Russia's Military Intelligence Service Fights Shadow War For Ukraine

On top of Moscow's secretive foreign intelligence service, there's an even deeper layer of information gathering. NPR's Arun Rath talks to writer Mark Galeotti about the agency known as the GRU.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

The story of the battle for Ukraine also involves what might be called a shadow war with a leading role being played by Russia's military intelligence agency, the GRU. That's the shadow agency that has always been even more shadowy than the KGB back in the days of the Soviet Union. These days, the agency is leading the way in Eastern Ukraine. Mark Galeotti is a professor of global affairs at NYU. In an article for Foreign Policy, he called the GRU Putin's secret weapon. He joined us by Skype from Moscow. And I asked him to explain the role of Russia's military agency in the Ukraine rebellion.

MARK GALEOTTI: You look at two of the key military commanders - Strelkov, their minister of defense, and Bezler, one of their key field commanders. Now both of these were ex - well, I say ex-GRU. Officially, they're ex-GRU. But this is not a service that you ever really walk away from. So essentially, of the three key people running the rebellion, all three are Russian, two of them are GRU.

RATH: Does that mean that these people are taking marching orders from the GRU? Or how deep is the influence?

GALEOTTI: I think it's not quite so straightforward as just simply saying the GRU rings them up and gives some orders. Certainly in the case of Strelkov, for example, I mean, this is a guy who's gone native in a way. I mean, he really believes in the Donetsk cause. And, in fact, he was grumbling at Moscow when he felt that thought Moscow wasn't providing enough support. But it's clear that they need each other and what's more, on the ground. I mean, although most of the insurgents are either Ukrainian or just ordinary volunteers from Russia who thought there's adventure whenever, it's clear that there are GRU officers embedded in a lot of the main units, probably also responsible for the key pieces of military technology including, quite likely, the Buk missile system that shot down Malaysian Airline's Flight 17. So we've had everything from leaders in the government's circles in Donetsk, all the way down to military units that are either controlled by or recruited by the GRU.

RATH: You write that the use of the GRU in this conflict represents what one of the Russian officials called a new way of war. That's the new Russian military doctrine. Could you explain that?

GALEOTTI: Well, I think the Russians have come to terms with the fact that even though they're spending a lot of money on their military and are desperately trying to expand its technological capabilities, they're never going to be the equal of the, well, the United States, let alone NATO as a whole. And to be perfectly honest, even on their eastern borders, China is arming and much more quickly than the Russians. So then they're thinking, well, look - they have two options - either they rein in their ambitions, or they find new ways of fighting. Well, the current Kremlin's not plain on reining in its ambitions.

So instead, they're looking more at their fighting. This kind of a war isn't a direct frontal assault, but instead, works through subterfuge, through sabotage, through terrorism, through stirring up local trouble with your own agents and such like. And this is exactly the kind of thing that the GRU is good at. They have agents on the ground. They have Special Forces. They have very extensive budgets with which they kind of are happy to support groups in other countries that they think might be useful. So in this respect, it's Russia coming to terms with the fact that if it's going to try and force itself onto the world scene, it needs to find a different way of doing so than just simply the good old Soviet fashion that relied on just simply a massive military machine.

RATH: Mark Galeotti is a writer and professor based in Moscow. His article about the GRU appeared in Foreign Policy. Mark, thanks very much.

GALEOTTI: My pleasure.

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