

Why We Wrote This

Few intelligence agencies are immune to scandal. But the foibles of elite secret forces tend to be kept under wraps. Recent Russian fiascos have thrust the notoriously secretive GRU into public view.

If a growing body of official indictments, police reports, diplomatic notes, and journalistic exposés are to be believed, the GRU has been caught red-handed carrying out a range of reckless and aggressive operations against Ukrainian and Western targets. These include the swift and efficient Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the 2016 hacking of the Democratic Party and other cyber-meddling in US elections, and the attempted murder of former GRU agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a military nerve agent in Britain earlier this year.

It's not likely that skulduggery has gotten worse. But in the past, agents would have been able to operate more effectively in the shadows. Opposing intelligence agencies tended to keep what they learned about adversaries’ operations secret, in order to maximize their own advantages. The public was kept in the dark, often until decades later. But the tidal wave of new information technologies has changed that in many ways.

“The world is becoming more open, and all the special services are lagging behind,” says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. For intelligence organizations, the new technologies are a double-edged sword which open up unprecedented opportunities to spy, sabotage, and meddle, but also make them more vulnerable than they have ever been to exposure.

“With a little ability, almost anyone can view the whole world through the prism of their browser,” he says. “Cold war training and trade craft are of little use in this new world. In Russia, since the 1990s, almost any database can be found for sale. Search for almost anything, and you will find it.”

‘How on earth can the GRU work this way?’

The Kremlin and Russia's military heads are learning that the hard way as the GRU squirms under a storm of revelations about its misdeeds – and also what looks like epic incompetence. The scandal has directly touched the Kremlin, since Vladimir Putin himself addressed British allegations that the two men who tried to kill the Skripals, Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, were GRU agents. Mr. Putin insisted that there was “nothing criminal” about the two men, and seemingly nudged them to appear on the state-funded RT network for what turned out to be a disastrous interview that left many Russians shaking their heads in amazement over the apparent ineptness of it all.

“There has appeared a mass of jokes, memes, comments, and curses over this,” says Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB officer turned opposition politician. “People of my circle can't believe this is happening. How on earth can the GRU work this way?”

A British-based investigative group called Bellingcat has collaborated with some Russian journalists to comb through social media posts and open-source databases. So far they have identified Mr. Boshirov and Mr. Petrov as heavily-decorated GRU officers, found a third GRU collaborator in the Skripal operation, revealed the methods used by the GRU to generate passports for its secret agents, and also unmasked hundreds of other potential GRU agents who were all foolish enough to register their cars at a single address: the Moscow headquarters of the GRU.

The GRU is only the latest international intelligence operation to get caught in the headlights. Almost a decade ago, Chelsea Manning, then a lowly US intelligence analyst stationed in Iraq, was able to download 750,000 classified diplomatic and military files onto a thumb drive and hand them to a new kind of organization, Wikileaks, which publicized them to the world. A few years later Edward Snowden, a contract worker in an outsourcing facility, made off with the crown jewels of the US National Security Agency, and some of those revelations are still driving news cycles.

And the GRU isn't the only Russian agency to get outed. Like the United States, Russia has several different intelligence bureaus. The GRU is the equivalent of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and in theory it shouldn't even be engaging in sophisticated political subversion and active measures in Western countries. That would be more the domain of the SVR, Russia's external spy service, which had its own painful moment in the sunlight eight years ago when ten of its “deep cover” agents in the US were exposed and returned to Russia through a classic cold war-style spy swap.

Then there is the FSB, technically the equivalent of the FBI in the US, but which experts say maintains a major presence abroad through anti-terrorism operations, and keeping tabs on Russia's far-flung diaspora.

Unprepared for a new mission?

But things don't necessarily work that way.

“What we see today is a lack of responsibility at all levels. That is a general feature of the present regime,” says Alexei Kondaurov, a former KGB major general and ex-deputy in Russia's parliament. “I am a member of the old guard, I guess. In Soviet times there might have been different clans, but we didn't have a system based on personal loyalty as we do today. If something happens now, there is no punishment. If failures like these we are seeing happened in my time, heads would roll.”

The GRU was severely trimmed after Russia's lightning summer war with Georgia in 2008 revealed massive military shortcomings, especially in intelligence gathering. But experts say that after Putin protege Sergei Shoigu became minister of Defense in 2012, replacing the scandal-tarnished Anatoly Serdyukov, many of the reforms were reversed.

“Shoigu had a new idea, a new modus operandi,” says Andrei Soldatov, author of “The Red Web” and one of Russia's top experts on the security services. “He brought in waves of new people, especially from the spetznaz [special forces], to fill the ranks of the GRU. These are military people, used to doing military stuff, but now they were sent to do new things such as political subversion. The Army has become very politicized under Minister Shoigu. But these new GRU people do not have the sophistication of officers of the SVR or FSB, who are trained to work in foreign countries, learn languages and customs. But now you have these new people doing very ambitious things.”

And getting caught. One reason Western governments have dropped their old methods of secrecy and spilled the GRU's secrets into the public domain may be that nothing else has worked to deter what are viewed as Kremlin-mandated aggressive operations in the West, Mr. Soldatov says.

“There were similar problems with the Chinese at some point, but what seems to have stopped them was public ‘naming and shaming.’ So the Mueller indictment of the GRU, and other public statements, which name names and call out particular GRU activities in detail, is aimed at deterring the Kremlin from doing this sort of thing in future,” he adds.

A change of tack in the West

Another reason for Western governments spilling large amounts of information that used to be automatically kept classified is that in the new era, they fear losing control of the narrative with their own publics. During the cold war, Americans and other Western populations automatically accepted what their governments told them, but that is no longer the case, says Mark Galeotti, senior non-resident fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, and an expert on Russian organized crime and security issues.

“The main reason [for the unprecedented flood of public information] is domestic,” he says. “Nobody imagines that those Mueller-indicted GRU agents will ever face an American court, but the indictment paints a picture that it's all done and dusted, there is no room for dispute. The Russians are really doing this. They are trying to counter the alternative narratives that take hold when there is a perceived lack of information.”

What effect it will have remains to be seen. Aside from blanket denials and evasions, there has been little reaction to the wave of allegations about the GRU from the Kremlin. There are unconfirmed rumors that the GRU chief, Igor Korobov, might lose his job. And this week an opposition news outlet called MBK, funded by exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, published a possibly fanciful account about a secret Defense Ministry meeting in which the GRU was described as “deeply incompetent,” “infinitely careless,” and “morons.”

Still, most experts doubt that any serious reform of the GRU is likely to happen.

“Sure, Putin can't be happy with the way this looks. But we don't know how much good stuff the GRU is bringing him,” says Mr. Galeotti. “Maybe there will be a few sacrificial lambs, but nothing much is likely to change. Real intelligence reform is very complex, and it basically takes an intelligence service offline for a period of time. If you think you are in a war with the West, why would you take your most aggressive organization off the field?”

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