How Russia's military intelligence agency became the covert muscle in Putin's duels with the West
By ANTON TROIANOVSKI AND ELLEN NAKASHIMA | The Washington Post | Published: December 28, 2018
MOSCOW — Nina Loguntsova arrives at school early to stand at soldier-style attention, and she leaves late after extra classes that have included cryptography. Three different military uniforms hang in her closet.
The 17-year-old student is part of an expanding military-education program at Moscow's public schools that aims to inculcate respect for security services and boost the math and computer knowledge of potential recruits.
One of the program's partners is the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU — whose fingerprints, the West claims, are increasingly found on suspected Kremlin-ordered operations around the world.
The list includes hacking into Democratic National Committee emails in 2016, spearheading Russia's intervention inUkraine and the nerve-agent attack in Britain earlier this year.
New details uncovered by The Washington Post also show that a GRU unit has been at the forefront of Russia's psychological-warfare efforts, including a previously undisclosed attempt to influence Ukraine policy in Congress in 2015.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin tightens his grip at home and asserts Russian influence abroad, the country's military intelligence agency — a worldwide network of thousands of officers, special-forces troops and spies — is emerging as one of his most powerful tools.
"A military intelligence agency that used to be strictly military has now become, if you will, universal," said Nikita Petrov, a historian of Soviet intelligence agencies at Memorial, a history and civil rights organization in Moscow. "What we know about are their failures. But we don't know about their successes."
This portrait of the GRU's reach — from Moscow classrooms to U.S. senators' offices on Capitol Hill — is based on interviews in Moscow and Washington, public records and information provided by Western intelligence officials. Russia's Defense Ministry, which oversees the GRU, did not respond to requests for comment.
The agency's rise reflects the Kremlin's tactics in its confrontation with the West, analysts say. While Russia is far weaker economically than the United States and Western Europe, Putin has shown a higher appetite for risk and benefited from a domestic public that largely buys into the narrative of a Russia under siege.
"Russia is our motherland," said Loguntsova, an 11th-grader. "We will defend it."
Former U.S. intelligence officials say the GRU has always been seen as the more brutish cousin of Russia's main intelligence agency, previously known as the KGB. Gennady Gudkov, a Russian opposition politician who served in the KGB and then in its FSB successor agency, said GRU officers referred to themselves as the "badass guys who act."
" 'Need us to whack someone? We'll whack him," he said. "Need us to grab Crimea? We'll grab Crimea.' "
In the United States, the GRU is perhaps best known as the agency that led the way in Russia's interference in the 2016 election, according to a July indictment of 12 of its officers obtained by special counsel Robert Mueller.
But interviews and public records in Russia show that its reach extends to the battlefields of Ukraine and Syria and to school classrooms in Moscow — reflecting the multipronged approach Putin is taking in his conflict with the West.
"Putin has become more comfortable with risk," said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former U.S. deputy national intelligence officer. "The GRU fits his moment."
The GRU's power is bolstered by a surge in public support for Russia's military and its intelligence agencies — a focus on patriotism and conflict with the West that is a recurring theme in state media. The GRU itself, records show, is now involved in promoting the intelligence services in public schools.
Yevgenia Loguntsova — the mother of Nina, the student in the military-linked classes — heard horror stories when she was young about the Soviet intelligence services. Her mother warned her that the secret police might detain people on the street, simply on suspicion of skipping work.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Loguntsova said, fear gave way to ridicule and disgust. Many regular Russians saw the successor agencies to the Soviet security services enmeshed in corruption.
But by 2015, Loguntsova's perception of the Russian intelligence services had changed. Russia's best and brightest now join the services, she said. And she saw the intelligence branches as fighting corruption rather than taking part in it.
She enrolled her daughter in a "cadet class" that boasted the school's best teachers, Loguntsova said, and provided extra math and computer lessons.
Documents posted on the school website show the class is sponsored by the Federal Security Service, the formal name of the FSB, and by the military's Unit 26165, the cyberwarfare wing of the GRU that has also been called APT28 or Fancy Bear by American researchers.
