Russia’s GRU Yesterday & Today, by Gilberto Villahermosa

By the 1980s the Soviet GRU (the Russian-language abbreviation for “Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation”) had acquired a legendary status. It was part of the USSR’s “Special Purpose Forces,” earmarked to conduct both military and paramilitary operations, including partisan warfare, subversion, sabotage and assassinations. Further, such operations were to be carried out during periods of peace and war, as needed and directed by the highest state authority. Any invasion of Europe would certainly have been spearheaded by the GRU’s Spetsnaz commando units.

Throughout its more than 70-year history, the Soviet Union used unconventional forces and methods against its enemies. Those targeted included Czarists and other opponents during the Russian Civil War (1917-20), the Germans during World War II, and the resistance to Soviet domination of Eastern Europe after 1945, especially during the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Soviet special forces also led the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, during which they assassinated Afghan President Hafizullah Amin.

Within the overarching Directorate, the Soviets had a variety of elite forces for conducting unconventional warfare missions, including the KGB, as well as within all service branches of the regular military. All received training in infiltration and exfiltration; night operations; sabotage using explosives, incendiaries, acids and abrasives; clandestine communications; hand-to-hand combat; silent killing techniques; language and customs of target countries; surveillance, and the identification and location of new targets. All those unconventional units were managed directly from the highest level of the Soviet government.

In his books “Inside Soviet Military Intelligence,” “Aquarium: The Career and Defection of a Soviet Military Spy” and “Spetsnaz: The Inside Story of the Soviet Special Forces,” former GRU operative Vladimir Rezun (a.k.a. Viktor Suvorov) revealed all those tactics, technique and procedures. Training was intense, and punishment for betrayal or failure was severe. For example, he recounted how all new agents were made to watch a film showing a former operative, after having been convicted of some malfeasance deemed worthy of capital punishment, being slid slowly into a blazing incinerator while still alive.

Today the GRU is again in the news, and not only because its agents are involved in operations in Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Europe and the US. There have been several botched operations in Europe that generated much more publicity than the GRU would like.

According to reports coming out of Moscow, Russia's senior military leaders determined the GRU to be "deeply incompetent," after Western investigators identified its agents as being behind the attempted assassination of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, as well as a failed computer hack into the headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

That organization was, at the time, investigating the nerve agent attack on Skripal as well a chemical bombing attack in Douma, Syria, by Russian jets. The investigators identified the specific agents involved in the attack on Skripal. It was also determined the OPCW was hacked by agents of the GRU after tracing one of their mobile phones that had been carelessly activated near GRU headquarters in Moscow.

Of course, those running the Russian government are unhappy with the botched operations, the discovery of the identity of the agents involved, and the resultant international fallout. Recently, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu held a closed cabinet-level meeting to discuss those GRU blunders. During that discussion, in addition to the "deeply incompetent" quote above, he also described the GRU as having become "infinitely careless," “moronic," and consisting of people who “still wear the budenovka." (Those were the peaked caps worn by Bolshevik soldiers until the early 1920s; his meaning being the entire organization is badly outdated.)

Shoigu is supposedly calling for a "big sweep" within the GRU, including retiring most of its present leadership. Such a move, however, can’t take place without the approval of Vladimir Putin, who is himself a former KGB lieutenant colonel, and that approval is unlikely to be forthcoming.

A few names may disappear at the top of the GRU hierarchy, but the clandestine operations will continue. In fact, Western intelligence experts say the GRU is actually stepping up its covert activities, as tensions have continued to mount between Russia and the West since sanctions were first imposed on Moscow over its annexation of Crimea.

Putin’s personal priority remains the maintenance of a strong internal police, intelligence and paramilitary force in order to ensure the survival of his regime in the face of growing domestic opposition. So he has, in effect, given them nearly free reign, and is likely to continue to do so on that same account.

It’s also clear US and European intelligence services have begun a closer tracking the GRU. That probably means those organizations are building up a data base of GRU agents and institutions to strike if the times come to hit back. Reports indicate British intelligence services are, in particular, running exercises aimed at accomplishing just that.

Putin earlier believed his intelligence services were being clever in their operations. They’re weren’t, and their ever more clumsy failures have given impetus to a counter intelligence buildup in the West to counter them.

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