The unmasking of GRU agents will intensify inter-agency battles between Russian intelligence services, and may stoke yet more conflict with foreign states
Western and independent journalists’ exposing of Russian agents present in Salisbury was a shock for the Russian government, even in a period of renewed international scrutiny of its intelligence services. The biggest lapse on the part of Russia’s services since the end of the cold war will change how the Kremlin organises them. The key question now is how it will: set about improving the effectiveness of the military intelligence service – the “GRU”; protect its serving operatives; and avert future failures. Speculation about the government disbanding the GRU, meting out severe punishment, or sacking its top brass is misguided: instead, it is likely to take steps to actually strengthen military intelligence.
In the first instance, some personnel changes are indeed likely. Rumours have raced around Telegram that GRU chief Igor Korobov may be replaced, potentially by his first deputy Igor Kostukov. But, whatever happens, the GRU itself will still benefit from Vladimir Putin’s firm support. (Incidentally, the GRU no longer exists as such, although Western media remain prone to use the term.)
More importantly, the GRU’s troubles have provoked new struggles within and between the Russian intelligence agencies. Each is seeking to gain advantage from the situation and to ensure the blame falls on other services. The SVR – the Foreign Intelligence Service – has pointed to the lack of professionalism at the GRU and sought to regain responsibility for political intelligence. KGB successor, the FSB, meanwhile, may revisit its old dream of merging the SVR into itself. Indeed, some Western media have suggested that an SVR agent could have leaked the details of the Salisbury operation to Britain. The FSB may use this to reinforce its own version of this story: that the unmasking of Russian agents represents betrayal of one service by another. The Novaya Gazeta newspaper recently published leaked information claiming to show that SVR chief Sergey Naryshkin’s family possess Hungarian residence permits and property there. This instantly weakened Naryshkin’s position, giving reason to suspect that the GRU’s desire for revenge lay behind the disclosure. Even if untrue, the situation is surely highly fraught.
The Russian government will not now become more cautious or oblige the intelligence services to be less indiscriminate in their activity
The Kremlin considered merging the SVR and the FSB in 2016, but put the idea aside once Putin appointed Naryshkin – then speaker of the Duma – as head of the SVR. It resurfaced, however, at the beginning of 2018, when the expectation began to grow again that deep structural changes to Russia’s state apparatus were imminent. The FSB tried once more to advance its idea of enlarging itself by swallowing up others. The eventual lack of change is likely due to former Presidential Administration chief Sergey Ivanov, who is still a key figure in Putin’s inner circle. In any case, the trials and tribulations of other services have given the FSB new arguments in the furtherance of its own interest.
In Putin’s eyes the chemical attack on Sergei Skripal is an example of “the fuss between security services” which “did not start yesterday”, as he said during a controversial and emotional speech at Russian Energy Forum. But The Economist has shared the Western security services view over the case, namely that Salisbury was “a step too far”. “Russia has broken an unwritten rule of the spying game by using intelligence for offensive purposes”, the newspaper quotes Sergei Boeke of the Institute of Security and Global Affairs as saying.
The Kremlin thinks differently: it is the West that has been breaking the rules by its overreaction to what was a routine operation, even if the operation happened to get out of control. A principal claim levelled against Russia is that it is not only engaged in spying but is also out to weaken Western democracy and political legitimacy – in contrast to how American, French, or even Chinese secret services behave. But to the Kremlin the world looks completely different: Putin believes that after the collapse of the USSR the United States continued to try to undermine Russia, and indeed redoubled its efforts in this direction after his regime emerged. Western actions led to conflict in the post-Soviet space, including in Georgia and in the Ukraine crisis. The Kremlin also strongly believes that Washington directs all other Western countries in its anti-Russian efforts, laying the ground to destroy Putin’s regime and the country itself. The Russian president has, on countless occasions, accused the West of attempting to interfere with Russia’s political system and elections in general through building a network of Western influence inside Russia. Oligarchs, pro-Western opposition, and NGOs form key links in this network.
As a result, whatever the misdeeds or mishaps of the GRU, Moscow views the post-Salisbury fallout as something the West has whipped up as part of its ongoing war against Russia. State media share messages which give an indicate of the Kremlin’s thinking in this direction, referring to “Western hysterics”.
So what will this mean for Russia’s intelligence agencies and their activities both at home and overseas? For one thing, the result will not be a Russian government that becomes more cautious or obliges the intelligence services to be less indiscriminate in their actions. Nor indeed will the services dial down their cyber-espionage or information warfare; the ‘à la guerre comme à la guerre’ approach to the West remains intact.
Instead, the government may adapt the tools it already has in order to deal with the challenge it believes it faces. The firm bond between political civil authorities and secret services is one such tool, and this relationship will now only strengthen, not weaken. The Security Council in turn will play a key role in this hardening: the conservative and anti-Western secret services influence on the council will make itself felt through the council’s role in both day-to-day and strategic political decision-making. Services’ desire to retaliate see them carry out some unmasking of their own, potentially of Western agents working in Russia, with a view to reminding the world that imperfections exist among services of all countries.
Russia may also now try to play the ongoing information wars more openly, establishing media more clearly directly linked to Russia itself, including new internet outlets and information agencies. It may also seek to work more intensively with social and political forces opposed to traditional elites and lacking faith in political institutions. The Kremlin will become less reticent about involving itself in information battles and using freedom of speech – a key achievement of democracy – as way in which to carry out “hybrid” intrusion.
Unfortunately, the information warfare already playing out across the globe now has a rocket-booster under it: confrontation between Russian secret services. For Russia it is counter-offensive time, no matter who broke the rules first.
Tatiana Stanovaya is the founder and CEO of the political analysis firm R. Politik: Reality of Russian Politics. This commentary is prepared on her previous work with the firm.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.