Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 17

The Enduring Power of the GRU

by Stanislav Lunev

In October, 1995, a Russian government delegation, headed by FirstDeputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets, signed a number of documentson developing Russo-Cuban cooperation. There would be no reasonto call this fact noteworthy, if it were not for one small detail.All these documents — on credits to continue construction onthe Juragua atomic power station, on resuming arms supplies tothe Cuban army, on supplying Cuba with oil and, on creating Russo-Cubanjoint ventures in oil refining — had one thing in common.

Virtually all the credits offered by the Russian government toCuba were intended to compensate Cuba for Russian intelligence’scontinued use of the Lourdes radio-technical intelligence station,which one of the members of the Russian government delegationcalled "a unique facility of Russia’s national security system."And it is difficult to disagree with such a definition, sincethis station, located close to U.S. territory, is able to register,take bearings on, and determine the sources of the radio-electronicsignals of the guidance systems of American strategic weaponssystems, determine the patrolling patterns of atomic missile submarines,and intercept radio and radio-technical (including commercial)communications on American territory, in addition to many otherfunctions.

The characteristics of this station and the threat it poses toUS national security are well-known to specialists, but only arather small number of people know who the people stationed atLourdes work for and who is given this top-secret American information.Because, contrary to the widely-held opinion that this stationis run by the successors of the former KGB, in real life, it fallsunder the jurisdiction of the most secret element of the Russiannational security system–the Main Intelligence Directorate [GRU]of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, about whoseactivities, little-known to outsiders, legends circulate amongprofessionals.

Thus, it is a rather well-known fact that the turning point inthe Second World War and the victory of Soviet troops at Stalingradwere the direct result of the activity of GRU intelligence officers,who were able to learn that Japan had no intention of attackingthe USSR. This made it possible for the Soviet Union to shiftfresh Siberian divisions to the Volga, which routed Paulus’ army.But few know that it was thanks to professional intelligence officersof the GRU that the "network" of so-called "atomspies" was created that gave Moscow the secrets of the ManhattanProject. The "Cambridge Spy Ring," one of whose mainactivists, George Blake, was under the direct control of GRU intelligenceofficers, also obtained materials of extraordinary importance.

Also almost unknown to outsiders are such events as the GRU’sdirect participation in securing the deployment of Soviet nuclearmissiles in Cuba in 1961, the activity of GRU special operationsforces [spetsnaz] in Afghanistan in removing [assassinating] thatcountry’s president on the eve of the invasion of Soviet troops,when the former KGB’s special operations forces, dressed in Sovietand Afghan uniforms, almost bungled the operation by shootingat each other. According to one recent joke, if Aldrich Ames,"the last spy of the Cold War," had been run by theGRU, and not by the successors of the former KGB, he would havecontinued to harm US national security for many years, and wouldhave finished his career, not in a Pennsylvania maximum-securityprison, but in a dacha somewhere near Moscow.

It is characteristic that Soviet military strategic intelligence,created in the 1920s as the GRU of the General Staff of the Workers’and Peasants’ Red Army, has not changed its name even once, insharp distinction to its long-time competitor, political intelligence,which changed its name from VChK, to NKVD, to MGB, to KGB, andfinally, to SVR. The name was kept the same so that the hundredsand thousands of citizens of countries on the American, Eurasian,African, and Australian continents who had offered their servicesto the GRU could be confident that they were dealing with a powerfulagency that would continue its work under any circumstances, inspite of any changes in the Soviet Union’s political leadershipand, indeed, in spite of the disappearance of the Soviet Unionitself.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the short [1991-1992]period of subordination to the already-mythical CIS Unified MilitaryCommand, the former Soviet military intelligence was includedin the military-political system of the new "democratic"Russian Federation, and became known officially as the GRU ofthe General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. To understand howthis agency, one of the most powerful intelligence agencies inthe world, worked and still works, all one has to do is turn toa world map, where it is not difficult to find the little starmarked "Moscow" — the capital of the Russian Federation.

It is here, on the edge of the Central Airport, that the headquartersof the GRU, with its central apparatus and its support staff,are located, guarded more tightly than the lives of the country’shighest military and political leaders. The GRU’s structure issimple and effective, rather flexible, and quickly adaptable tothe country’s current military needs. In addition to the staffof the head of the GRU, the main intelligence-gathering units,the so-called Operational Directorates [operativnye upravleniia],are here.

