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Is the GRU efficient?



This article explores the modus operandi and efficiency of the GRU (Гла́вное управле́ние Генера́льного шта́ба Вооружённых сил Росси́йской Федера́ции), the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, widely regarded as the elite of Russia's various intelligence agencies.


The GRU is an unusual institution in every respect. Contrary to its official name, it is not a branch of the Russian Armed Forces in any regular sense and it does not report into the command structure of the Russian Armed Forces. Instead it consists of a series of two-person units of varying backgrounds, of unquestioned loyalty to the Russian Federation, who operate under strict discipline and protocols and whose units execute particularly sensitive missions as ordered in writing by the President of the Russian Federation and nobody else.


Their missions may be of any kind such as the Russian President specifically mandates them, and they execute their missions more or less clandestinely at least until the mission is concluded and they then return to the Russian Federation. Their possible operational mandates vary broadly, but no mission is considered beyond their general authority and in recent years it has included assassinations or assassination attempts of individual persons or groups of persons. Their work also includes violence-based debt collection; the delivery of violent threats; kidnapping and the movement of people across borders against their will; and the intimidation of specific business persons or politicians.


Many GRU units are concealed in deep disguise in various countries, running regular jobs and family and friendship relations, in some cases for many years, until their activation with instructions by the President of the Russian Federation. It is rare that they are activated: only with substantial deliberation by the Kremlin, and with specific written mandates that they are expected to follow to the letter. Some of the units secreted clandestinely abroad are never activated.


GRU members have access to whatever passport and other identity documents the President of the Russian Federation may authorise, and access to a variety of funds. It is rumoured that on completion of missions they are given access to new identities and plastic surgery.


They answer neither to the FSB (Russian internal security services) or the SVR (Russia's foreign agent recruitment service). They answer only to the specified protocols they have been taught, and to the written orders of the Russian President. Moreover, exceptionally by the standards of Russian military intelligence, they have the discretion to depart from protocols to achieve mission objectives if both members of the two-man unit agree.


Most members are male but perhaps 5-10 per cent are female. They are recruited from a variety of sources, mostly but not exclusively the Russian Armed Forces and its special units. They may also be recruited from the Police, FSB or even from private organisations after substantial surveillance and character analysis. They are regarded as the most disciplined members of the Russian military bureaucracy.


They travel both armed and unarmed, depending on the nature of the mission. The two-person units are compiled on the basis of psychological profiling: who will work well together. The duo may not then see one another for years, until the unit is activated for mission.


In the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury, England in March 2018, a two-man unit based in the Russian Federation was activated to:


  1. travel to London from Moscow on clean identities and passport documents with valid British visas applied for and obtained from the British Embassy in Moscow with totally bogus supporting documents;

  2. stay in a cash only grimy hotel in Mile End, a rough and lively area of East London full of criminals where they would not stand out as suspicious Russian government officials;

  3. share a hotel room, behaviour that would suggest they are poor and their intentions might be mildly criminal (typical for Mile End);

  4. hire a prostitute to share in the cheap hotel, an ostensibly unprofessional activity that would mitigate the risk that they might be suspected as Russian intelligence officials;

  5. travel to Salisbury on two consecutive days, the first for reconnaisance and the second to execute the application of nerve poison to the door handle of the Skripals' front door;

  6. after the nerve poison had been smeared on the victims' doorknob, to proceed directly to Heathrow and take the final Aeroflot flight of the day to Sheremetyevo (the 21:30);

  7. knowing the British Police would soon catch onto them using Britain's sophisticated network of CCTV cameras, they would then appear on Russian TV giving absurd interviews that they had gone to Salisbury as tourists to look at the Cathedral (something they did in fact do);

  8. subsequently obtain new identities and quite possibly new faces using plastic surgery.


Is the GRU efficient? Yes, they are very efficient and extremely dangerous. We in the West have nothing quite like them.