Czech Minister of Foreign affairs Jan Hamacek (L) and Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis (R) announced the expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats during a press conference on April 17, 2021 in Prague, Czech Republic. (Photo by Gabriel Kuchta/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Uncovering the GRU

The GRU, Unit 29155 of Russia’s military intelligence service, is a remarkable failure of counterintelligence and politics from the West, says James Snell

Connoisseurs of a certain kind of bare-faced espionage have certainly enjoyed the last couple of days. They like it when faces or institutions, associated with other stories, reappear. In this case, the Czech Republic has expelled 18 Russian diplomats in retaliation for bombings in 2014 which targeted munitions factories in the country and killed two civilians. You may have seen the faces of the alleged culprits before.

They are Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga, the two men alleged to have poisoned Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in March 2018. They arrived in London under the names Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov and claimed later to have visited Salisbury twice, not to attempt assassination, but to gaze upon the cathedral’s notable spire.

It appears to exist to provide small teams of operatives who travel around Europe for acts of assassination, sabotage and subversion

They were swiftly identified as Russian assets but it took years of work to fill in some of the gaps. The open-source investigators at Bellingcat, working in tandem with independent Russian media, including The Insider, were able to pin down the military records of both Mishkin and Chepiga, and to uncover the barest facts about the unit they both served with, Unit 29155 of Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU.

In the years since, Unit 29155 has been accused of the attempted assassination of the arms dealer Emilian Gebrev in Sofia in 2015. It appears to exist to provide small teams of operatives who travel around Europe for acts of assassination, sabotage and subversion. In both the case of Gebrev and the Skripals, the unit has used poisons — holdovers of the chemical and biological weapons programmes of the Soviet Union.

Bellingcat identified eight seeming members of Unit 29155 who travelled to Bulgaria in the months before Gebrev was poisoned. This and the investigation surrounding the Skripal case gives some understanding of its organising structure and intentions.

Chepiga is a colonel in the GRU whom investigators believe fought in the second Chechen war and the hybrid conflict between Russia and Ukraine which has mired Ukraine from 2014. He was awarded the status of Hero of the Russian Federation — previously it was assumed for his time in Ukraine; but now it is possible that this was for the Czech bombings. Some investigators have him pegged as the ‘hit-man’ in Salisbury.

Mishkin meanwhile, is of the same rank as Chepiga, but he is also a military doctor, who studied at the S. M. Kirov Military Medical Academy. It is presumed by investigators that he handled the nerve agent — preserving the safety of the assassins while trying to ensure the death of their target. As it happened, Sergei Skripal survived — although a civilian who encountered the nerve agent by accident, Dawn Sturgess, later died. Mishkin is also a Hero of the Russian Federation.

The two men were ‘run’ by a third man — the apparent controller of the operation. He is Denis Sergeev, who travelled under the alias of Sergey Fedotov. During the assassination attempt, Sergeev remained in contact with the team in Salisbury by phone. He also placed continual calls to the number in Moscow assumed by investigators to be a generic contact for agents in the field to communicate with GRU centre.

As more details have emerged about the bombings in the Czech Republic, the same patterns of operation have been found. The eight who spied out the land in Bulgaria before the attempted poisoning of Gebrev follow the same rough organising principles adhered to by the Skripal poisoners. When Mishkin and Chepiga travelled around the Czech Republic prior to the bombing, they appear to have reconnoitred the ground in the same way as Salisbury before enacting their plan for sabotage.

Some espionage writers associate the unit with attempts at subversion in the Balkans. And the Biden administration in America has also alleged that Unit 29155 are behind the much reviled ‘bounties‘ placed by Russia on American troops in Afghanistan, paid to the Taliban per Americans killed. The evidence for this seems a little shaky, and in any case, it is not in the public domain.

There is little reason to hope exposure of the unit and its methods will do much to change the nature of this outrages

But from what we do know of the movements of this group, it is a remarkable challenge to the free nations of Europe: a series of cells of assassins and saboteurs has been able to travel freely across the continent for at least five years, killing and bombing, often using the same assumed names or variations on a theme; and they have never been stopped or caught — only identified in hindsight.

There is little reason to hope exposure of the unit and its methods will do much to change the nature of this outrages.

Even if Unit 29155 is deemed no longer watertight and is wound up; if all of its operatives are retired or farmed out, their names removed from the walls of honour and school yearbooks from which they were identified; more teams either exist or can be created. The attacks themselves could easily continue.

As amusing as it is for the connoisseurs and the readers of spy novels, this represents a remarkable failure of counterintelligence and politics, going back many years. When this campaign of murder and sabotage has worked for so long, there is little pleasure to be found in its details becoming public knowledge. Identification of the participants and their methods, even in the most elaborately clever ways, could well prove false consolation in the face of something far more worrying.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover