Russia: Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU)

The Cheka

Russia has one of the oldest traditions of secret intelligence operations, rivaled only by Great Britain.  While the ideology of the Moscow government has changed radically from several phases of communism in the 20th century to oligarchic capitalism in the 21st  century, the doctrines and practice of the state’s intelligence organizations have changed less. Russia’ two biggest intelligence services, the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) and the Federal Security Service (FSB), are the product of this history.


Main Intelligence Directorate
Seal of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (Credit: Wikimedia)


The roots of Russian intelligence go back more than a century. When the communists took power in Russia in October 1917 and established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), they immediately set up an “Extraordinary Committee,” (in Russian,“Cheka”) to root out counterrevolution and sabotage.


The Cheka,  a division of the national police force known as the NKVD, became the secret police of the new regime. Domestically, the Cheka focused on anti-communist elements in the peasant and merchant classes, particularly their connection with British intelligence agent seeks to overthrow the communist government. From the start, Russian intelligence combined domestic and foreign operations.


To control and disrupt enemies at home and abroad, the NKVD created The Trust, an anti-communist organization that was, in fact, controlled by the communists. By recruiting allies among Russian emigres in Europe, the Trust identified the leading opponents of the government, discouraged armed rebellion, and generally rendered their efforts futile. The Trust became a model for Soviet deception operations in the decades to come.


Kim Philby
Cambridge Five: Soviet spy Kim Philby fooled the CIA and MI6


As Joseph Stalin consolidated his position as the sole leader of the Soviet Union, his intelligence expanded its theater of operations with penetration and disinformation operations in foreign countries. The Cambridge 5 was the NKVD’s most spectacular successes. Recruited at elite Cambridge University in the early 1930, these young Englishmen went on to careers in the British foreign service and intelligence, reporting all the while back to Moscow.  The Russians also had some success recruiting American communists as spies. These penetration operations would help Stalin during his negotiations with the Allies in World War II and hasten the development of the USSR’s nuclear arsenal.


In the mid-1930s, Stalin used the NKVD to purge his intelligence services of possible rivals, charging them with subversion, putting them on trial publicly, and then executing many  of them. The result was “the Great Purge” that immobilized the Soviet government. The NKVD also orchestrated assassination of Stalin’s critics including Leon Trotsky, one of the original Bolsheviks. While Stalin reigned supreme he had also degraded his own intelligence service, leading him to overestimate the strength of communist parties in Europe and underestimate the threat of the Nazi Germany. When Germany invaded Russia in 1941, the Soviet Union paid a huge price—millions of deaths– for Stalin’s self-induced intelligence failure.

Birth of the KGB

With the death of Stalin in 1953, the Soviet leadership reckoned with the Stalin’s crimes by reorganizing the NKVD out of existence. the new KGB (Committee of State Security) took over responsibilities for both domestic and foreign intelligence. Repressive measures were eased at home as foreign operations against West Germany, Great Britain and the United States expanded with initial success. The KGB was able to obtain some of the West’s most sensitive secrets while effectively denying the British and American spy services from operating in the Soviet Union.


After the victory of the Vietnamese communists in 1975, the KGB entered a period of unprecedented confidence. By imparting intelligence techniques to communist regimes and movements , the KGB enhanced the Soviet Union’s political influence around the world. The intelligence services of East Germany and Cuba were seen as the cutting edge of communist power worldwide.


Yet for all of its accomplishments, the KGB was built on a faulty foundation, the dysfunctional Soviet society that had stifled by decades of repression. When Mikhail Gorbachev sought to renovate the Soviet system with economic restructuring (perestroika) and political freedoms (glasnost) in the 1980s, the authority of the state withered. The KGB was helpless as the people abandoned even the pretense of loyalty to communism. When old-guard communists sought to overthrow Gorbachev in 1991, Russian nationalists took led by Boris Yeltsin took power in Moscow and the Soviet republics declared their independence. The KGB was disbanded.

Putin and the Siloviki

Putin Vacation
Russian President in Tuva, August 2018.

Vladimir Putin, a KGB officer stationed in Germany, during the collapse of the Soviet regime, succeeded Yeltsin in 2000. With the dream of reestablishing Russian power and prestige with the techniques he had learned in the KGB, Putin demanded loyalty from the oligarchs who had emerged from the ruins of capitalism. Those who resisted found themselves in prison, in exile, or dead.

Putin’s rise embodied the phenomenon of the siloviki, the network of military and intelligence officers who rose to power with Putin. For operations against the United States and the Great Britain, he relied on the GRU. And for the most sensitive overseas  missions in hot spots like Ukraine, Syria, and Libya, he turned to a private intelligence company called Wagner, run by longtime associate Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Russia has three intelligence services, the FSB, which has responsibilities for domestic security and border control, the SVR, which handles foreign intelligence, and the GRU, the organ of military intelligence

The director of the GRU, appointed in 2018, is Admiral Igor Kostyukov. As a GRU official Kostyukov directly took part in exercising control over Russia’s military operation in Syria. He was honored as Hero of Russia for his “courage and heroism” displayed when performing his duties. In late December 2016, he was placed on Washington’s sanctions list for alleged actions to “undermine democracy: in the United States and in September 2018, he was again blacklisted by the US for allegedly interfering in the 2016 US presidential elections. During the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kostyukov was placed on a European Union “blacklist.”

Under Putin the GRU has allegedly orchestrated the assassination of enemies of the Russian state abroad, particularly in Great Britain. It is also known for its cyber operations.  According to  January 2017 finding of the U.S. intelligence community, a GRU-affiliated team hacked the email system during the 2016 presidential election in order to help Donald Trump’s candidacy. “Only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities,” the finding concluded. Russia rejected the charge.

In July 2018, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 GRU officers for hacking the computers of the Hillary Clinton campaign, the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and releasing the information via Wikileaks during the 2016 presidential campaign. (Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who was not interviewed by Mueller’s investigators, denies collaborating with the Russians.) The redacted version of Mueller’s final report concluded that Clinton, the DNC, and the DCCC were victims of a GRU “spear phishing” operation, indicating an organized attack rather than a theft of opportunity.

In October 2020, the U.S. Justice department charged six members of the GRU’s Military Unit 74455  with computer intrusions and attacks intended to support Russian government efforts to undermine, retaliate against, or otherwise destabilize: (1) Ukraine; (2) Georgia; (3) elections in France; (4) efforts to hold Russia accountable for its use of a weapons-grade nerve agent, Novichok, on foreign soil; and (5) the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games after Russian athletes were banned from participating under their nation’s flag, as a consequence of Russian government-sponsored doping effort.

Another hacking group linked to the GRU, Fancy Bear or APT28, penetrated the networks of U.S. government agencies, according to news reports.

In the 2020 election, a study by Zignal Labs found that Russia’s role in fostering misinformation and disinformation in the U.S. media was tiny compared to the role of the Trump campaign and the Republican party.

Just as Joseph Stalin subordinated the organs of Russian intelligence to his personalistic dictatorship in the early 20th century, Vladimir Putin achieved the same goal in the early 21st century.