It would seem on the surface that the GRU, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff–in other words, Russian military intelligence–is coming in for some flak for its operations in Ukraine. Kyiv has just outed and expelled a naval attache from the Russian embassy, Kirill Koliuchkin, as a lt. colonel in the GRU, while the GRU’s chief, Lt. General Igor Sergun, was on the latest EU sanctions list. Personally, I’d assume the ‘Aquarium’–the GRU’s headquarters at Khodinka–must be delighted. After all, this was a service whose very status as a Main Directorate was until recently in question.
Lest that sound like a trivial question of nomenclature, had the GRU become simply the RU, the General Staff’s Intelligence Directorate, it would have meant a massive diminution of the service’s prestige, access and, by extension, role and budget. As was, in 2009-11, it went through a savage round of cuts, losing over 1,000 officers, and of 100 or so general-rank officers in the GRU, fully 80 were dismissed, retired or transferred to other department. Meanwhile, of the eight Spetsnaz commando brigades, three were disbanded and the rest transferred again to regular military commands. As for the GRU’s “residencies”–the separate intelligence offices it ran inside Russian embassies abroad–some had been closed down, or reduced to a single officer working as a military attaché.
In part this reflected bureaucratic infighting, not least ground lost to the SVR (the Foreign Intelligence Service) and the FSB (the Federal Security Service, not least as it coveted some of the GRU’s electronic intelligence capacities). It was also a result of lacklustre performance during the 2008 Georgian War.
Ukraine may well change all that. Being “persecuted” by Kyiv and Europe is a mark of pride in Putin’s new Russia, and is as good as a medal. More to the point, it is clear that GRU operators, Spetsnaz, are active on the ground in eastern Ukraine, just as they were in Crimea, and they seem to be doing their nefarious job well. In this new age of asymmetric military-political conflict, such assets are a key strength of Russia’s regional power-projection capability; they are less valuable as straightforward war-fighters and much more so as covert operators and the facilitators of other deniable operations. Not only may the Ukraine conflict help stop–or at least bring a temporary ceasefire to–internecine struggles within the Russian security apparatus, it may well prove the saviour of the GRU in its current configuration.
This article was originally posted in In Moscow’s Shadows.