Russia's spies have left a trail of evidence leading directly to Moscow. Photo: iStock
Russia's spies have left a trail of evidence leading directly to Moscow. Photo: iStock

“More Johnny English than James Bond,” was how British Security Minister Ben Wallace branded the failed assassination of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal on British soil last March, for which UK authorities blame Russia’s military intelligence service the GRU, pronounced “Groo.”

Given that even Russian media as partisan as Sputnik are now conceding that the two suspects fingered by London are, indeed, GRU officers, the Skripal saga is starting to make the feared spy agency look farcical.

It is a major turnaround from the early days of the investigation. Then, British authorities pointed the finger, but failed to produce evidence. As a result, London’s version of events was roundly mocked by Russian ministers, spokespersons and media, which also produced a range of conspiracy theories.

Most asserted that Russia was blameless, that it was Western powers attempting to blacken Russia’s reputation.

Things look different now. Much more data has recently emerged that goes far beyond the Skripal case. It reveals malignant and, at times, sloppy GRU activities taking place around the globe – activities which would appear to extend well beyond the remit of a military intelligence organization.

With incompetence by Moscow operatives being revealed not only by Western counter-intelligence, but even by investigative websites using open-source data, some of which has now been confirmed by Russia media, the derision voiced by Russian officials and pro-Kremlin media is ringing increasingly false.

Agents’ IDs confirmed

The clumsiness of the two wannabe Skripal assassins, first identified as Ruslan Boshirov and Aleksandr Petrov, appears remarkable. Skripal, their target, survived the poisoning. An innocent bystander died accidentally. And the alleged perpetrators were caught by police cameras.

Russian authorities denied that the two suspects, whose images were released by the British government, were spies. “Of course, they are civilians,” announced no less a person than President Vladimir Putin – himself a former KGB officer – adding there was nothing “special or criminal” in their background.

Shortly after, Boshirov and Petrov appeared in an interview with pro-Kremlin TV channel RT. There, they denied any involvement in the attack, defining themselves as simple tourists who had visited the English town of Salisbury simply to enjoy its cathedral’s architecture.

However, their cover story was full of holes and their claims of innocence would soon be discredited. An investigation carried out by investigatory websites Bellingcat and The Insider named Boshirov and Petrov as, respectively, GRU Colonel Anatoly Chepiga and military doctor Aleksandr Mishkin.

Bellingcat reporters found pictures of a man strongly resembling “tourist” Boshirov in the archives of a Russian Far East military school that specialized in “foreign language training and clandestine operations.”

By cross-referencing passport data and using open sources databases, the reporters identified Boshirov as decorated GRU Colonel Anatoly Chepiga. Shortly after, the same investigative team uncovered the identity of Petrov, who reportedly is GRU military doctor Aleksandr Mishkin. A parallel investigation, conducted by The Daily Telegraph in London, reached the same conclusion.

Looking for confirmation of these findings, Insider reporters traveled to Loyga, a remote village in the northern Arkhangelsk Region where Mishkin was born. There, they found people confirming that the person appearing in photos released by British police and participating in the RT interview under the name of Aleksandr Petrov was in fact “local boy” Aleksandr Mishkin.

Russian spymasters must be kicking themselves, given the amount of data found by two open-source websites. And they must be kicking themselves twice, as related information was then confirmed by Russian media.

More witnesses were tracked down by Kommersant reporters in Beresovka, Chepiga’s home village, where a local woman identified “Boshirov” as her former classmate. Similar reports were published by The Washington Post and the BBC Russian Service.

According to Bellingcat sources, Mishkin and Chepiga  played an active role in secret military operations in Chechnya, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

Talking to Russian media Novaya Gazeta anonymously, Chepiga’s former comrades confirmed that the GRU colonel participated in operations leading to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, as well as in the special forces mission to rescue former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych the same year.

According to data retrieved by Bellingcat, Aleksandr Mishkin crossed Russia’s Ukraine border several times, as well as entering the self-proclaimed Transnistrian Republic between 2010 and 2013. As a reward for their deeds, both agents were allegedly awarded the “Hero of Russia” medal – Russia’s highest honorary title – as well as large apartments in Moscow.

What does the GRU do?

Created by Lenin during the Russian Civil War, the GRU, or Main Intelligence Directorate, is one of three major Russian intelligence agencies, together with the successors of the old KGB: The FSB – the Federal Security Service – and the SVR – the Foreign Intelligence Service.

