Putin's Spies Can't Even Get Along With Each Other

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU, has been making headlines lately. Too many for this extremely secretive agency. The increased Western awareness of the GRU’s activities may be the result of inter-agency competition inside Russia, which President Vladimir Putin, who spent a large part of his working life on one of the competing sides, isn’t doing much to stop.

The GRU has been linked to the downing of Malaysian airliner, MH-17, destroyed by a Russian missile over eastern Ukraine four years ago: In May, an open-source investigation led by the Bellingcat blog unmasked one of the alleged organizers of the botched Russian operation in support of east Ukrainian separatists, GRU officer Oleg Ivannikov. The Russian investigative publication The Insider, which also helped Bellingcat with the Ivannikov case, tied GRU operatives to the failed coup in Montenegro in 2014. (One of the operatives actually put the agency’s address on a Western Union money transfer to a Serb accused by Montenegrin prosecutors of attempting to organize the coup.)

The New York Times recently reported that the GRU has become the focus of the U.K. investigation into the nerve agent poisonings on British soil, first of former GRU double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, and then a British couple who apparently came into contact with the substance left over from the Skripal attack. And then there’s Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment Friday of 12 GRU officers for hacking the U.S. Democratic Party and spearphishing Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

All these GRU operations are, to some extent, failures. Bringing down MH-17 wasn’t in the Russian plans — all the Kremlin wanted was to keep the Ukrainian air force away from its proxies in the country’s east. The coup in Montenegro was quashed, and the Balkan nation has since joined NATO, something Russia had long tried to prevent. The Skripals survived but a British woman who was not the target of the hit died. And Mueller’s indictment reveals the stunning extent of the U.S. government’s knowledge about what specific Russian officers did during the 2016 hacking campaign.

It is not surprising that of the three Russian intelligence agencies engaged in foreign operations — the GRU and the two ex-KGB services, the FSB and the SVR — it is the GRU that apparently has taken the lead in these risky adventures. Mark Galeotti, a British academic at the Institute of International Relations Prague, for whom the Russian intelligence services are a primary field of interest, told me via email that “When it comes to foreign operations, the GRU is larger than the FSB and more aggressive than the SVR, so it is in some ways not necessarily a surprise they are more in the news these days, now that the ‘shadow war’ is at a higher pitch.”

“The SVR is the most rules-oriented,” Galeotti says, “but to a large extent because most of its field officers are socially and functionally located within diplomatic communities and so they absorb similar norms. The GRU have an essentially military approach: complete the mission. The FSB is, in my opinion, most imbued by the essentially kleptocratic and rules-ignoring values of the domestic political elite, and they take that into their international operations.”

The three agencies all have their distinct operational cultures and styles that make for heated competition. The ultimate objective is to please Putin, who likes variety in his toolbox. The competitive environment could be the reason the GRU’s failures are on such public display.

The FSB reportedly knew of Bellingcat’s attempts to identify Ivannikov, the officer linked to the MH-17 case, and failed to tip him off, allowing the researchers to track down his phone number and call him. He picked up the phone and ended up being positively identified by his distinctive high-pitched voice.

In December 2017, The Bell, a Russian publication founded by Elizaveta Osetinskaya, an editor who has published some of the boldest and most accurate investigations into Putin regime corruption, published a piece suggesting FSB Colonel Sergei Mikhailov may have had something to do with revealing details of the DNC hack to the U.S. authorities. Mikhailov and several of his co-workers were arrested in late 2016 on treason charges. The Bell quoted anonymous sources as saying the GRU had been behind the arrests.

That story makes sense now that Mueller has indicted the alleged hackers. Though Crowdstrike, the cybersecurity firm hired by the Democrats, reported that two Russian hacker groups penetrated the DNC independently of each other, one supposedly linked to the GRU and the other to some other Russian intelligence service, the indictment only names GRU officers. There could, of course, be another hacking indictment in the works, but the latest one leaves little space for it, since it purports to track all the stolen documents from the fingertips of GRU hackers all the way to the outlets that published them, including WikiLeaks. If it was competing FSB hackers who revealed the GRU identities to the U.S., the focus would be easy to explain.

Putin may enjoy working with all three intelligence cultures — the correct and diplomatic SVR, the cunning and commercially-minded FSB and the forceful and risk-seeking GRU — but the rifts between them are likely to make the agencies vulnerable to adversaries. The GRU is the most exposed, its rivals happy to exploit flaws in its tradecraft to make its failures public. “The FSB has proven pretty good at ensuring it never gets blamed when things go wrong,” Galeotti says, recalling the Russian intelligence services’ inability to predict that former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych would fall in the 2014 Revolution of Dignity; the SVR took the blame then. “So it’s not impossible that they are also looking to slide out from any blame for the election hacking.”

Russia often looks and feels like a fearsome adversary to the West, but its establishment, including its intelligence community, isn’t monolithic enough to avoid embarrassing public failures — even if Western rivals are torn by their own political divisions.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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