What is the GRU of the Russian Armed Forces?

The Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces (GRU) is the Russian military intelligence service. It was started in the Soviet Union, and its purpose is to gather important information and carry out cyber-attacks, destabilization moves, and covert and direct operations abroad.

What is the GRU of the Russian Armed Forces?
Official GRU flag. Source: Russian Ministry of Defense. Credit: Wikipedia

The Russian military intelligence service is called the Main Directorate of the High General Staff of the Armed Forces (GRU). It used to be called the Central Intelligence Department. Its job is to gather important information and run offensive operations in other countries. These could include cyberattacks, moves that cause instability, covert operations, and direct action by special forces. The GRU's work has made it well-known in the West, but the fact that it works with the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) sometimes makes it hard for it to do its job.

The GRU: The Russian Central Intelligence Agency

Unlike the other Russian intelligence services, the GRU is not descended from the Soviet KGB. Its first direct precedent was founded in 1918 within the Red Army, with Vladimir Lenin in power, and during the Cold War, it operated in parallel and even in competition with the KGB.

After the fall of the USSR and the end of its main intelligence agency, the GRU was re-established in Russia in 1992, but it kept doing what it did before. Unlike the FSB and SVR, the agency answers to the chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces and not directly to the president.

The GRU is in charge of gathering intelligence on both military and economic and technical matters. For example, getting information about technology that Russia can't use because of restrictions on exports or doesn't have the skills to make. To do this, it sends agents to embassies, sends military attachés, or sends agents to work undercover. But it is also responsible for offensive operations abroad.

GRU Cyberattacks, Covert Operations, and Destabilization Maneuvers: The Case of Montenegro

On the one hand, there are cyberattacks. Unit 26165, which is linked to hacker groups like Fancy Bear or APT 28, is said to be behind these attacks, which are meant to sway elections or spread false information. According to the US Congress, the unit is behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee's servers in 2016. It has also been accused of hacking the emails of at least three 2018 midterm election campaigns. Even in the sports world, there have been rumors, and it looks like someone tried to hack the World Anti-Doping Agency in Switzerland.

Unit 29155 is also said to be used by the GRU for secret operations. Some of these operations may be "sensitive" like the poisoning of a former Russian spy and double agent Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the UK in 2018. The unit would also be involved in moves meant to make things worse in Europe.

For example, Montenegro has said that Russia was involved in the failed coup in 2016, and Spain's National Audience has opened an investigation into the unit's role in the Catalonia coup. Bellingcat, a research group, says that the GRU gave weapons to the people who are thought to have shot down the Malaysia Airlines plane in Ukraine in 2014.

Spetsnaz, or special forces, are also used by the agency as a way to take direct action. It got involved in the conflict in Georgia in 2008, the war in Syria, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and now the war in Ukraine. Special forces have been used to capture strategic targets, like in Crimea, or to control armed groups, like in Syria and the Donbas region of Ukraine. However, they were suspended from the portfolio in GRU between 2010 and 2013 for their mistakes in Georgia.

The agencies are also competing with each other and making it harder for each other to do their jobs because their jobs overlap. For example, the GRU tried to find information that could be used against then-French President Francois Hollande, which was more of an FSB or SVR job. The plan was found out, and Colonel Viktor Ilyushin was kicked out of France in 2014. The GRU and SVR also collect economic intelligence through their staff at embassies. At times, both services have tried to stop the other from getting information by bribing economic affairs staff.

Sources: EOM