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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 October 2018

Don't be fooled by the GRU's incompetence, Russia still knows what it's doing

After a string of mishaps, it's tempting to consider Putin's intelligence agency a spent force. However, we do so at our peril

The Russian agents identified as Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov walking caught on CCTV in the British city of Salisbury. AP
The Russian agents identified as Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov walking caught on CCTV in the British city of Salisbury. AP

Following the embarrassing revelations about the crass ineptitude of Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency, it is tempting to believe that the West and its allies no longer have anything to fear from Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The GRU, after all, is supposed to be the elite unit in Russia’s intelligence and security infrastructure, a paramilitary organisation whose role is to ensure the success of the Kremlin’s well-orchestrated campaign to undermine and erode the western alliance.

And yet, following the news about its recent operations in the English city of Salisbury, and a subsequent mission in Amsterdam, this once proud and highly effective organisation has suddenly become a global laughing stock.

The first suggestion that the GRU might not be all it’s cracked up to be came when British Prime Minister Theresa May last month provided chapter and verse on the GRU operation to assassinate the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal at his Salisbury home in March.

If this was supposed to be a top-secret operation, then the two GRU officers sent to conduct the mission messed up badly. Not only did they allow virtually every move they made to be captured on CCTV cameras, they have now suffered the ultimate ignominy of having their real identities revealed on the investigative website Bellingcat. Far from being two innocent Russian tourists interested in viewing Salisbury’s impressive 123-metre-high spire − which is how they justified their presence in the city on Russian television − they have now been exposed as senior GRU officers who have both received personal commendations from Mr Putin.

Then, to compound the GRU’s institutional embarrassment over its woeful performance in Salisbury, the Dutch authorities revealed details of another botched GRU operation, this time in Amsterdam, in which a team of GRU operatives had been dispatched to spy on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The British government had requested that the organisation conduct an independent assessment of the samples of novichok found in Salisbury during the failed attempt to assassinate Mr Skripal and his daughter Yulia as part of its effort to win global support for its campaign to hold the Kremlin to account for the outrage.

Desperate to discover just how much evidence the British had, the GRU attempted to break into the OPCW’s computers to see how much progress was being made. But their methods were decidedly amateur. They accessed a public wireless network in an attempt to discover the logons of OPCW staff, thereby making it easy to trace their activities. And their general conduct was so lacking in professionalism that all four GRU officers were caught red-handed, and their equipment confiscated before they were all unceremoniously thrown out of the country by the Dutch authorities.

There are conspiracy theorists I know who insist that the rank amateurism displayed by the GRU in Salisbury and Amsterdam was deliberate, and that the organisation was either leaving a trail of evidence on purpose to show its total disregard for the norms of western behaviour or to plant evidence that distracted investigators from other clandestine operations.

Personally, I find this hard to believe, not least because sensitive material recovered from the computers seized from the GRU team in the Netherlands revealed details of other GRU missions in Europe.

Nor, if reports in the Russian media are to be believed, is Mr Putin impressed by these arguments. On the contrary, the Russian leader is said to be planning a wholesale purge of the GRU’s ranks to return the organisation to the elite intelligence unit it once was.

Moreover, it is vital that we should not be lulled into a false sense of security as a result of the GRU’s incompetent conduct in Salisbury and Amsterdam. These incidents aside, the GRU has, in recent years, proved to be a highly effective force in helping to achieve the Kremlin’s objectives in hotspots reaching from the Crimea to the Middle East.

It was at the forefront of Mr Putin’s invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and continues to play an active role in maintaining the political instability in eastern Ukraine. Intelligence gleaned by the GRU in Syria has been central to the success of Russia’s effort to keep the Syrian dictator President Bashar Al Assad in power. In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the US-led coalition is becoming increasingly concerned about the sophisticated weapons-smuggling network the GRU has established to supply the Taliban, in the hope that this will frustrate the Trump administration’s diplomatic drive to end the long-running conflict.

Then there are this week’s reports that the Russians, buoyed by their achievements in Syria, are looking to extend their presence in the Middle East by establishing a foothold in war-torn Libya. With attempts to resolve the political stand-off between the rival parties stalled, the Russians have been trying to develop ties with local militias. For example, eyebrows were raised in western capitals earlier this year when Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army, was entertained aboard a Russian warship stationed off the Libyan coast.

Now there are intelligence reports that the Russians, with the help of the GRU, have established bases along the Libyan coast, from which they intend to threaten Nato’s southern flank.

Add to this the recent revelations of intelligence activity in the Balkans, where Moscow has been implicated in a plot to assassinate the pro-western prime minister of Montenegro, and it is clear that, despite its recent failures in England and the Netherlands, Russia’s elite intelligence agency remains a force to be reckoned with.

Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor