Theresa May found clear words. The attack on Sergei Skripal was not a self-planned act of criminals, said the then British Prime Minister in the spring of 2018 in Parliament. For May was clear: "He was almost certainly approved at high Russian level."
In March last year, the ex-spy Skripal and his daughter Julia were seriously injured in the southern English city of Salisbury by the nerve poison Nowitschok. They just survived. A Briton who later came in contact with the warfare agent died. It took almost a year for Skripal's house and eleven other places in Salisbury to be cleansed of the remnants of the poison.
Intelligence agencies in the West accuse the Russian government of causing the attack in retaliation for Skripal's activity as a double agent. The British government blames two agents of the Russian military intelligence service GRU. The case triggered a diplomatic crisis. Several countries, including Germany and the United States, were in solidarity with Great Britain, evicting dozens of Russian diplomats.
The "New York Times" now reports that behind the attack on Skripal should be an elite force of the GRU: The so-called unit 29155 operate for at least a decade, but security agencies in the West have recently become aware of them, the newspaper said, citing unnamed "intelligence agents in four western countries". The troupe is therefore one on "subversion, sabotage and assassination" specialized elite unit.
Hacks, attacks, coup attempts
The attack on Skripal is one of the more sensational cases in recent years, for which Western governments and security agencies blame Russia's military intelligence. But he is - by far - not the only one:
- According to special investigator Robert Mueller, intelligence played an important role in influencing Russia's US presidential election campaign in 2016. In his report on the Russian affair, Mueller's team minutely describes how GRU hackers eulogized Hillary Clinton's campaign team and those from Democratic headquarters stole it - and then made it public via its own websites and the WikiLeaks disclosure platform.
- Russia's military intelligence service should also be behind other cyberattacks. For example, the federal government blames the GRU for the Bundestag hack in 2015. At the end of 2018, the US sued seven Russian military intelligence agents for cyberattacks against the World Anti-Doping Agency Wada . And Dutch authorities reportedly caught GRU agents trying to hack into the computer network of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) from Den Hague hotel parking lot. The four men who had entered with diplomatic passports were expelled from the country.
- In Montenegro , 14 people were found guilty last May, which the judges believed were involved in a coup attempt in the 2016 election year. The goal of the Umstürzler therefore: to prevent NATO accession of the small Balkan state. Among the convicts were domestic politicians and two alleged Russian agents. The fact that they will be sentenced to prison terms of twelve and fifteen, respectively, is virtually eliminated: the two defendants and those convicted in absentia should be back in Russia.
- According to research by the Bellingcat and BBC investigative platform, a third Russian was involved in the attack on Skripal: a GRU major general named Denis Sergeyev. He had traveled to Great Britain two days before the act under the code name Sergei Fedotov and coordinated it. It may not have been Sergeyev's first involvement in such an attack: according to Bellingcat, in 2015 he allegedly participated in an attack on the Bulgarian arms manufacturer Emilian Gebrew. This collapsed in April 2015 with severe symptoms of intoxication and fell into a coma. According to Bellingcat, the GRU man Sergeyev had recently flown from Moscow to Sofia.
Nikolay Doychinov / AFP
Armament manufacturer Gebrew: Operation in Bulgaria?
While governments and security agencies in Europe and the US have published more and more information about hacker collectives behind Russia's military intelligence service in recent years, the role of unit 29155 has remained largely unnoticed by Western intelligence services.
Russian media had already reported on the existence of the unit in the past. According to the New York Times, their "purpose" had not been previously reported.
While the NYT statement said: "This is not the first time anyone has heard of the GRU activities. As always, Russian journalists reported on this first. pic.twitter.com/fK88UI1CvC- Aric Toler (@AricToler) October 8, 2019
One of Russia's most prominently investigative journalists, Sergey Kanev, says there is nothing super-secret about unit 29155 of GRU which NYT reported on yesterday. When you google, the unit's address and commander's name pop up on numerous yellow pages type sites. pic.twitter.com/2WuGOQnjqH- Leonid Ragozin (@leonidragozin) 9 October 2019
Their activities, according to Western security circles, are part of a "coordinated and ongoing campaign to destabilize Europe," the report said. At least four operations are therefore on the account of the unit: In addition to the attack on Skripal in Britain, the poisoning of Grebew in Bulgaria and the attempted coup in Montenegro should also include a - not described - "destabilization campaign" in the Republic of Moldova.
Relatives of Unit 29155, according to the report, are traveling to and from European countries. Some of them were decorated veterans of the wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Ukraine. General Andrej W. Awerijanov is to stand at the head. A photo, which is the "New York Times" is to show him at the wedding of his daughter - together with Anatolij Tschepiga, one of the suspects in the case Skripal.
"The hand, not the brain"
Intelligence expert Mark Galeotti of the Royal United Services Institute, a security think tank in London, finds it unlikely that unit 29155 is a kind of strategic hub. "It's the hand, not the brain," says Galeotti to SPIEGEL. The members of the unit are rather "heavy boys" who are sent out "if someone is to be killed or something blown up". A smart unit that - as suggested in the "Times" article - comprehensively and strategically pursues the destabilization of Europe, he could not recognize.
The GRU is seen by western security circles as a tool for Russia's hybrid warfare in Europe: a combination of propaganda, disinformation, cyber attacks and military confrontation. He is not the only Russian secret service to be assassinated abroad. For example, the national secret service FSB is considered the author of the murder of the defector Alexander Litvinenko 2006 in London.
According to Galeotti, however, the operations of the two services abroad differ fundamentally. The idea that the FSB has of Russia's internal security does not stop at the borders of Russia. Therefore, the domestic intelligence service also operates abroad. "For example, I would not be surprised if the murder was recently an FSB operation in Berlin, because they sometimes want Chechnya," says Galeotti. (Read more about the case here.) Nevertheless, the primary concern of the FSB is the internal security that they are first and foremost "political policemen".
It is different with the GRU. He was more aggressive and military. Operations abroad are part of his core competence.