Western countries are beginning to be alarmed by the growing ambition of Ukrainian military intelligence
May 27, 2023
The Sunday Times
President Volodymyr Zelensky has denied Ukraine has any designs on Vladimir Putin’s life but last week the deputy head of Ukrainian military intelligence was much less circumspect. Vadym Skibitsky told the German newspaper Die Welt that the Russian president was at the top of its death list “because he co-ordinates and decides what happens”. A British intelligence source cautioned: “I wouldn’t assume it’s just bravado.” The cross-border raid into Russia a few days earlier — carried out by Russian pro-Kyiv forces but probably organised by Ukrainian military intelligence — was proof of their ambition and capabilities. He added: “They are willing to cross a lot of red lines.”
A common history
The struggle between Ukrainian military intelligence and its Russian counterpart is a war within the war. Comparing them illustrates how the two countries’ institutions diverged from a common root, and how, for now at least, Ukrainian imagination and initiative is running rings around Russian discipline and hierarchy.
Both agencies are known by the same name, the Main Intelligence Directorate — GRU for the Russians, GUR (or HUR) for the Ukrainians — and are offspring of the Soviet GRU, originally known as Razvedupr, established during the civil war that followed the revolution of 1917. In this desperate struggle the Bolsheviks needed an agency that was not just there to gather intelligence but also to fight a war, from assassinating enemy commanders to blowing up railway lines. The GRU never really lost this wartime mindset.
When the USSR was dissolved at the end of 1991, the military intelligence assets on Ukrainian soil transferred to Kyiv’s control, while Russia took over most of the Soviet GRU’s central assets, as well as all the operational elements on its territory.
On paper, both are still similar, with spies abroad, analysts at home and — reflecting their Soviet heritage, given the Kremlin’s desire to counterbalance the overweening KGB — control over thousands of Spetsnaz (Special Designation) commandos. In practice, though, it is clear their operational cultures are different.
Russian military intelligence has experienced triumphs and disasters under Putin. It was in disgrace for under-performing in the 2008 invasion of Georgia, and in 2010 was renamed the GU, the Main Directorate, as an apparent prelude to being downsized. Everyone still calls it the GRU, though, and it was saved by Colonel General Igor Sergun, who took over in 2011. He proved an able and energetic chief. In particular, he realised that Putin was looking not so much for impartial intelligence but confirmation of his prejudices and biases. A now-retired official who sat in on one of Sergun’s presidential briefings described it as a “masterclass in politicised intelligence”, as he proceeded to “tell Putin exactly what he wanted to hear, while playing the part of the bluff, non-nonsense soldier”.
Putin lapped it up, and the GRU’s star was again in the ascendant. It was a key player in the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and in the scrappy, undeclared conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region that followed. There, it stood up proxy militias, managed local warlords and, when necessary, sent Spetsnaz to eliminate commanders who refused to toe Moscow’s line.
A bad war for some
With the invasion, though, Russian military intelligence seems to have been as wrong-footed as the rest of the Russian military. They had a network of agents ready to try to paralyse Ukraine’s chain of command, but they were not prepared either for a full-scale war or for the Ukrainians’ willingness to act on their own initiative, without waiting for orders from above.
Since then, the GRU’s traditional strengths have largely been neutralised. Its networks of agents in Ukraine have been decimated by a determined campaign by the SBU, the Ukrainian security service, with extensive assistance from western services. Its Spetsnaz suffered heavy casualties in the early stages of the war, highly specialised light infantry thrown into fighting for which they were not equipped, simply because no one else was available. Its much-vaunted cybercapabilities have largely been foiled or contained by a combination of Ukrainian ingenuity, western assistance (including unspecified but acknowledged help from GCHQ) and the lack of a clear Russian strategy.
Finally, while the GRU acquired a reputation for audacious and risky operations, with its infamous Unit 29155 being implicated in everything from the attempted poisoning of the defector Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018 to an attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016, it always operated under tight political control. The Kremlin insisted on approving all significant plans. In this fluid and unpredictable war, though, this has often left Russian military intelligence behind the curve. A Ukrainian counter-intelligence officer described them as “tactically aggressive, but limited by a slow, cumbersome chain of command”.