Unit 26165 has helped design the curriculum at Nina Loguntsova's school and at least six others in Moscow in recent years, "cooperation agreements" posted on the schools' websites show.
The unit appears to operate largely in the background, though.
Nina Loguntsova and her mother knew about the FSB's participation but not about that of the GRU. Loguntsova's school did not respond to a request for comment. The Moscow education ministry and the FSB declined to comment.
The cooperation agreement between the security services and Loguntsova's school is signed by the Unit 26165 commander, Viktor Netyksho. He was named in the July indictment, accused of leading the GRU's effort to hack the email accounts of Democratic and Clinton campaign officials.
"The concepts of motherland and patriotism are all-encompassing," said the elder Loguntsova, 43, a psychologist. "We can't love our motherland and not respect these same organizations."
The GRU's rise in standing at home has mirrored an expanded role abroad.
In the Soviet era, the GRU conducted clandestine operations seeking to build Kremlin influence in the developing world. But its role in the West was limited largely to collecting military secrets, according to historians and former officials. The KGB took the lead on political influence operations.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the GRU played a key role in Moscow's two bloody wars against rebels in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.
"They gained experience in extrajudicial violence," said Alexei Kondaurov, a retired KGB general and a Putin critic. "This is a key thing that changes one's psychology."
Under Putin — a former FSB chief — the GRU has taken the anything-goes approach to cyberspace. GRU units that focused on propaganda and decryption in the Soviet era are now conducting psychological operations over the Internet and waging cyberattacks. In 2013, the GRU launched a "science company" as part of the Defense Ministry's effort to recruit top talent from universities.
"Historically, the GRU has been Russia's main agency for operating in uncontrolled spaces, which has meant civil wars and the like," said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian intelligence at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. "In some ways, the Internet is today's uncontrolled space."
In February 2015, as the conflict in eastern Ukraine dragged into a second year, a dozen U.S. senators received an email from someone purporting to belong to a group called the "Patriots of Ukraine." The email contained a link to a petition to "save" Ukraine, whose pro-Western government is fighting pro-Russian separatists.
In creaky English, it began: "US Senators and Congressmen! Today the situation in Ukraine is extremely bad. Ukraine is in war. ... Level of corruption is Ukrainian Armed Forces is enormous. High-ranking officer sell armaments to the terrorists."
The petition went on to implore the senators — who appeared to be picked only by virtue of their last names, as they were the first dozen or so by alphabetical order — to send "high-experienced U.S. and NATO specialists" to substitute for Ukrainian commanding officers.
"We hope you are able to influence the White House, Pentagon and State Department and achieve the agreement to send western officers to Ukraine for direct control of our Armed Forces," said the petition, a copy of which was shared with The Post by a Western intelligence agency, which described the operation.
The email apparently gained no traction on Capitol Hill in Washington.
But it was noteworthy in one important regard. It was the first known, if somewhat crude, effort by the GRU's main psychological-operations division to influence U.S. politicians, according to the Western intelligence agency.
Western intelligence analysts saw the campaign having twin aims, to further demoralize Ukrainians after heavy losses and to sow confusion among U.S. policymakers — to make them believe that the Ukrainians themselves had lost faith in their military.
The GRU unit behind the emails, known as Unit 54777, or the 72nd Special Service Center, is the center of the Russian military's psychological-warfare capability, say Western intelligence officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information.
Last month, when the Russian border guard fired upon and seized three Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea, young men in a Ukrainian border region were sent text messages to report for military service. The text messages, the Western intelligence agency said, were sent by the psy-ops unit — a previously unreported assessment.
"They are the center of gravity for Russian psychological operations," said an officer from that agency. "Their hand has been seen in many of the most well-known campaigns."
Unit 54777 has several front organizations that are financed through government grants as public diplomacy organizations but are covertly run by the GRU and aimed at Russian expatriates, the intelligence officer said. Two of the most significant are InfoRos and the Institute of the Russian Diaspora. In February 2014, for instance, shortly before Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, the institute and InfoRos launched an appeal, purportedly on behalf of Russian organizations in Ukraine, calling on Putin to intervene in the brewing crisis, the intelligence officer said.
