Russia’s military unintelligence

Why the Russian intelligence agencies keep failing abroad.

Skripal case
The forensic tent, covering the bench where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found, is repositioned by officials in protective suits in the centre of Salisbury, UK on March 8 [Reuters]

On September 5, the UK named two agents of the Russian military intelligence (GRU) as the main suspects in the Skripal poisoning case. 

The two are accused of depositing a nerve agent in the Salisbury home of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent, which poisoned him and his daughter in March this year.

The British authorities released the photos, personal details and even the route the two agents allegedly took to accomplish their mission. Russia, of course, has denied everything, but with the amount of evidence uncovered, it will have a hard time convincing the international community of its innocence.

There have been some observers who have expressed their doubt that Moscow is responsible for the Skripal poisoning, arguing that it could not have acted so clumsily, especially after the Litvinenko case. Why would Russia want another such scandal – the argument goes.

They are partially right: Russia really doesn’t need such a scandal right now. Yet, we should not be surprised about its intelligence agencies undertaking such a mission and failing in it. As the popular saying goes: Never attribute to conspiracy that which is adequately explained by incompetence.

For some reason, there is a general perception that unlike other state institutions in Russia, the intelligence agencies are quite professional and capable. Perhaps Hollywood should be blamed for this misconception. To garner interest and sell its films, the US movie industry tends to feature unrealistic depictions of Russian spies as dangerous and highly skilful men and women, who fight it out with their Western counterparts.

But if one is to shoot a realistic film about the GRU, it would probably have to be a comedy. In fact, the last few years of Russian intelligence blunders provide plenty of material for the script.

Poison spies

A lot of people seem surprised about the fact that the attempted Skripal assassination failed and the agents left so many clues behind. But if you look at how Alexander Litvinenko was assassinated in 2006, that should not be surprising.

The two agents, Andrey Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, who were allegedly tasked with killing Litvinenko, had to try twice before succeeding. On October 16, they made their first attempt to poison him in a sushi bar but that night Litvinenko vomited and survived.

Then they tried again two weeks later and managed to slip the poison into Litvinenko’s tea. On both of their trips to London, the two left behind a massive radioactive trace that the police were able to track afterwards. Polonium traces were found in the hotels where they stayed, in the restaurants and cafes they visited, and even on the shisha they smoked.

Traces were also found on the British Airways plane they took back to Moscow after their second mission. The highest concentration of the poison was found in the bathroom plughole of Lugovoi’s hotel room, which made the investigators believe that he poured out the rest of it into the sink.

If the two agents had just stabbed Litvinenko in some dark side street, the murder might have remained unresolved. But polonium leaves behind traces for a long time which exposed Lugovoi and Kovtun. According to the investigators, it is possible the two did not even know what poison they were using and they were actually lucky that they did not get exposed to a deadly dose of radiation.

Is it then surprising that in the Skripal case, the two agents also left behind traces of the chemical agent in their hotel room?

If you think that the GRU rarely leaves behind so much incriminating evidence, you are wrong. Here are a few more examples.

Hacker spies

For many years, the international cybersecurity community has been hunting for two hacker groups known as Fancy Bear and APT28. Around 2014, experts came to the tentative conclusion that the Russian intelligence agencies could be behind these groups, but had no direct evidence to support it.

Then Fancy Bear hackers started targeting Western political and intuitions and Russian opposition activists and human rights defenders. One of these attacks targeted the email server of French politician Emmanuel Macron’s election campaign. The attack failed to find a “kompromat” in the contents of the server and Macron ended up winning the French presidential elections.

The hackers, however, made the mistake of leaving behind files with metadata that exposed them. Thus, the name of Georgiy Petrovich Roshka came to be known.

The Russian press soon uncovered that a man by this name was a speaker at an IT conference in Russia in 2016. His affiliation was listed in the brochure as Military Unit 26165, which focuses on cryptoanalysis.

Earlier this year, Special Counsel Robert Mueller accused and named 12 GRU hackers of interference in US elections, a good number of them also being part of this unit.

Rocket spies

Another recent journalistic investigation identified Oleg Ivannikov, a GRU officer, as one of the key suspects in the international investigation of the downing of Flight MH17 in 2014.

The Russian authorities declared that he was not on active duty with the military. That would have been believable if an open source investigation hadn’t uncovered that in 2017 Ivannikov had made an order from an online shop to the address of the GRU headquarters in Moscow instead of his own address.

Money spies

On October 16, 2016 – a day before the Montenegrin elections – Prime Minister Milo Djukanovich announced that a coup plot had been foiled. A group of men from Montenegro and Serbia had planned to overthrow the government and hand over power to the Democratic Front, a pro-Russian, anti-NATO party.

During the investigation, two GRU agents who dealt with the financing of the plot were uncovered. One of them, Eduard Shishmakov, used to work under diplomatic cover in Poland from where he was expelled after he tried to recruit a Polish officer.

After this failed mission, Shishmakov got a new passport with a different surname and without making an effort to change his appearance, went to Serbia to recruit locals for a coup plot in Montenegro. He gave cash and later sent money through Western Union from Russia – leaving behind a paper trail the Montenegrin investigators were able to pick up.

It is possible that one of the reasons for such unprofessional behaviour of Russian military intelligence officers is that they do not feel the need to cover up their trail.

The Russian government has always denied any allegations of its agents being involved in special operations abroad, even when the facts were clear. Yet, it very much enjoys all the publicity it gets with each new spy scandal.

After all, if your aim is to scare off other countries, then the more hysteria there is about your special ops abroad, the better, even if they are failed ones.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.