A good war for others
By contrast, the smaller, scrappier GUR has come into its own. Its leader, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, is a former officer in Ukraine’s own Spetsnaz (unlike his Russian counterpart, Admiral Igor Kostyukov, who was a naval intelligence analyst), who was wounded three times fighting in the Donbas. Zelensky appears to have given him free rein to stir up trouble in Russia, to torment the Kremlin and to make ordinary Russians fear that the war is coming home to them.
Budanov has a reputation as a ruthless, effective and imaginative operator, and much the same could be said of GUR as a whole. Although there is some evidence of domestic anti-war activism in Russia, Ukrainian military intelligence seems to be behind most recent sabotage attacks in the country. Lacking an extensive network of agents behind enemy lines, it has turned to unexpected new forms of recruitment. Hackers ransack the bank accounts of Russian pensioners who are then blackmailed into firebombing draft offices. Russian teenagers — who claim not to know who is paying them — are hired through social media to set light to railway junction boxes for money.
Some of the GUR’s most spectacular coups have been executed by people who apparently had no idea that they were carrying out a mission. The haulier who drove a truck full of explosives onto the Kerch bridge in October did not seem to know what he was carrying (he died in the explosion), while the Russian woman who handed an ultra-nationalist blogger a bust that exploded and killed him in St Petersburg was apparently unaware that she was passing on a bomb. A British intelligence officer who has worked with GUR called the agency “Ukraine’s Mossad”, likening it to Israeli intelligence in that “when they go after a target, they really will do whatever it takes”.
Actual Ukrainian military intelligence operatives seem to be kept for the most ambitious operations, such as the bombing which derailed a freight train in Russia’s Bryansk region in May, or the drone attack on the Kremlin itself on the eve of the Victory Day celebrations, probably launched by GUR officers in Russian territory or guided in by agents with a line of sight to the target. These appear to be the responsibility of Bratstvo (“Brotherhood”), an elite unit within the Spetsnaz.
Russians loyal to Kyiv’s cause — or at least hostile to Putin — are also proving useful. The agency plays a key role in Ukraine’s foreign legion of volunteers from around the world, but is especially closely connected with the Russians making up units such as the Russian Volunteer Corps and Free Russia Legion.
The former launched a token cross-border incursion into Russia’s Bryansk region in March, and last week, together with the Free Russia Legion, mounted a more serious raid into Belgorod region, which killed a number of border guards and police, before retreating back into Ukraine. While Moscow claimed they suffered heavy casualties, they appear to have withdrawn in good order.
Although Kyiv officially denied any role, claiming that the Russian units are wholly independent, in practice they are part of the Ukrainian military and could not have carried out such an attack without GUR’s approval and probably at its instigation.
Out of control?
The growing ambition of Ukrainian military intelligence is beginning to alarm certain western countries, even as they respect its professionalism. According to leaked US intelligence reports, the CIA has had to try to restrain Budanov from some attacks in Russia, and unconfirmed reports also suggest the Moldovan authorities asked the Americans to warn him of attempts to stir up trouble in its breakaway Transnistria region, where Russian “peacekeepers” control a large arsenal of Soviet-era weapons and ammunition.
Some Ukrainians are beginning to show similar ambivalence, admiring Budanov’s spirit while being concerned at the apparent lack of oversight. With suspicions mounting that he is thinking of a political career after the war, a European diplomat wondered whether he would “wrap himself in the flag and challenge Zelensky” if the Ukrainian leader considered concessions to Russia in the name of ending the war.
For the moment, though, GUR remains at the forefront of Ukrainian efforts to make the war as painful as possible for the Kremlin. And with every success Budanov’s star rises higher. The spy chief has stepped far out of the shadows: a piece of graffiti seen in Kyiv portrayed him as St George, slaying a dragon with the head of Vladimir Putin.
Professor Mark Galeotti is the author of over 20 books on Russia, most recently Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine, published by Bloomsbury