Russian spies are outed, but will heads roll in Moscow?
(CNN) — It looked like a spy agency’s worst nightmare: The unmasking of several agents, and the disclosure of sloppy tradecraft in what appeared to be a bungled intelligence operation.
But heads have yet to roll — at least not publicly — at the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency.
On Thursday, Western governments mounted a coordinated effort to unmask what they claimed were “brazen” efforts by GRU agents to sow chaos on foreign soil.
In a briefing Thursday, the Dutch government said it had foiled a “close-access hack operation” by the GRU aimed at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the world’s chemical-weapons watchdog. The Dutch claimed that the four alleged agents planned to travel next to an OPCW-accredited laboratory in Switzerland, but did not get there because their operation was intercepted.
That same day, Britain accused the GRU of carrying out a worldwide campaign of “malicious” cyberattacks, and the US Justice Department announced criminal charges against seven GRU officers, accusing them of involvement in an effort to deflect attention from Russia’s state-sponsored sports doping program.
The coordinated information dump revealed what appeared to be an embarrassing security breach for the GRU. Details in the Dutch briefing were particularly tantalizing: The head of Dutch counterintelligence named four alleged Russian GRU officers, noting that two of them had consecutive passport numbers, a potential red flag for intelligence agencies.
And then there was the taxi receipt: When detained, one of the alleged agents had a receipt for a trip to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport from Nesvizkhskiy Pereulok, a road bordering what Dutch counterintelligence said was a GRU facility.
The owner of the cab company confirmed to CNN that the receipt was authentic, but added that the driver couldn’t recall whether any of the men named were indeed the passengers. Such details provided fodder for online sleuths, and raised questions among some observers about the GRU’s level of professionalism.
Unlike Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, the two Russians named by the UK as the suspects in the nerve agent attack earlier this year in Salisbury, England, the four men named by the Dutch on Thursday left more digital traces.
The Moscow Times even reported that Yevgeny Serebryakov, one of the Russian men accused of the attempted OPCW hack, appeared to be a participant in a Moscow amateur soccer league.
So how big a scandal is this in Russia, and how will it play? The case of Petrov and Boshirov proves instructive.
In early September, British authorities released the names of the two men, saying they were GRU agents traveling under aliases. Following the release of those names, Russian President Vladimir Putin described the two men as “civilians,” and encouraged them to come forward.
The following day, Russia’s state-owned RT aired an interview with the two men, who admitted traveling to Salisbury but denied working for the GRU. That prompted insinuations and jokes on Russian media about the sexual orientation of “Boshirov” and “Petrov” as well as their fondness for Gothic spires.
The RT interview was a weapon of mass distraction, turning the Salisbury poisoning into fodder for memes. But the information war continued: After the RT interview aired, the UK investigative website Bellingcat claimed to have identified “Boshirov” as a GRU colonel.
In the coming days, no doubt, we’ll learn more about the identities of the supposed GRU agents. But the Russian response has been to double down on accusations of “fake news.”
On Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova called the UK allegations a “hellish perfume mix,” saying, “The rich imagination of our UK colleagues truly knows no limits. Who comes up with this?”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov played the same note on Friday. Western governments, he said, were driven by “hysteria” and “spy phobia” after the US, the Netherlands and Britain publicly unmasked the alleged Russian intelligence agents.
To be sure, the latest round of spy wars has not been consequence-free for Russia. The US and its allies expelled dozens of Russian diplomats in the wake of the Salisbury poisoning, and the fears of Russian meddling persist: US lawmakers are considering new sanctions to punish Russia over its interference in US elections.