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Military Intelligence After Skripal: Roman Dobrokhotov on Russia's Failing GRU Unit
5 August, 2019
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More than a year has passed since the poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, but the topic hardly ever escapes the headlines thanks to Russia's continuous denial of involvement in the incident. Earlier this summer, Hromadske spoke with Roman Dobrokhotov, the chief editor of the investigative site The Insider to learn more about the alleged perpetrators of the attack.

Sweating in an interview with RT, “Alexander Petrov” (Mishkin) and “Ruslan Boshirov” (Anatoliy Chepiga) detail their touristic adventure to see Salisbury’s 123m spire and its world-famous cathedral, their keen interest in Salisbury suburbs and disgust of slush. To the majority of viewers, this interview was comic gold. Attention may have diverted from the Skripal poisoning, but an ongoing investigation taught us more about how this unit operates. 

READ MORE: Breaking Down the Russian Spy Attack

Although, there is no way of knowing how many missions have succeeded, Roman Dobrokhotov from The Insider site that investigated the Skripal case, notes that the high profile failures highlight the feebleness of the future of the GRU unit – a Russian intelligence unit assembled providing information in order to develop favorable conditions for Russian state policy. 

“Everything they try to do usually ends with failure,” proclaims Dobrokhotov. The continuing investigation revealed the multiple failures within the GRU unit and exposed the president Vladimir Putin’s role within the group. From getting caught hacking elections to failing to form a coup d'etat in Montenegro, the GRU struggles, notes Dobrokhotov.

In an interview with Hromadske, Dobrokhotov accounts that, Petrov and Boshirov are probably living in a far-flung city in Russia, away from the cosmopolitan center of Moscow. Although their faces were memefied, the interview they gave actually helps the GRU. 

Screenshot from RT interview.

Probably the biggest concern at the “Conservatory,” Russia's premier training ground for GRU officers, according to Dobrokhotov, is "what happens if I fail?". Hromadske’s interviewee, suggests that by plastering Petrov and Boshirov’s face all over the internet, GRU aspirants were reassured that failure does not mean death. 

Nonetheless, the consequences are serious, and the failed missions are highly critiqued by the administration. But unlike other agencies within the Russian government, the GRU soldiers are only allowed to take orders. Missions that have international implications, Dobrokhotov suggests, must be sanctioned by Putin himself. 

Year after year the Kremlin collects a myriad of sanctions based on the failures of the GRU unit. They tend to get caught. So, the GRU and the presidential administration have come up with an alternative method. 

“The same with Russian cars, Russian roads why would Russian intelligence be any different,” notes Dobrokhotov  

“A corrupt, ineffective system,” is how Dobrokhotov describes the GRU. On the contrast, the Wagner Group is a private group, controlled by GRU officers. It creates a premise for Russian actions without international sanctions. 

READ MORE: Skripal Poisoning Suspect Helped Yanukovych Escape to Russia — Journalist

Nevertheless, the GRU still acts. Albeit, not always triumphantly. Hromadske’s interviewee outlines a few instances, where they were unsuccessful. Most recently, the attempt on the life of Bulgarian businessman, Emilian Gebrev, resurfaced. 

Dobrokhotov comments that, most likely Gebrev was targeted because he sold weapons to Ukraine and in Syria to anti-Assad militant groups. However, the mission turned out to be a failure.

“They brought some weapons to Donbas to shoot some military airplane, and they shot the wrong airplane… And were disclosed,” Dobrokhotov continues his list of instances where the GRU unit was unsuccessful. 

The emergence of the Wagner group changed the dynamics. Investigations have proven that in fact there is a direct command from GRU officers to the Wagner group. For example, Dobrokhotov details how in Syria the Wagner group uses military infrastructure from the Russian Ministry of Defense, “to do some dirty jobs.” 

This shifts the blame. Despite the connection between the two, it eases the responsibility from the Russian side, if the mission fails. According to Dobrokhotov, legally it is difficult to impose consequences on Russia for the actions of the Wagner Group. Making it an attractive option for the GRU. 

However, disadvantages do exist, and the GRU is aware. Hromadske’s interviewee notes that Russia does not have full control over the group, proven by their lack of discipline and professionalism. The murder of three journalists in the Central African Republic is just one of the consequences of using such a group. 

READ MORE: Russia’s Plan of Expanding its Influence to Africa, Explained by Luke Harding

“Wild people, who think they have no red lines and can do whatever they want,” Dobrokhotov describes the Wagner Group. 

And the disadvantages for the GRU stretch further. As Dobrokhotov points out, the Wagner Group is insignificant. Due to international implications, America might not risk killing Russians, but in reality, there is no risk to combat the Wagner group. 

The future of the GRU might be shifting to contracting, but Dobrokhotov reminds us that the heart of the GRU still functions like any other Russian institution, “corrupt and ineffective.”