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Western security officials believe secret Russian unit responsible for attacks in Europe: NYT report

Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg. (The Kremlin/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Western security officials have identified a secret Russian intelligence unit that has tried to carry out assassinations and destabilization operations in foreign countries, according to The New York Times.

The daily reported on October 8 that although the officials only identified the unit in recent months, they believe it has operated covertly for at least a decade.

The unit, No. 29155, is based in Moscow and is part of the Defense Ministry’s military intelligence agency, known as the GRU.

Western security officials believe the unit is responsible for two attempts to poison Bulgarian arms dealer Emilan Gebrev in 2015, a 2016 coup attempt in Montenegro that included a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, and the 2018 attempted assassination of former GRU officer Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England.

Although all those incidents have previously been ascribed to Russian security forces, Western officials now believe they were all carried out by a single Russian military-intelligence unit.

“This is a unit of the GRU that has been active over the years across Europe,” an unnamed European security official told The New York Times.

Speaking to journalists on October 9, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the report as “pulp fiction,” saying Moscow was “by no means” interested in destabilizing European countries, TASS reported.

The Kremlin has routinely denied carrying out assassinations or interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, despite compelling evidence compiled by Western intelligence agencies, investigators, and journalists that it has repeatedly done so.

Sergei Kanev, a journalist with Russia’s Novaya Gazeta who helped identify the two members of the unit who are believed to have carried out the attempt to poison Skripal, wrote on Facebook on October 9 that Unit No. 29155 is well known among security analysts in Russia and that information about it and its commander, General Andrei Averyanov, is easily accessible through open sources.

‘Part Of The Game’

Mark Galeotti, a Russia analyst and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, posted on Twitter that the Times report was “interesting,” but that the unit described “sounds like a specialized GRU…hit squad rather than a wider strategic destabilization force.”

According to a 2012 Russian Defense Ministry directive, No. 29155 was one of three GRU units given a bonus for “special achievements in military service.”

One of the other units granted a bonus under that directive, No. 74455, is a cyberwarfare unit that was later accused by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller with interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The third, No. 99450, is believed to have played a role in Moscow’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea.

The New York Times reported that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov referred all questions about the GRU units to the Defense Ministry. The ministry did not respond to inquiries.

In 2006, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former Soviet KGB officer who once headed the Federal Security Service (FSB), signed a law authorizing security agencies to carry out targeted assassinations abroad.

The same year, former FSB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko was killed in London. British officials have linked that killing to the FSB.

Some European security officials told the Times that they are puzzled by the poor quality of Unit No. 29155’s work.

They note that Skripal and Gebrev survived the assassination attempts against them and the coup plot in Montenegro failed. In all three cases, investigators found solid evidence linking the plots to the Russian security forces.

Former Estonian intelligence chief Eerik-Niiles Kross told the daily that it is possible “they want to be felt” as “part of the psychological warfare” against the West.

“It’s part of the game,” he was quoted as saying.