The appeal was intended to convince the international community as well as the Russian public that Ukraine was not unified and to increase pressure on the anti-Russian protesters in Kiev, the intelligence officer said. InfoRos and the institute did not respond to requests for comment.
Unit 54777 also is thought by Western intelligence to work with other psy-ops and cyber units, such as the CyberCaliphate, a hacking outfit passing itself off as supporters of the Islamic State but really part of the same GRU unit that would penetrate the Democrats' networks in 2016. The CyberCaliphate hijacked the U.S. Central Command's Twitter feed in January 2015 and targeted military spouses, hacking their Twitter accounts and posting threats.
In April 2015, the CyberCaliphate, again claiming to be Islamic State supporters, took France's TV5Monde off the air for 18 hours.
"What the GRU demonstrate very consistently is profound innovation with available resources," said Joe Cheravitch, a Russia analyst with Rand Corp., a nonprofit, federally funded research institute. "That's what really makes them dangerous."
In many ways, the Ukraine conflict provided the test bed for the GRU's information and cyberwarfare operations, analysts say.
Spies directed by Unit 54777 created fake personas and posted comments on Russian and English-language social media platforms, as well as on articles in Western publications, according to the Western intelligence agency. Often, they sought to stoke divisions between pro-Russian and pro-Western Ukrainians by portraying themselves as Ukrainian "patriots" fed up with the pro-Moscow "Nazis" and "fascists" who they blamed for the violence.
In December 2015, GRU hackers plunged some 225,000 people into darkness after gaining access to Ukraine's power grid, according to U.S. intelligence and private-sector analysts. It was the first known cyberattack to result in a power outage.
GRU units also are suspected of deploying a highly disruptive computer virus dubbed NotPetya, analysts said. Launched on June 28, 2017 — Ukraine's Constitution Day — the virus wiped data from the computers of banks, energy firms, senior government officials and an airport in Ukraine.
It also affected computers in Denmark, India and the United States. The White House called it "the most destructive and costly cyberattack in history."
In response to the NotPetya virus and other suspected hackings, the United States in March placed sanctions on six GRU officials.
"Ukraine is to 21st-century hybrid warfare what Spain was in the 1930s for battlefield blitzkrieg techniques — the place where the bad guys try out what they may use against us later on," said Daniel Fried, a former senior State Department official who helped lead the West's response to Moscow's aggression against Ukraine.
Russia has denied that the GRU engages in malign activity around the world. After Mueller's indictment of 12 officers accused of interfering in the U.S. election, Russia's Foreign Ministry said that "it has become the norm in Washington to promote fake news and initiate criminal proceedings for obvious political purposes."
In a book on the agency, Soviet GRU defector Vladimir Rezun quotes from a czar's order in a Russian folk tale to describe the mission often given to officers: "Go there — I don't know where! Bring me something — I don't know what!"
Rezun's point — as echoed by experts on Russian intelligence agencies — is that GRU operatives look for opportunities to give the Kremlin what they think it wants without always following precise orders.
But by this fall, the GRU seemed as if it might have gone too far.
In July, 12 officers were indicted in Washington. In September, British officials accused two GRU officers of the clumsy attempt to assassinate former GRU agent Sergei Skripal earlier this year. In October, the Netherlands said that GRU officers had tried to hack into an international chemical weapons watchdog's WiFi network by parking a specially equipped car at the Marriott next door.
In November, the GRU was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of its Communist predecessor under the revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Putin arrived at its headquarters for the celebration and offered only praise.
For analysts, the Russian president's defense was a surprisingly full-throated one. It showed that Putin had no plans to back down from deploying his century-old military intelligence agency as one of his main weapons in asserting Russian influence abroad. And it reflected many Russians' continued belief that the country needs aggressive intelligence services to head off a threat from the West.
"Provocations and outright lies are being used and attempts are being made to disrupt strategic parity," Putin told the assembled spies, agents and hackers. "I have confidence in your professionalism, your personal courage and dedication. I am certain that you will do everything for Russia and our people."
Nakashima reported from Washington. The Washington Post's hane Harris in Washington and Natalia Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.