Intelligence: Whack-A-Mole In Germany


March 16, 2023: At the end of 2022 Germany arrested a 53-year old former soldier who currently held a senior position in the BND (Federal Intelligence Service). The interrogation of the prisoner has confirmed he was spying for Russia and this led to the arrest of the Russian courier who took classified information to Russia while bringing the BMD mole (a spy working for a foreign intelligence agency) his cash compensation. The Germans fear there are more such moles. There were a lot of them during the Cold War and most of those were arrested after 1991, or surrendered voluntarily. Not all the cold war era moles were identified and Russia revived its espionage program in the 1990s, even before former KGB officer Vladimir Putin took power in Russia. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Putin was a KGB officer in East (communist) Germany. He spoke German and apparently knew about the West German mole network and sleeper agents operating in the West.

Even before the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, there were problems with Russian sleeper agents, also known as “illegals”. During the last decade Russia has activated more of these sleeper agents and used them for a variety of tasks besides espionage. Since the Russians invaded Ukraine, more sleepers have been activated to gather information on NATO efforts to supply the Ukrainian war effort. These sleepers are trained to do this discreetly but some used commercial quad-copters too frequently and attracted unwanted attention. European counter-intelligence agencies have prepared profiles of likely sleepers and that has made it easier to detect and arrest sleepers even if they have not been activated.

As a result of all this activity NATO governments, often the post-Cold War ones in East Europe have increasingly gone public with details of Russian espionage operations, especially the use of assassination of those Russia considers traitors or simply enemies of the state. There has been more of that since the Ukraine invasion and more Russians have fled their homeland.

One news story about the sleeper program did more than just report on the problem. A 2019 French newspaper article described the Russian GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) “Unit 29155” that had recently been operating from a secret logistics base in France near the Swiss border. From there at least fifteen GRU undercover agents engaged in espionage, sabotage and assassination operations. Also described was a joint British, Swiss, French and American intelligence operation to track down details of Unit 29155 and what it was doing between 2014 and 2018. The Unit 29155 base was apparently moved around Western Europe frequently to avoid detection and concentrate efforts on specific tasks.

One of these was assassination, including attempts on the life of Sergei Skripal in Britain early in 2018. This incident did make the news, mainly because the GRU agents used a form of nerve gas called novichok. That incident caused an international uproar. In mid-August 2018 the U.S. imposed its first round of new sanctions on Russia for its March 2018 use of nerve gas in Britain. The details of this use of Russian nerve gas had been confirmed. British investigators identified the Russians who were involved with the use of nerve gas to try and attempt to murder Sergei Skripal, a former Soviet intelligence officer who worked for Britain as a double agent.

In response to the March 2018 incident, Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats suspected of being intelligence agents and Russia responded by expelling 23 British diplomats. More nations said they would expel Russian diplomats and after the June confirmation that it was Russian novichok, the U.S. ordered into effect a series of additional sanctions on Russia. These could be limited if Russia admitted it used novichok and provided assurances it would never do so again with any banned weapons. Russia said it will do neither and denied any involvement.

This assassination effort was nothing new for Russia. Skripal was still working for British intelligence when he was arrested in Russia at the end of 2004 and prosecuted for espionage. He was sent to prison in 2006 but got out in 2010 when Russia agreed to use him as one of the three imprisoned spies exchanged to get back several Russian illegals who were caught in the United States. Russia was reluctant to part with Skripal, who had apparently done enormous damage to Russian overseas spying efforts. But they wanted their imprisoned agents in the U.S. back. This was not the first time Russia had gone after people like Skripal in Britain. This sort of thing has happened elsewhere in Europe before and after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Russia insists that it does not do this and has been saying that since the Soviets started hunting down and killing “traitors” overseas back in the 1930s.

