Inside the murky world of Russia's assassination squads
An elite intelligence agency has gained notoriety for its antics, including the poisoning of a former spy in the UK
Sergei Skripal was poisoned by agents of the same shadowy but buccaneering Russian intelligence agency he served in and betrayed decades ago, say British authorities.
Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, named as suspects in the attempted murder Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, UK, are agents of the GRU, the Russian ministry of defence’s elite intelligence and special forces arm, British Prime Minister Theresa May told the House of Commons.
Though there is barely any information available about the pair, they are almost certainly commissioned Russian military officers highly trained in covert operations, espionage and assassination.
Who are the GRU?
On paper, the GRU, or Main Intelligence Directorate, combines two roles – an intelligence branch, roughly the equivalent of Britain’s defence intelligence department, and the Spetsnaz brigades, the Russian version of the SAS and SBS.
But unlike the FSB and SVR, the domestic and overseas spy agencies that emerged from the breakup of the KGB, it has never been a civilian outfit.
And its bat-and-globe emblem embodies a military ethos that has put it at the spearhead of the Kremlin’s boldest and bloodiest covert operations of recent years.
“The GRU essentially thinks of itself as a war-fighting agency, and it combines covert intelligence work with special forces mindsets,” said Mark Galleotti, an expert on Russian intelligence agencies.
“That makes it more of a risk-taking organisation than its counterparts – it is more important for them to take a chance than worry about the risks.”
Recruitment to the agency is strictly via the armed forces, and those who get in are part of a handpicked elite.
“It is impossible to volunteer for the GRU; you can only be invited,” said Boris Volodarsky, a long-serving former GRU officer. The usual career route sees a promising commissioned officer recommended for selection by a superior. The candidate then goes before a vetting commission, and, if approved, is enrolled in the Frunze Military Academy in Moscow, where he will spend up to four years studying tradecraft before being joining the agency's intelligence arm.
They might then go on to serve as military attaché in foreign embassies, recruit spies to glean information from other countries’ military plans, or plan complex special operations.
Skripal was recruited into the agency after serving as a Soviet paratrooper officer in the 70s and 80s, and was posted to the military attachés’ officers at embassies in Malta and Spain, according to British and Russian media reports.
But he betrayed the agency when he was recruited to be a British double agent in the 90s – handing MI6 the names of dozens of key agents.
There is a slightly different career path for the Spetsnaz, which also come under the GRU umbrella.
Their work is elite war-fighting rather than intelligence, and soldiers go through gruelling training regimes similar to other special forces. They have been deeply involved in Russia’s semicovert military campaigns in Syria and Ukraine.
It is not clear which branch Petrov and Boshirov served in. But Volodarsky said it was the GRU intelligence branch, not the special forces commandos, who would be in charge of a delicate, nonbattlefield assassination against a target like Skripal.
“In any intelligence organisation there is a special directorate, one small department, that specialises in overseas special operations,” he said.
“The GRU is no different. There is a small department – about maybe 20 officers – who do this kind of thing.”
The GRU’s headline-grabbing antics in recent years have gained it a special level of notoriety.
In July, US officials named and charged 12 GRU officers with hacking into Democrat computers in a bid to sabotage the 2016 US presidential election. Its agents were also accused of a failed attempt to mount a coup in Montenegro in 2016.
More conventionally for a military agency, it has been deeply embroiled in Russia’s semi-covert wars in Ukraine and Syria.
What has not been explained is why Skripal was listed for assassination. One theory holds that it was purely in revenge for his treachery. Volodarsky said he was willing to believe that a Russian agency had used a nerve agent to kill Skripal, but said the official British account of the attack – including flying two agents in on Russian passports – was too crude to be believed.
“This is total bullshit. Who would run an operation like that? The answer is no one,” he said.
“It would take months of planning and quite a few people would be involved.
“Russian military intelligence goes back 100 or 200 years. We are talking about an organisation with some history and capability. They know what they are doing.”
– © The Daily Telegraph