Note: for the sake of clarity, traditional Soviet acronyms, such as KGB and GRU, are used. The name changes were frequent and of little consequence.
If this were any other decade, and but for (NY Times) Suspicions of Russian Bounties Were Bolstered by Data on Financial Transfers, I would be skeptical. The other open source evidence is based on interrogations of captured Taliban. The captives were caught in proximity to large amounts of cash. I would have wondered if the story of the captives was intended to conceal a drug-mule operation.
But the reality of Unit 29155, and likely spinoffs, cannot be denied. It has turned Britain and Germany into a hunting ground, where Russia claims the extraterritorial right to assassinate. Most of the victims are Russian citizens, but not all. Slavs, and troublesome spies are eligible. Britain is looking at a whole slew of unsolved deaths.
If it weren’t for the unsolved deaths, the reputation of Unit 29155 would be of paramount bunglers, leaving in their wake trails of failed hits and ID’d operatives. So it does not disqualify that the estimated U.S. toll in Afghanistan centers around a handful.
Unit 29155 exists because it always has, though the organizational chart follows a wide historical arc. In concept, it began in 1920 as the “Yasha Group.” It was actually a third intelligence service, though under the control of the NKVD. Although all the names have changed, the GRU also dates to this era. In the Soviet Union, no power center could be allowed to exist outside the Communist Party. As the enforcer of political discipline, the NKVD was closely tied to the Party. The greater distance of the military from that center of power was enforced, at first by hierarchical design, later by the purges.
Hence while the GRU was more numerous, the NKVD was higher in the power hierarchy. The para-military activities of the Yasha Group, which became the Administration for Special Tasks under Pavel Sudoplatov, parallel the modern GRU-29155. During World War II, Special Tasks included a motorized brigade level commando force.
But the capabilities of Special Tasks, which included sabotage and assassination, were inherently dangerous to the Party. Special Tasks was the principal client of the KGB poison lab, run by Grigory Mairanovsky. (Guardian) Russia’s Lab X: poison factory that helped silence Soviets’ critics. (The lab was such a hideous idea, the Soviets kept changing the number on the org charts.) Hence it was considered safest to subordinate it to the the NKVD.
With the death of Stalin, the Soviet Union returned to an unstable collective leadership with ingrained fear of the repressive instruments of the purges, which included the use of poisons, and the necessity of propaganda to apportion blame for Stalin’s atrocities, in which they were all complicit to varying degrees. The poison lab was denounced, and continued with a different number on the door.
With the death of Beria a short time later, the leadership moved to reassert total Party control, by destruction or reformation of institutions associated with Stalin and Beria. Ranking members of Special Tasks were imprisoned, partly due to association with Beria, partly from fear of the group’s lethal expertise, and from the desire of Khrushchev to use the group as a scapegoat for his own share of atrocities.
For a long time, a real question of the leadership, which shows the fear Special Tasks inspired, was, how many had they actually killed? The Soviet system was sufficiently opaque to confuse those who had lived close to the center of power.
Soviet/Russian presence on the world stage can be divided into four periods, with some overlap, as actors from a previous period persisted into the next until final removal:
- 1918-1922, World revolution, Leninist dogma, strongly influenced by Trotsky.
- Stalinist, 1922-1953 — Build Soviet communism first, world communism later. While10 years elapse for Stalin to obtain total control, Trotskyism gradually fades, ending with his assassination, an early achievement of Sudoplatov.
- 1950’s to breakup: Phlegmatic collective leadership with infighting; “peaceful coexistence.”
- Modern: Aggressive, lacking in principles, resource starved yet genuinely threatening to the West, though not devoid of positive domestic qualities.
From the 50’s, up till the fall of the Soviet Union, Soviet foreign policy is described by Kissinger as ponderously bureaucratic. When did the mission of Sudoplatov’s Special Tasks, formerly under the thumb of the NKVD, move over to the military GRU? It could not happen as long as the Communist Party was in control. Curiously, they seemed as personally abhorrent of poisons as the rest of us, fearful that personal loyalties were insufficient protection from that form of diabolism.
Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was assassinated by the Bulgarian secret service via a novel ricin delivery system in 1978. The rather credible testimony of defectors Oleg Kalugin and Oleg Gordievsky assert that the KGB provided the poison. Hence, a date stamp; as late as 1978, the GRU was not what is now referred to as the “go to” resource for clandestine violence.
By 1986, as Party control imperceptibly weakened, there is a hint of change or loosening of the control of special ops, with the West Berlin discotheque bombing, the casus belli for the 1986 United States retaliatory strikes against Libya 10 days later. It required opening of the Stasi archives in 1990 to provide sufficient evidence for prosecution of individuals.
What did the Stasi archives reveal? This is the perfect cliffhanger, so stay tuned!