Russian Operatives Continue Disrupting Europe

February 10, 2020

 

 

“Putin” by DimitroSevastopol, licensed under Pixabay 

 

In 2006, Russia adopted legislation that allowed for the extrajudicial killing of people deemed to be terrorists or extremists by the Russian Government. This law allowed Putin to begin ordering assassinations with little to no oversight from the Russian Parliament.[1] Since that law was enacted, Russia has been implicated or suspected in numerous successful and failed assassination attempts of Russian dissidents and critics throughout Europe. In recent years the pace at which Russia is engaging in assassination plots throughout Europe seem to be increasing in frequency and boldness.

 

The same year that Russia adopted the aforementioned legislation, Alexander Litvinenko died in London after being poisoned with polonium. He had been poisoned twice before but recovered both times. Litvinenko, a former officer in the FSB specializing in organized crime, defected from Russia in 1998 after being arrested for accusing his superior officer of ordering an extrajudicial killing. Litvinenko’s assassination was quickly traced back to the Russian Government, partly due to the carelessness with which the assassins handled the polonium. Two Russian citizens and members of the FSB, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, were charged with the murder. Russia has refused to extradite them.[2] The timing of the killing remains suspect because it followed so soon after the 2006 targeting law mentioned earlier came into effect. In the immediate aftermath of the Litvinenko killing, there were disagreements among officials of Western intelligence agencies about whether Putin himself had ordered/approved the killing, or whether officers in Russia’s intelligence agencies acted independently. More recently, Western intelligence officials have come to the conclusion that Putin most likely had prior knowledge of the attack.

 

In 2018, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found sitting unconscious on a public bench in Salisbury, England. Doctors later discovered that they were poisoned using the nerve agent Novichok. Investigations later revealed that 3 members of Russia’s GRU were responsible for the assassination attempt. Sergei Skripal is a former Russian intelligence officer who acted as a double agent for the UK’s MI6. He was exchanged in a spy swap between the UK and Russia after being convicted of spying. EU intelligence agencies had previously implicated Russia in assassinations on European soil and did not respond as forcefully as they did to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal. The poisoning of Sergei Skripal was significant because of its brazenness, sloppiness and due to the fact that he had been exchanged in a legitimate prisoner swap with another member of the UN, only to be targeted for assassination once back in his country of refuge. The use of a nerve agent is also significant due to its possibility for contamination and collateral damage, as evidenced by the death of Dawn Sturgess, a woman who accidentally came into contact with the perfume bottle that was used to transport the nerve agent. The man identified as having commanded the team tasked with the assassination, Denis Sergeyev, is a major general in GRU. The other two team members, Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga are colonels.[3] The high ranks of the team members suggest that that Putin was either aware of the assassination plan or gave the order himself.  

 

Recently, in 2019, Bulgaria charged three Russian agents who were members of a secretive group within Russia’s GRU in relation to a poisoning case from 2015. According to reports, the three foreign agents used fake passports to enter Bulgaria where they then used an organophosphate poison in an attempt to assassinate the arms manufacturer Emilian Gebrev along with his son and a top executive within his company.[4] Gebrev, who had been selling ammunition to Ukraine, was hospitalized for a month due to the poisoning. Once the arms dealer was discharged, he was once again poisoned along with his son. The three agents were supposedly part of a secretive assassination unit, with The New York Times identifying them as operatives from “Unit 29155, an elite group within Russia’s military intelligence agency that carries out assassinations and disruption operations in Europe”.[5] 

 

There have been dozens of assassinations with ties to the Russian Government in addition to Litvinenko, Skripal and Gebrev. Ruslan Israpilov was killed in Turkey. Israpilov was a former militant who fought against Russia in Chechnya. He fled with his family to Turkey and reportedly continued to have contact with Chechen separatists. In 2017, Adam Osmayev was killed and his wife Amina Okuyeva wounded by gunfire after they were ambushed in Ukraine. At the time of the ambush, Osmayev was leading a unit of Chechens fighting alongside the Ukrainian military in the War in Donbass. His wife was fighting alongside him. Osmayev had previously been accused of plotting to kill Putin.[6] In 2019, the Chechen military commander Zelimkhan Khangoshvili was gunned down in Germany. Recently, in January of 2020, Imran Aliev, an anti-Putin blogger, was brutally killed in a hotel room in France. His suspected attacker fled to Russia and has close ties to Ramzan Kadyrov, the President of Chechnya and Putin’s close ally.[7]

 

The elite Russian intelligence group “Unit 29155” has been identified as having played a key role in various assassinations throughout Europe, including the attempted assassinations of Sergei Skripal in England and Emilian Gebrev in Bulgaria. Unit 29155 is under the command of officials in the GRU.[8] The unit is commanded by Major General Andrei V. Averyanov and is reported to have approximately 20 members. Unit 29155 does not only carry out assassinations, it is also responsible for operations such as a failed coup in Montenegro in 2016.[9]

 

The carelessness with which some of these assassinations have been planned and carried out is surprising. The members of Unit 29155 have been hand picked and are extremely well trained. The fallout from the failure of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, the two men accused of poisoning Sergei Skripal, led to more than 20 Western allies expelling Russian diplomats from their respective countries. The nerve agent that they were transporting was disposed of improperly, which allowed investigators to discover where the men had been due to the contamination. Lastly, the assassination attempt was not successful. This raises questions regarding whether Putin is personally ordering these assassinations or whether they are being carried out with his indirect approval. It makes sense to assume that Putin would want these operations carried out with as much discretion as possible, and would not allow for mistakes such as this to occur multiple times.

 

These assassinations are about more than just eliminating a single person. The killings are brazen and done with little discretion, such as the shooting of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Germany in broad daylight. They serve to send a message that anyone accused of being an enemy to the Russian state is a target, and this target does not go away no matter what country they live in. Assassinations serve to keep enemies of Russia from feeling safe anywhere they live which influences others when deciding if they should make the same choice.

 

CTG’s EUCOM team will continue monitoring for any suspicious deaths in Europe that bear the hallmarks of an assassination tied to the Russian Government. In addition, EUCOM will also monitor reports on Unit 29155 and its members operating throughout Europe in order to track any disruptions Russia may be continuing to incite.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] Russia law on killing 'extremists' abroad, BBC, Nov 2006,

 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6188658.stm

[2] Alexander Litvinenko: the man who solved his own murder, The Guardian, Jan 2016,

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/19/alexander-litvinenko-the-man-who-solved-his-own-murder

[3] Skripal poisoning: Third Russian suspect 'commanded attack', BBC, Jun 2019,

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-48801205

[4] “Bulgaria Charges 3 Russian Agents in Poisoning Case,” NYTimes, January 23, 2020.

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/23/world/europe/bulgaria-russian-agents-poison.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] Russia blamed for attack on Chechen pair who fought with Ukrainians, The Guardian, Oct 2017,

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/31/russia-blamed-for-attack-on-chechen-couple-who-fought-with-ukrainian-forces

[7] The man suspected of killing an anti-Putin blogger in France fled to Moscow afterwards, and is linked to one of Putin's closest allies, police say, Business Insider, Feb 2020,

 https://www.businessinsider.com/imran-aliev-suspect-fled-russia-link-kadyrov-police-2020-2

[8] Top Secret Russian Unit Seeks to Destabilize Europe, Security Officials Say, The New York Times, Oct 2019,

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/08/world/europe/unit-29155-russia-gru.html

[9] Skripal Poisoner Attended GRU Commander Family Wedding, Bellingcat, Oct 2019,

https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2019/10/14/averyanov-chepiga/

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