The Russian foreign military intelligence agency known as GRU has made headlines this week with two separate incidents.
On Wednesday, the United Kingdom published the (probably false) identities of two GRU officers suspected of the Skripals’ poisoning and Estonia reported the arrest of two individuals working for the GRU. They were Major Deniss Metsavas, working in the Headquarters of the Estonian Defence Forces, and his retired father, Pjotr Volin, who, as to the Prosecutor’s Office suspects, had been working for Russia for at least five years. Of the two, only Metsavas had access to classified information, while seemingly maintaining a successful career. The most compelling fact about Volin was that during the Soviet occupation he worked at the border guard service, which then was a part of the KGB.
For the time being, they are clearly considered just suspects—but the United Kingdom hasn’t resorted to empty talk neither in the case of Skripals nor before. Additionally, the espionage cases taken to court by the Estonian Internal Security Service or the Prosecutor’s Office have always resulted in guilty verdicts in the past. Hence, there is a good reason to take these cases seriously.
Less than two months have passed since a large group of 12 GRU officers were indicted in the US for trying to influence the results of the 2016 presidential elections. In this case, the names and positions as well as the activities of the GRU officers were known in great detail. The special service that usually enjoys staying out of the limelight is now in the focus like never before. Compared to the political intelligence agency KGB, the GRU was in the shadows during the Cold War, while the situation has changed now.
Obviously, things haven’t turned out the way the GRU headquarters had planned, yet it’s not correct to call this just a coincidence. Things happen and if one takes too many chances, one is bound to get caught. It would be incorrect to assume that they weren’t aware of the possible risks. On the other hand, according to public sources, all three of the aforementioned operations started at different times and the fact that they were simultaneously brought to public notice does not mean that the GRU has been considerably more active in the past months. This is good news, because the period where military intelligence starts to stir things up might be just before a war but the current row of cases where people got caught don’t show that kind of activity. While the incidents in the United Kingdom and the US might even serve some level of benefit for the GRU—they have had a chance to display themselves as an influential agency—the case of Deniss Metsavas and Pjotr Volin being caught red-handed is less positive for the GRU. Estonian officials commenting on the case have stated several times that people committing treason here get caught. It’s debatable whether it is indeed every single time, but for any potential future recruits, the statement bears a strong message: getting caught is very probable.
Of course, everyone is interested (except for maybe the Internal Security Service who already know the answer) in how Metsavas and Volin were caught. While the public is just curious, for the GRU it’s an essential question as they would definitely want to avoid mistakes such as this in the future. And because the practical details of the case are useful mainly for the GRU, they will never be published, as the GRU is not going to be helped by the Estonian counter-intelligence. However, even Moscow knows the mechanics of the matter and there are no positive outcomes for the GRU there.
Why do people get caught? History has shown that there are three general options.
First. The agent makes mistakes or acts in a suspicious manner, for example, by spending large amounts of money that his job position generally couldn’t afford, catching the eye of security in rooms where he shouldn’t be in, snooping around doing things that aren’t any of his business and so on. Considering the sincere surprise and disappointment of officers during the interviews on the day when the news broke, it’s not probable that this kind of behaviour applies to Metsavas.
Second. Something goes wrong in the line of communications. The manner of communication dictates a lot here, there are many possibilities, but to the benefit of foreign countries, this is always a weak spot for the intelligence. While familiarizing oneself with secret documents is usually a specified job function and memorizing the content of the materials can’t be prevented even by the best surveillance, the timely transfer of sensitive information is always dangerous. The Internet might look like a way out of this predicament but this too is deceptive, as electronic communication leaves traces.
The third way is the most devious one. While the recruited agent can be reminded vigorously to behave properly and refrain from drawing attention, and with enough resources, it’s possible to bring the level of communication risk to the minimum, fighting against this third hazard has turned out to be the most difficult. Namely, it involves information leakage from inside the recruiting intelligence agency—the worst nightmare of both the GRU and all its agents. We know cases from history where an agent carried out his dangerous activities for decades with care and under tremendous stress, then retired, thinking every danger had passed him after a couple of years, and still eventually found himself in handcuffs. Information leaks couldn’t be prevented during the Cold War (which sometimes culminated with intelligence officers defecting to the West), nor later. It’s likely that this problem hasn’t disappeared anywhere. Upon thinking about the poisoning of the Skripals, the prevention of dangerous situations such as this would be one of the few logical motives, if not the only one.