Formally, the GRU was responsible for providing the Kremlin with vital military intelligence and guaranteeing Russia’s economic, political and military security. As part of the Russian military, the GRU answers to Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov and Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu.

The GRU’s role is essentially war fighting, hence it has played a prominent role in the “New Cold War” between Russia and the West: from coordinating a pro-Russia insurgency in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 to organizing an anti-NATO coup in Montenegro in 2016.

Experts say the agency makes frequent use of “illegal spies” with no diplomatic protection, who are assigned to deniable tasks around the globe. GRU operatives also have a reputation for recklessness.

According to Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s security services, the GRU is characterized by “a relatively aggressive, military mindset, where accomplishing the mission is more important than avoiding risk.”

The GRU’s ethos is exemplified in the assassination weapon used on Skripal for his treacherous collaboration with Western intelligence services: a weapons-grade nerve agent. The message is clear: No mercy for defectors. Putin has, himself, defined Skripal  as “a traitor of the Motherland.”

“Although it is unlikely that the president gave a direct order, his words were interpreted as a license to carry out this mission”, said Andrey Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Now, Putin has to cover up for those who are responsible.”

According to political journalist Oleg Kashin, the GRU mission in Salisbury could have been orchestrated by “deep state” factions in the Russian government who are profiting from Russia’s worsening relations with the West. “International isolation and conflict with the rest of the world can be profitable from both political and economic points of view,” he suggested.

The West fires back

If worsening relations with the West is the goal, the GRU has been producing excellent results.

On October 4, the Dutch Minister of Defense declared that four GRU spies had been caught attempting to hack the systems of the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The OPCW had conducted analyses of the nerve agent used to poison Skripal, as well as the chemical attack carried out in the outskirts on Damascus on April 7, for which the international community blames Russia-backed Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

Despite the GRU’s hardcore reputation, identifying the four spies was not, apparently, a difficult task for Dutch counter-intelligence. While the GRU is trained in cyber espionage, they left multiple footprints.

The Russians carried several telephones that were activated next to the publicly known GRU headquarters in Moscow. One of them even had receipts from the taxi which took them from the GRU offices to Moscow airport.

A confiscated laptop contained data related to various nefarious operations – only some of which would appear to fall within the GRU’s remit of military intelligence activities.

Records were found indicating that the Russians were involved in a secret operation in Kuala Lumpur, where they attempted to steal information on the downing of Malaysian airline Boeing MH17.

Their footprint was also found in Switzerland, where agents tried to hack the system of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which oversees Olympic athletes.

According to British and Dutch authorities, the four were part of a “clean up” operation aimed at fixing previous Russian mistakes. Britain’s ambassador to the Netherlands Peter Wilson said: “With its aggressive cyber campaigns, we see the GRU trying to clean up Russia’s own mess – be it the doping uncovered by WADA, or the nerve agent identified by the OPCW.”

“This attempt to access the secure systems of an international organization working to rid the world of chemical weapons demonstrates the GRU’s disregard for the global values and rules that keep us all safe,” said the Dutch and British heads of state in a joint statement.

Shortly thereafter, the US Justice Department joined the chorus of accusations with an indictment, identifying seven alleged GRU agents, who participated in 2016 election meddling as well as in various cyberattacks against WADA, USADA (the US Anti-Doping Association), FIFA and the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport.

According to US authorities, the Russians intentionally aimed at “undermining the efforts of these organizations in guaranteeing fairness of the Olympics and other games.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s combative spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, defined the latest allegations as “spy-mania” and accused Britain of turning GRU stories into “a hellish perfume mix” – referring to the perfume bottle allegedly containing the nerve agent used to poison Skripal.

“The imagination of our British colleagues know no boundaries,” she snarled. And Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denied that a “Hero of Russia” award was ever bestowed upon an individual named Anatoly Chepiga.

Pro-Kremlin media also lashed out at the investigations. Politekspert and the Federal News Agency accused Bellingcat of publishing fake news. And Lev Korolkov, an SVR veteran, told Komsmolskaya Pravda that two “Heroes of Russia” would never risk getting their hands dirty on a poisoning mission.

“It is absolute nonsense … the reputation of the country would be at risk,” he said.

But despite official denials, the latest revelations about GRU activities dent the reputation of Russian spycraft – even more so, given that the GRU’s failed mission in the Netherlands led to the uncovering of more than 300 potential military agents, identified by The Insider and Bellingcat using publicly available car-registration databases.

According to Bellingat, this could be “one of the largest mass breaches of personal data of an intelligence service in recent history.”

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