The west has declared war on the GRU – but don’t expect Russia to tame its spies
For long periods of Mr Putin’s rule, the GRU was almost absent from the big intelligence table, with no obvious role in a shrinking empire. But its fortunes turned in 2008, after the war in Georgia, when the army realised it needed better intelligence for delicate operations. Another turning point came four years later, with the appointment of Valery Gerasimov as chief of the General Staff.
“Their horizon widened, and with supply came demand,” says Tatyana Stanovaya, CEO of the political analysis firm R.Politik. “They settled into this new role just as Putin began to reject his own idea that Russia needed to be friends with the west.”
According to Ms Stanovaya, inter-agency conflicts have certainly grown since the Skripal scandal. Many officers have complained that the GRU had not been professional enough and were putting their president on the line. At the same time, she notes, systemic loyalty to the president guards against any major excesses, including leaks and hostile briefing. The first rule in Russia’s secret world is allegiance to Putin.
“For Putin, these guys are still heroes, living modestly, and risking their own lives to protect the motherland,” says Ms Stanovaya. “How can he criticise them? No, he’ll give them more muscle. Any step back would be seen as a recognition of defeat.”