Putin's Secret Weapon

Russia's swashbuckling military intelligence unit is full of assassins, arms dealers, and bandits. And what they pulled off in Ukraine was just the beginning.

There are two ways an espionage agency can prove its worth to the government it serves. Either it can be truly useful (think: locating a most-wanted terrorist), or it can engender fear, dislike, and vilification from its rivals (think: being named a major threat in congressional testimony). But when a spy agency does both, its worth is beyond question.

Since the Ukraine crisis began, the Kremlin has few doubts about the importance of the GRU, Russia's military intelligence apparatus. The agency has not only demonstrated how the Kremlin can employ it as an important foreign-policy tool, by ripping a country apart with just a handful of agents and a lot of guns. The GRU has also shown the rest of the world how Russia expects to fight its future wars: with a mix of stealth, deniability, subversion, and surgical violence. Even as GRU-backed rebel groups in eastern Ukraine lose ground in the face of Kiev's advancing forces, the geopolitical landscape has changed. The GRU is back in the global spook game and with a new playbook that will be a challenge for the West for years to come.

Recent years had not been kind to the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff, the Glavnoe razvedyvatelnoe upravlenie (GRU). Once, it had been arguably Russia's largest intelligence agency, with self-contained stations -- known as "residencies" -- in embassies around the world, extensive networks of undercover agents, and nine brigades of special forces known as Spetsnaz.

By the start of 2013, the GRU was on the ropes. Since 1992, the agency had been in charge of operations in the post-Soviet countries, Russia's "near abroad." But Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have seen it as increasingly unfit for that purpose. When the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia's domestic security agency, was allowed to run operations abroad openly in 2003, one insider told me that this was because "the GRU doesn't seem to know how to do anything in our neighborhood except count tanks." (It may not even have done that very well. Putin regarded the GRU as partly responsible for Russia's lackluster performance in the 2008 invasion of Georgia.) There was a prevailing view in Moscow that the GRU's focus on gung-ho "kinetic operations" like paramilitary hit squads seemed less relevant in an age of cyberwar and oil politics.

Political missteps also contributed to the GRU's diminished role. Valentin Korabelnikov, the agency's chief from 1997 to 2009, seemed more comfortable accompanying Spetsnaz assassination teams in Chechnya than playing palace politics in Moscow. His criticisms of Putin's military reforms put him on the Kremlin's bad side too. Korabelnikov was sacked in 2009 and replaced with soon-to-be-retired Col. Gen. Alexander Shlyakhturov, who, within two years, was rarely seen in the GRU's headquarters due to his bad health. In December 2011 the GRU welcomed its third head in nearly three years, Maj. Gen. Igor Sergun, a former attaché and intelligence officer with no combat experience and the lowest-ranking head of the service in decades. By the end of 2013, the Kremlin seemed to be entertaining the suggestion that the agency be demoted from a "main directorate" to a mere directorate, which would have been a massive blow to the service's prestige and political access.

In many ways, a demotion for the GRU seemed inevitable. Since 2008, the GRU had suffered a savage round of cuts during a period when most of Russia's security and intelligence agencies' budgets enjoyed steady increases. Eighty of its hundred general-rank officers had been sacked, retired, or transferred. Most of the Spetsnaz were reassigned to the regular army. Residencies were downsized, sometimes even to a single officer working undercover as a military attaché.

What a difference a few months can make. What the Kremlin had once seen as the GRU's limitations -- a focus on the "near abroad," a concentration on violence over subtlety, a more swashbuckling style (including a willingness to conduct assassinations abroad) -- have become assets.

The near-bloodless seizure of Crimea in March was based on plans drawn up by the General Staff's Main Operations Directorate that relied heavily on GRU intelligence. The GRU had comprehensively surveyed the region, was watching Ukrainian forces based there, and was listening to their communications. The GRU didn't only provide cover for the "little green men" who moved so quickly to seize strategic points on the peninsula before revealing themselves to be Russian troops. Many of those operatives were current or former GRU Spetsnaz.

There is an increasing body of evidence that the so-called defense minister of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic, Igor Strelkov, whose real name is Igor Girkin, is a serving or reserve GRU officer, who likely takes at the very least guidance, if not orders, from the agency's headquarters. As a result, the European Union has identified him as GRU "staff" and has placed him on its sanctions list. Although the bulk of the insurgents in eastern Ukraine appear to be Ukrainians or Russian "war tourists" -- encouraged, armed, and facilitated by Moscow -- there also appear to be GRU operators on the ground helping to bring guns and people across the border.

