It seems like open season on the GRU.
The Russian military agency had its inner workings exposed again Friday as determined journalists and Kremlin critics remain focused on uncovering its secrets. A new report details the alleged misbehavior and bizarre bureaucratic decisions that allowed a Russian journalist to identify people he says are GRU officers.
Journalist Sergei Kanev said he wants to call attention to problems within an organization he thinks has moved from traditional spying into unchecked violence and foreign interference. But his story portrays the agency as more sloppy than scary: one finding was that suspected GRU agents appeared to blow their own covers.
None of the few dozen agents he wrote about is suspected of grave wrongdoing. However, governments in multiple countries have implicated GRU agents in the March nerve agent attack on a Russian ex-spy in Britain, hacking the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, involvement in downing a Malaysian plane and disrupting anti-doping efforts.
Russian authorities deny the accusations, calling them part of a global smear campaign.
Kanev said he identified three agents after they filed police reports for stolen goods, by cross-checking names with databases showing addresses or other information on GRU employees. Another was identified after being arrested over a cafe shootout.
The report also says the Russian Defense Ministry sought to conceal the identities of dozens of children of alleged GRU officers living in a Moscow housing complex by adding 100 years to their ages in administrative registries. GRU agents jokingly called it the “old folks’ home,” Kanev said.
However, pension authorities raised alarm upon discovering the freak concentration of very elderly residents, suspecting some kind of pension fraud.
Kanev, who lives in self-imposed exile in Europe, told The Associated Press he uncovered the identities by using databases purchased on the black market from Moscow police, traffic police or security agents. He said he cross-checked them with open sources and discussions with security sources. Other Russian journalists have described using similar methods.
Kanev’s reporting was funded and published by Kremlin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Dossier Project, and also released by Russian independent broadcaster Dozhd TV.
The details of the report couldn’t be immediately verified. But it fits in a pattern of embarrassing exposures that has caused some to question the GRU’s professionalism – and highlighted corruption that has allowed leaks to occur.
Last month, British intelligence released surveillance images of GRU agents accused of the March attack in Salisbury. Investigative group Bellingcat and Russian site The Insider quickly exposed the agents’ real names. The Associated Press and others revealed details about their backgrounds. And Dutch authorities recently identified four alleged GRU agents who tried to hack the Wi-Fi of the world’s chemical weapons watchdog from a hotel parking lot.
All this makes it look like GRU officers “can’t tie their own shoelaces,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on Russian military affairs at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.
In an interview with the AP, Kanev said he also identified 16 GRU officers who once lived in the same Moscow dormitory as Anatoly Chepiga, one of the Russian officers suspected of poisoning turncoat GRU agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury. Kanev did not publish their names.
Kanev said that he could identify so many officers was a sign that “Russia is eroding.”
The agency, which is still widely known as the GRU despite a recent name change, did not respond Friday to requests for comment.
Keir Giles, the director of the Conflict Studies Research Center in Cambridge, England, warned that unmasking Russian spies who aren’t accused of serious wrongdoing exposed Kanev and his backer, oligarch-turned-dissident Khodorkovsky, “to charges that instead of reforming Russia, they just want to harm it.”
Giles said the revelations highlight a sense among Russian intelligence agencies that they are “above the law” and could reinforce their view that “mass connectivity, unhindered communications, and widespread access to information” is a threat to national security.
Meanwhile, the drip-drip of revelations will continue to dent the image of the GRU, but not deter it from unsavory actions, experts said. Kofman said it’s not unheard of for one agent after another to get burned publicly, and noted that agents like Chepiga and his colleagues could be replaced.
“They will likely write this off as a consequence of carrying out a lot of operations,” he said.
Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed.
Follow Charlton on Twitter at @acharlton.