Five tantalizing questions about Mueller’s investigation
Secretive Russian GRU tests Trump with brazen tactics
Russia's secretive military intelligence agency, the GRU, is testing the limits of Western countries with its aggressive tactics and bold operations, prompting action from the Trump administration and some European allies as they seek to counter its behavior.
The Trump administration has sanctioned several GRU officers for launching cyberattacks and has expelled dozens of suspected Russian intelligence officers operating in the U.S. in response to the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy in England this year.
The effort to thwart the GRU is part of a broader push by the U.S. government to take a firm stance against Russian aggression, one that has at times been overshadowed by President Trump's contradictory statements about Russian interference in the 2016 election and his overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The operations of the shadowy military intelligence directorate, the modern version of which was founded in the early 1990s, exceed traditional espionage and span a spectrum of aggressive activity. The GRU conducted one of its most brazen operations in 2016 by breaching servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and, according to U.S. intelligence officials and prosecutors, orchestrated the release of hacked emails as part of a broader, coordinated plot by Moscow to interfere in the presidential election.
Both the Obama and Trump administrations slapped sanctions on GRU officers for the interference effort. And in July, special counsel Robert Mueller charged 12 GRU officers for their role in the DNC hack.
"The GRU poses a very serious threat, especially in the context of what we know about Russian activities focused not just on our elections but on democratic institutions," said a senior State Department official.
The GRU is one of three main intelligence units of the Kremlin, the others being Russia's domestic security service, the FSB, and foreign intelligence service, the SVR.
While the GRU is generally described as the most aggressive of the three, former officials regard its recent operations as particularly aggressive and indicative of the Kremlin's embrace of so-called grey zone tactics that don't meet the threshold of conventional war.
"We're in a different kind of conflict," said Jim Lewis, a former State Department official and expert in foreign policy and intelligence at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's not going to be the kind of war we fought in the Middle East or the war we expected to fight in Europe during the Cold War."
The United Kingdom last week charged two Russians, alleged to be active officials in the GRU, in the attempted assassination of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, in March - a public admonishment of Moscow that was echoed by the U.S., France, Germany and Canada.
The moves, collectively, represent a concerted effort by the U.S. and its allies to push back on the Russian intelligence operation.
But some critics say the Trump administration's efforts against the GRU and Russia more broadly are complicated, and potentially hindered, by the president's inconsistent rhetoric on Russia.
Trump has appeared to begrudgingly accept the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community about Russian meddling, even as he has railed against Mueller's investigation into possible collusion between his campaign and Moscow.
The president has also expressed a desire to forge a positive relationship with Putin. In an interview with Reuters published in August, Trump signaled that he might consider waving sanctions on Moscow in exchange for cooperation in other areas, including Syria and Ukraine.
"You're sending two separate messages to multiple audiences, but first and foremost the Russian government," said Evelyn Farkas, a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration. "If we want to deter Russia and we want them to change their behavior so it's in line with international law, we need to send one strong firm message to them."
Officials with the administration insist its policies have been consistently firm in pushing back on Russian aggression and that relations with Moscow will only improve if Russia changes its behavior.
"I would point to the policies of this administration, which have been very clear across the board in terms of pushing back on Russian malign activities," said the senior State Department official.
"These are all administration policies. They don't happen in a vacuum. I think it is safe to say that President Trump is well aware of the challenge that Russia poses to the United States," the official said.
Tensions between Washington and Moscow have flared since the U.S. imposed new sanctions on Russia over the Skripal poisoning in August, following the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats.
A fresh round of sanctions will go into effect at the end of November if Russia does not meet a series of criteria, including showing that it is no longer using chemical or biological weapons in violation of international law. Russia has denied responsibility for the poisoning.
Skripal, a former GRU official who was recruited by the U.K. as a spy in the 1990s, and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in Salisbury in March but survived the attack. The same nerve agent, Novichok, was also used on two British citizens in June, one of whom died, and authorities believe the two incidents to be related.
"Broadly, this is a pattern of behavior," said a U.K. official. "The GRU has always been aggressive. I think what we would say is it has shown itself to be particularly reckless and irresponsible."
The Trump administration and its European partners face a challenge in pushing back on the GRU, given its penchant for brazen operations.
Russia's intelligence agencies, which are shrouded in secrecy, represent a key arm of the Kremlin's foreign policy. Vladimir Putin was an intelligence officer in the Soviet-era KGB and later its successor, the FSB, before becoming president of Russia.
The GRU is alleged to bear responsibility for the annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and a failed coup in Montenegro. Researchers have also linked a GRU officer to the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine.
"What the Russians are up to is essentially asymmetric political warfare," said John Sipher, a retired CIA officer.
"They'll evolve and do this differently, but they will continue to push," continued Sipher. "They're just relentless."