It was only when the Vostok Battalion appeared in eastern Ukraine at the end of May that the GRU's full re-emergence became clear. This separatist group bears the same name as a GRU-sponsored Chechen unit that was disbanded in 2008. This new brigade -- composed largely of the same fighters from Chechnya -- seemed to spring from nowhere, uniformly armed and mounted in armored personnel carriers. Its first act was to seize the administration building in Donetsk, turfing out the motley insurgents who had made it their headquarters. Having established its credentials as the biggest dog in the pack, Vostok began recruiting Ukrainian volunteers to make up for Chechens who quietly drifted home.

Alexander Khodakovsky, a defector from the Security Service of Ukraine, subsequently announced that he was the battalion's commander. But this only happened a few days after the seizure of the Donetsk headquarters. The implication is that the battalion was originally commanded by GRU representatives. Vostok appears intended not so much to fight the regular Ukrainian forces -- though it has -- but rather to serve as a skilled and disciplined enforcer of Moscow's authority over the militias if need be.

The Vostok Battalion makes Moscow's strategy clear: The Kremlin has no desire for outright military conflict in its neighbors. Instead, the kind of "non-linear war" being waged in Ukraine, which blends outright force, misinformation, political and economic pressure, and covert operations, will likely be its means of choice in the future. These are the kinds of operations in which the GRU excels.

After all, while Moscow is not going to abandon its claims to being a global power, in the immediate future Russia's foreign-policy focus will clearly be building and maintaining its hegemony in Eurasia. These are also the areas where the GRU is strongest. For example, in Kazakhstan, whose Russian-heavy northern regions are a potential future target for similar political pressure through local minorities, the GRU is the lead intelligence provider, as its civilian counterpart, the SVR, is technically barred from operating in Kazakhstan or any of the countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States by the 1992 Alma-Ata Declaration.

The combination of these factors means that the GRU now looks far more comfortable and confident than it did a year ago. Kiev outed and expelled a naval attaché from the Russian Embassy as a GRU officer, and Sergun, the GRU's head, made it onto the list of officials under Western sanctions. But neither of these actions has done the agency any harm. If anything, they have increased the GRU's prestige.

Talk of downgrading the GRU's status is conspicuously absent in Moscow circles. The agency's restored status means it is again a player in the perennial turf wars within the Russian intelligence community. More importantly, it means that GRU operations elsewhere in the world are likely to be expanded again and to regain some of their old aggression.

The GRU's revival also demonstrates that the doctrine of "non-linear war" is not just an ad hoc response to the particularities of Ukraine. This is how Moscow plans to drive forward its interests in today's world. The rest of the world has not realized this now, even though Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov spelled it out in an obscure Russian military journal last year. He wrote that the new way of war involves "the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures … supplemented by military means of a covert nature character," not least with the use of special forces.

This kind of conflict will be fought by spies, commandos, hackers, dupes, and mercenaries -- exactly the kind of operatives at the GRU's disposal. Even after the transfer of most Spetsnaz out of the GRU's direct chain of command, the agency still commands elite special forces trained for assassination, sabotage, and misdirection, as Ukraine shows. The GRU has also demonstrated a willingness to work with a wide range of mavericks. In Chechnya, it raised not just the Vostok Battalion but other units of defectors from guerrillas and bandits. The convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout is generally accepted to have been a part-time GRU asset too. The GRU is less picky than most intelligence agencies about who is cooperates with, which also means that it is harder to be sure who is working for them.

NATO and the West still have no effective response to this development. NATO, a military alliance built to respond to direct and overt aggression, has already found itself at a loss on how to deal with virtual attacks, such as the 2007 cyberattack on Estonia. The revival of the GRU's fortunes promises a future in which the Cold War threat of tanks spilling across the border is replaced by a new kind of war, combining subterfuge, careful cultivation of local allies, and covert Spetsnaz strikes to achieve the Kremlin's political aims. NATO may be stronger in strictly military terms, but if Russia can open political divisions in the West, carry out deniable operations using third-party combatants, and target strategic individuals and facilities, it doesn't really matter who has more tanks and better fighter jets. This is exactly what the GRU is tooling up to do.

Photo by VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images


Saudi Arabia's Family Feud

Facing threats from all directions, King Abdullah moves to get his foreign-policy team in place -- and quell infighting within the royal family.

The usual somnolence of Ramadan in Saudi Arabia is being broken this year by intense politicking within the royal family. Official Saudi work hours for the holy month are limited to just six hours a day, but key princes in the House of Saud are working long and late. Just after midnight local time on July 1, the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) announced a "royal order" making Prince Bandar bin Sultan -- formerly the long-serving ambassador to Washington and later the intelligence chief -- King Abdullah's special envoy. Four minutes later, another SPA story announced that Bandar's cousin, Prince Khalid bin Bandar, had been made head of the Saudi intelligence agency.

The two appointments have both domestic and international significance. The Islamic State's invasion of Iraq leaves Saudi Arabia's borders exposed to the chaos of what is left of the "Arab Spring." Bandar bin Sultan, who was replaced as intelligence chief in April after spending several years spearheading Saudi attempts to depose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is now needed to make sure that the jihadists' successes in Iraq threaten Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki without threatening the kingdom. At home, Khalid bin Bandar's elevation to the top position in the country's intelligence community came after he became the victim of a surprisingly public feud within the royal family that saw him pushed out as deputy defense minister a mere six weeks after his appointment.

The turnover at the Saudi Defense Ministry has probably prompted at least one foreign embassy in Riyadh reporting home to recall Oscar Wilde's line from the play The Importance of Being Earnest: "To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness." Prince Khalid's exit from the apparently dysfunctional ministry made him the fourth deputy defense minister to lose his job within the space of 15 months. Like his predecessors, he seems to have fallen foul of a junior cousin, Muhammad bin Salman, a 30-something son of Crown Prince Salman, the defense minister and heir apparent. The elder Salman, who turns 78 this year, has been widely reported to be suffering from dementia -- the accounts run the gamut from memory issues to Alzheimer's -- making him personally incapable of running the Defense Ministry.

Muhammad bin Salman has come out of nowhere, relatively speaking. While the major royal players below the level of King Abdullah and the other sons of the late Abdul Aziz, also known as Ibn Saud, are in their 50s and 60s, Muhammad's great -- and perhaps only -- strength is that he is liked and trusted by his father. Starting as a mere advisor, he was made head of the crown prince's court last year and he was further boosted this year to minister of state, which gives him a seat at the weekly meeting of the Council of Ministers. He is the eldest son of Prince Salman's third wife, and his older half-kin include tourism chief and one-time astronaut Prince Sultan bin Salman and Deputy Oil Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, though, significantly, neither is seen very often at their father's side. Although not officially part of the Defense Ministry, Muhammad uses his role as gatekeeper to his father to control decision-making on the kingdom's army, air force, and navy, and thwart what is now a long list of ex-deputy defense ministers.

King Abdullah's prompt action in promoting Prince Khalid to head of intelligence just two days after he was forced to resign from the Defense Ministry suggests that the monarch may act decisively to bring order to his government. "Swiftness" in Saudi terms is a relative concept -- especially during Ramadan -- but, at the very least, Abdullah seems unlikely to appoint another deputy defense minister in the current circumstances and would also be unlikely to allow Crown Prince Salman to press the nomination of his son, Muhammad, to this role.

The crisis also provides an opportunity for Abdullah to complete the sidelining of Salman. This began in early 2013, when the king appointed his half-brother Muqrin as second deputy prime minister, a title which allowed him to chair Council of Ministers meetings in the absence of the king or crown prince. Then in March of this year, Abdullah gave Muqrin the new title of deputy crown prince, putting him on the road to be king when Salman and Abdullah die or become incapacitated. The monarch attempted to lock in this decision by forcing senior princes to give an advance oath of allegiance to Muqrin. A majority -- though not all, significantly -- did so. How such a commitment would work in practice is a matter of speculation: If Abdullah dies first, Salman's supporters would likely press for Salman to be able to declare his own crown prince, ignoring Muqrin's claim on the position.

Abdullah could even take the risky move of citing Salman's inability to control the upheaval at the Defense Ministry and getting a medical committee to certify his mental incompetence, giving the king the opportunity to promote Muqrin as crown prince. Muqrin himself was born on the wrong side of the blanket -- his mother was a slave girl of Ibn Saud. But given the challenges facing the country and Salman's record of annoying princes who might in other circumstances be regarded as in his camp, the timing could be right.

With threats building throughout the Middle East, this is not a time for King Abdullah to procrastinate. The Islamic State's declaration of a caliphate challenges Saudi Arabia's self-appointed role as leader of the Islamic world, while Tehran's cozying up to Washington over Iraq as well as the nuclear issue threatens to undermine Saudi leadership of the Arab world as well. Outside the borders of the kingdom, Abdullah will look to Prince Bandar and Prince Khalid to counter these threats. But at home, he will be the key player. This Ramadan could be a time for unusual amounts of action in the palaces of Riyadh and Jeddah.