What was not revealed at that time was the joint investigation of Unit 29155 and how many of the growing number of Russian espionage efforts in Europe could be traced to it and similar GRU or KGB operations in East Europe. The Russians have been quite active in Serbia and Bulgaria where local intel agencies have more experience with Russian methods. That’s because until the 1980s Bulgaria was ruled by a Russia-backed communist government that had close ties to the KGB and GRU. It was these former communist states in East Europe that were the first to detect and warn their NATO allies of the resumption of major Russian espionage efforts. Even journalists in East Europe were able to identify some Russian agents on their own.

Decades of Russian-imposed communist rule in East Europe left bitter memories of how ruthless the Russian espionage services could be, and many victims are still alive to provide personal testimony. Western Europeans, except those in East Germany, did not experience this and were slow to accept the fact that the Russians were back, since the late 1990s, at their Cold War espionage efforts. That attitude is changing as more details of recent Russian efforts are made public.

For example, in late 2012 Germany revealed it was prosecuting two Russians (a married couple) who were arrested in 2011 on suspicion of espionage. Russia insisted that the two Russians were not active Russian agents, but retired Cold War era spies. Germany accused the couple of recruiting and using a local spy three times between 2008 and 2011. When the police came to arrest the couple, the woman was found listening to coded messages. There was apparently much more evidence as well that the couple was spying.

The two 51-year-old Russians were sent to Germany (via Austria using false Austrian IDs) in 1988, to serve as "sleepers", agents that spend most of their time doing nothing until activated from time-to-time for some simple, but essential, mission. While Germany let a lot of its own Soviet era spies off easy, there is still a lot of animosity towards Russian spies. That's because Russia is still very much involved with espionage. In Germany that means stealing economic secrets, which hurts the German economy. The Germans are not in a forgiving mood because of this Russian aggression.

Germany believes that this couple are but two of many other Cold War sleeper agents that Russia, or someone, is reactivating. Prosecuting these two included attempts to get them to reveal details of how the sleeper program operates. This would help the Germans track down other sleepers and get an idea of how many of them are out there. These two sleepers were apparently not very cooperative.

Some details of the sleeper operation were gathered from the investigation of so many sleepers. Many, if not all, the sleepers were cut loose in the 1990s, as the KGB back home was reorganized and saw its budget cut sharply. But after 2000 the FSB (the rebranded and reorganized domestic operations branch of the KGB) and SVR (foreign operations of the KGB) revived a lot of Cold War era operations. In large part that's because KGB men hold many senior jobs in the Russian government. The president of Russia for most of the last decade, Vladimir Putin, was a career KGB man. The SVR and GRU got more money to operate in foreign lands.

There are two foreign intelligence services: SVR and GRU. The first one is the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. It is the former First Chief Directorate of the Soviet era KGB, which has managed most foreign intelligence operations for decades. Its activities are well known throughout the world.

The second one is the GRU, Russian military intelligence. It is a part of the Defense Ministry. Its full name is much longer, as in “The Chief Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Army”. GRU has retained its Soviet era name and just about everything else. GRU is seen as a living relic of Soviet times. That is why GRU is so much more secretive than the "Westernized" SVR. GRU officers are considered more patriotic (and old school) than those of the SVR. During the Cold War there were fewer GRU defectors, which is still a point of pride in Russia. GRU prefers to stay in the shadows, which makes the exposure of Unit 29155 activities all the more unusual. Westerners have not written many books about the GRU, compared to the KGB. This is largely because GRU keeps its secrets better and, in the West, is considered an obscure part of Russian intelligence. It's possible that the GRU activated these sleepers but the Germans did not go public with a lot of information. The Germans shared their information with the clandestine investigation of Unit 29155 only with other Western intelligence agencies.

Both GRU and SVR perform the same functions: Political Intelligence, Scientific and Technical Intelligence (industrial espionage), and Illegal Intelligence. Because of this the two agencies have a very real rivalry going.

