Russian unit attempting to destabilize Europe – Security officials

Intelligence officials from four Western countries said that it's unclear how often the unit is mobilized, adding that it's impossible to know when and where it will strike.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (photo credit: REUTERS/MAXIM SHEMETOV)
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Western security officials believe that an elite Russian intelligence unit is carrying out a campaign throughout Europe in an attempt to destabilize the continent, according to The New York Times.
A destabilization campaign in Moldova, the poisoning of a Bulgarian arms dealer, a thwarted coup in Montenegro and an attempt to assassinate a former Russian spy in Britain with a nerve agent were originally seen as isolated incidents, but are now being attributed to Russia's intelligence services.
Unit 29155 has been operating for at least ten years, but has only recently been discovered. Intelligence officials from four Western countries said that it's unclear how often the unit is mobilized, adding that it's impossible to know when and where it will strike, the Times reported.
"I think we had forgotten how organically ruthless the Russians could be," said Peter Zwack, a retired military intelligence officer and former defense attache at the US Embassy in Moscow.
The Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to requests for comment by the Times.
Unit 29155 is part of the Russian military intelligence agency, known as GRU. American officials say that two GRU cyber units hacked into the servers of the Democratic National Committee and Hilary Clinton's campaign, and published embarrassing internal communications before the 2016 presidential election.
Officers from Unit 29155 are decorated veterans from Russian wars, including in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Ukraine. They travel to and from European countries, unlike the cyber units that operate within Moscow. According to assessments by Western intelligence services, the unit is most likely unknown even to other GRU operatives.
"This is a unit of the GRU that has been active over the years across Europe," said one European security official on condition of anonymity to The New York Times. "It’s been a surprise that the Russians, the GRU, this unit, have felt free to go ahead and carry out this extreme malign activity in friendly countries; that’s been a shock."
The operations linked to the unit have all attracted some level of public attention, although it took time for officials to realize that they were connected.
The unit was first identified after a failed coup in Montenegro in 2016 which involved a plot by two of the unit's officers to kill the prime minister and seize the Parliament building.
The unit's specific mission to cause disruption was only understood after Sergei Skripal, a former GRU officer who betrayed Russia by spying for the British, was exposed to a highly toxic nerve agent last year in Salisbury, England. Two men were charged with transporting the nerve agent to Skripal's house and smearing it on his front door.
Over 150 Russian diplomats were expelled from over 20 countries in a show of solidarity with Britain.
A year before the poisoning, three unit operatives traveled to Britain for what may have been a practice run. Two of them were part of a team that attempted to poison the Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev in 2015. Two attempts were made to kill Gebrev.
"You can see there is a concerted program of activity – and yes, it does often involve the same people," said Alex Younger, the chief of MI6, Britain's foreign intelligence service, at the Munich Security Conference in February. Younger specifically pointed out the Skripal poisoning and the Montenegro coup.
"We assess there is a standing threat from the GRU and the other Russian intelligence services and that very little is off limits," added the MI6 chief, according to the Times.
In a November ceremony for the GRU's centenary, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin described the agency as "legendary."
"Unfortunately, the potential for conflict is on the rise in the world,” said Putin. “Provocations and outright lies are being used and attempts are being made to disrupt strategic parity.”
Other Russian groups also carry out operations similar to those conducted by Unit 29155. British authorities have attributed the killing of former Russian spy Aleksander V. Litvinenko to the Federal Security Service, a intelligence service once headed by Putin.
The Russian Defense Ministry assigned bonuses to three units for "special achievements in military service," in a 2012 directive; Unit 29155 was one of those units. The other two units that received bonuses were Unit 74455, which was involved in the 2016 election interference, and Unit 99450, whose officers are believed to have been part of the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
A retired GRU officer said that Unit 29155 specialized in preparing for "diversionary" missions, "in groups or individually – bombings, murders, anything," according to the newspaper.
"They were serious guys who served there,” said the retired officer. “They were officers who worked undercover and as international agents.”
European security officials are confused about the apparent sloppiness in the unit's operations, as both Skripal and Gebrev survived the assassination attempts. The coup in Montenegro failed as well. One possibility is that they have yet to discover other, more successful operation, said security officials. The sloppiness might even be part of the missions' point.
Two Russian intelligence officers and two opposition politicians were among 13 people sentenced last week over a 2016 election day plot aimed at toppling Montenegro's government, killing the prime minister and bringing a pro-Russian alliance to power.
Moscow has repeatedly dismissed accusations about its role as absurd, and all of the accused have denied wrongdoing.
The verdict said that one of the aims of the coup attempt was to prevent Montenegro, which became independent in 2006 after splitting from Serbia, from joining NATO. Montenegro also wants to join the European Union.
“That kind of intelligence operation has become part of the psychological warfare,” said Eerik-Niiles Kross, a former intelligence chief in Estonia. “It’s not that they have become that much more aggressive. They want to be felt; it’s part of the game.”
Reuters contributed to this report.