Labeling them as “Putin’s secret weapon,” Foreign Policy magazine describes Russia’s highly effective GRU Military Intelligence unit as “assassins, arms dealers, and bandits”:
There are two ways an espionage agency can prove its worth to the government it serves. Either it can be truly useful (think: locatinga most-wanted terrorist), or it can engender fear, dislike, and vilification from its rivals (think: being named a major threat in congressional testimony). But when a spy agency does both, its worth is beyond question.
Since the Ukraine crisis began, the Kremlin has few doubts about the importance of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence apparatus. The agency has not only demonstrated how the Kremlin can employ it as an important foreign-policy tool, by ripping a country apart with just a handful of agents and a lot of guns. The GRU has also shown the rest of the world how Russia expects to fight its future wars: with a mix of stealth, deniability, subversion, and surgical violence. Even as GRU-backed rebel groups in eastern Ukraine lose ground in the face of Kiev’s advancing forces, the geopolitical landscape has changed. The GRU is back in the global spook game and with a new playbook that will be a challenge for the West for years to come.
Recent years had not been kind to the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff, the Glavnoe razvedyvatelnoe upravlenie (GRU). Once, it had been arguably Russia’s largest intelligence agency, with self-contained stations — known as “residencies” — in embassies around the world, extensive networks of undercover agents, and nine brigades of special forces known as Spetsnaz.
By the start of 2013, the GRU was on the ropes. Since 1992, the agency had been in charge of operations in the post-Soviet countries, Russia’s “near abroad.” But Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have seen it as increasingly unfit for that purpose. When the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s domestic security agency, was allowed to run operations abroad openly in 2003, one insider told me that this was because “the GRU doesn’t seem to know how to do anything in our neighborhood except count tanks.” (It may not even have done that very well. Putin regarded the GRU as partly responsible for Russia’s lackluster performance in the 2008 invasion of Georgia.) There was a prevailing view in Moscow that the GRU’s focus on gung-ho “kinetic operations” like paramilitary hit squads seemed less relevant in an age of cyberwar and oil politics…
[continues at Foreign Policy]