On Saturday, the Czech Republic accused GRU – Russia’s military intelligence service – of being behind a deadly explosion at an ammunition depot in 2014. They pointed the finger at a certain section of the organization – Unit 29155 – which has attracted increasing praise in recent years.
If it was remembered at all abroad, until now the explosion of a Czech ammunition depot was considered a nasty accident that cost two people their lives. But it took center stage in tensions between the EU and Russia on April 17, when Prague announced that it was expelling 18 Russian diplomats on suspicion that GRU 29155 had been responsible.
Russia disputed the allegations the next day; in return, it sent packs of 20 employees at the Czech embassy in Moscow. All 27 EU countries risked being drawn into this dispute before Prague presented evidence to the foreign ministers of the other countries.
The Czech Republic claims that the Russian spies who were at work on its territory were the same ones who were involved in the poisoning and tried to be murdered by ex-double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury 2018 – a scandal that further poisoned relations between Russia on the one hand and Britain and its western allies on the other hand.
Since the Skripal affair placed GRU in the world’s headlines, Western intelligence services and the media, such as the British investigative agency Bellingcat and the German weekly Der Spiegel, have linked several incidents to unit 29155.
This section is suspected of having organized a political destabilization campaign in Moldova in 2016, of having participated in a pro-Serbian coup attempt in Montenegro the same year and of trying to poison an arms dealer twice in Bulgaria in 2015. Spanish intelligence services even saw a unit 29155 agents during the Catalan independence demonstrations in 2017.
They even established a “rear base” in France’s alpine Savoie region, according to a 2019 Le Monde survey.
All this gives the impression of a very mobile cell for special forces, which can strike at any place or time on Moscow’s leadership. The New York Times described them in 2019 as an “elite force”.
Speaking at the security conference in Munich the same year, MI6 chief Sir Alex Younger said that “you can see that there is a coordinated program of activities – and, yes, it often involves the same people” and pointed to the attempted assassination in Skripal and Montenegro attempted coup. “We believe that there is a standing threat from the GRU and the other Russian intelligence services and that very little is outside the borders,” Younger continued.
Yet it has since emerged that this ghost of an almighty Russian entity lurking in Europe’s shadows to chase the country’s enemies may well overestimate the threat. GRU’s most famous moment was during the Chechen war and the 2014 invasion of parts of Ukraine.
“They are, of course, very well-trained special forces who have all gone through the famous Spetsnaz training,” said Mark Galeotti, a British expert on Russian intelligence and head of Mayak Intelligence, a security consulting firm related to Russia. .
Unit 29155 is very small. “Ever since it was founded in 2018, it probably only had about 20 agents,” says Gerhard Mangott, a specialist in Russian security issues at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. Galeotti made the same assessment: “They do not have many people compared to the other branches of the Russian intelligence service.”
“It is not these super agents who can do anything – as some have suggested,” Galeotti continued. A better way of thinking about unit 29155, he continued, is as a team “specializing in sabotage and murder – the dirty work”.
Consequently, Moscow distributes them only when “goals mean more than funds,” Galeotti said. Unlike agents in the FSB – the internal bureau and the main successor to the KGB – or SVR – the external intelligence organization – who are known for their discretion, members of unit 29155 do not show the same degree of finesse; they will do whatever it takes to achieve their goals, even if it means using an unsubtle method, ”Galeotti explained.
That’s why their failures – including their failure to kill Skripal and the aborted coup attempt in Montenegro – “may seem unprofessional and leave traces that allow us to track down the perpetrators”.
But in the end, these failures mean little to Moscow. First, because we “do not know how many other missions have been successfully completed,” Mangott said. In addition, even if these missions fail, Russia will allow a signal to be sent to other European powers. “It’s a way to show that they can act on their land,” Galeotti said.
This article was translated from the original in French.