There was, and remains, one area where only the SVR (and its predecessor, the KGB) participates, running counter-intelligence abroad. This was long a KGB monopoly because it was the KGB's job to make sure the armed forces remained loyal, while GRU was and is very much a part of the armed forces.

When GRU officers are working abroad, they are monitored by Directorate “K” (counter-intelligence) of the SVR. Those who serve inside Russia are watched by the Directorate of Military Counter-Intelligence (The Third Directorate) of the FSB (Federal Security Service, inheritor to the KGB). Interestingly, in the Soviet period, it was also called the Third Directorate. It is not a coincidence but a continuation of the Soviet tradition. The Third Directorate of the FSB is still assigned to monitor the Defense Ministry, of which the GRU is a part. The head of GRU does not even report directly to the Russian president. GRU reports have to go through the Head of the General Staff and the defense minister before reaching the top man. GRU is very much number two in the Russian foreign intelligence business. As such they tend to try harder and consider themselves more elite than those pampered wimps over at SVR.

On the other hand, there also is one function monopolized by the GRU: battlefield intelligence and NATO countries are, and always have been, considered potential battlefields. Battlefield intelligence is run in peacetime as well. For example, in preparation for future wars, the GRU sets up illegal weapons and ammunition dumps in the territory of many foreign countries. This is a risky operation. It usually involves groups of junior Russian diplomats secretly going into rural areas to bury rifles, machine-guns, and other weapons. They have to do this discreetly and in a hurry, to avoid detection by the local counterintelligence service. It is considered a hard job.

Western analysts regard the GRU as the most closed Russian intelligence service partly because it does not even manage its own press relations. That's because GRU is one of many components of the Defense Ministry and is not eligible to have its own press relations staff. The FSB and SVR are higher up in the government pecking order and entitled to their own press relations operations. Formally, GRU is nothing but one of the numerous Chief Directorates of the General Staff of the Defense Ministry. It does not even report directly to the Minister of Defense. That is why those foreign journalists who have questions about GRU must address them to the Press Service of the Russian Defense Ministry. The questions are often handled by some press aide who knows little about intelligence work, while FSB and SVR press people are very well informed. Foreign journalists tend to seek out the SVR press department when seeking information on Russian intel operations.

During the Second World War GRU worked in close contact with the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB. For example, in March 1941, both intelligence services jointly carried out a successful operation aimed at overthrowing the pro-German government of Yugoslavia. During the entire war, GRU and NKVD managed a joint network of foreign agents in Europe. The current system of two separate intelligence services competing with each other only came about in the 1950s, after Stalin’s death. It was done by the Central Committee of the Communist Party in order to protect itself from a coup inspired by either intelligence service. As a result, the GRU not only competes with the SVR, but it is also supposed to keep an eye on the SVR for signs of disloyalty.

In Soviet times, although the GRU was monitored by the KGB, both organizations reported to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. In case of emergency, the Central Committee could control the KGB using the GRU. The communists believed it best that someone guards the guards. Nowadays, GRU does not monitor the SVR anymore. GRU, the military, and the rest of Russia are all subordinate to the FSB/SVR.

SVR has more money and resources. It's long been like that, and the GRU has developed a tradition of getting by on very little. GRU methods are considered more aggressive and crude than those of the SVR. GRU operatives tend to think they are at war even during peacetime. The SVR assigns its officers to do some jobs in the form of tasks, not detailed orders. The task is not supposed to be necessarily accomplished, while the order is to be carried out by all means. The GRU prefers ordering and expects results no matter what.

In the GRU nobody cares how their officers obtain secret information, like parts of missiles and other weapons. They may buy it legally or semi-legally or even steal it. One enterprising GRU agent in the 1970’s shipped a stolen Sidewinder air-to-air missile from West Germany to Moscow via United Airlines air freight. The SVR officers are not allowed to do so. They are supposed to use foreign collaborators for it. In the GRU you just go get it. That’s why tracking Unit 29155 was such a big deal. These are all reasons why Unit 29155 is still active.




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