The First Operational Directorate of the GRU, traditionally, eversince the Second World War, called the "European" directorate,is responsible for conducting intelligence operations againstthe countries of Western and (since the beginning of the 1990s)Eastern Europe. The Second Operational Directorate, for just aslong, has been called the "Asiatic" directorate, andis responsible for conducting intelligence operations againstCentral, South and East Asian countries, as well as the countriesof the Far East, Australia, and New Zealand. The Third OperationalDirectorate is responsible for conducting intelligence operationsagainst countries on the American continent and Great Britain,and the Fourth Operational Directorate organizes military intelligenceactivity against countries in the Middle East and Africa.

These directorates employ a small staff of first-class professionalintelligence officers with substantial experience working againstthe countries in their operational area. Thanks to their efforts,the GRU’s intelligence activity against various countries is organized,then carried out by the GRU’s field office [rezidentura]or offices as, for example, in the United States, where thereare GRU field offices operating in Washington and New York, withmore being set up in San Francisco and Seattle.

Operations officers in these GRU field offices carefully researchthe country against which they work, and seek to learn its mostimportant secrets by recruiting persons who have access to informationof interest to the GRU and are ready to sell it. Such work frequentlyends successfully for the intelligence officers, who are thusable to penetrate into the "holy of holies" of the countriesagainst which they are working.

The information received from the field offices is divided upamong the GRU’s Operations Directorates by territory, and is processedby the so-called Operational Branches [napravleniia], whichare territorially narrower in scope. For example, in the structureof the Third (American) Operational Directorate, responsibilityis divided among branches which conduct intelligence operationsagainst the United States, Latin America, Great Britain, and Canada.

Before the disintegration of the Soviet Union, another OperationalDirectorate — the Fifth Operational Directorate — ran and coordinatedthe activity of the Intelligence Directorates of all the militarydistricts, army groups and fleets, but in recent years, it hasbecome the main organ conducting intelligence against the formerunion republics, which are now called the Newly Independent States.There are other GRU intelligence organs which work in close coordinationwith the units named above, including the First Branch [napravlenie],which is responsible for working against foreigners who visitor live on Russian territory, the Special Branch [napravlenie],which supervises the activity of military "illegals,"the Special Center, which organizes special training of terroristgroups and the organs in charge of other forms of intelligenceand reconnaissance, first of all, space reconnaissance, radioand radio-technical intelligence, communications, cryptography,and others.

Each GRU Operations Directorate is supported by its own informationdirectorate, where area specialists on America, Europe, Asia andAfrica, and other regions work together with specialists on scienceand technology, strategic analysis, arms control, and much more.And the collation, analysis, and processing of the operationalinformation brought in goes on twenty-four hours a day in theGRU Command Post.

If one takes into account that GRU Headquarters also has a PersonnelDirectorate and a Directorate of Material and Technical Supply,and also a few small scientific and technical branches, the totalnumber of people working at Russia’s military intelligence centercomes to a little over 2,500 people, or approximately the samenumber of people working at the headquarters of Russian politicalintelligence [the SVR] in Yasenevo. But to flesh out the picture,one needs to take another look at the map, on which Moscow islinked by the direct lines of communication of the OperationsDirectorates to the GRU’s field offices abroad, located in theirzones of operational responsibility.

And if you draw a circle with a radius of several hundred miles,within that circle, you will see that the GRU also has at itsdisposal, both inside the Russian capital and a short distanceoutside it, scientific research centers, institutes, and laboratories,special training centers and camps, testing grounds, and evenfactories where special spying equipment is produced, all meticulouslystamped "made in" the USA, Japan, Germany, and othercountries.

The military strategic special operations brigades, known to almostno one, which are trained to eliminate, in a matter of minutes,the military and political leaders of other countries, no matterhow closely they are guarded, to knock out the enemy’s main, auxiliary,and reserve command points, to destroy the control centers andlaunchers of the enemy’s strategic missile forces, the bomberswhich can deliver strategic and operational-tactical nuclear weapons,and to fulfill other more or less important tasks, are also stationednear Moscow. GRU specialists directly train and care for thesebrigades, which are always on the alert, ready for action as soonas they receive the command.

But to take a broader look at the GRU, you have to turn to themap once again, where the Russian military districts and fleetsare now depicted, each of them having their own Intelligence Directorate[upravlenie], which has several Intelligence Points, eachof which has up to twenty professional intelligence officers,subordinate to it. These points conduct recruitment work amongforeigners and Russian citizens, which could be used both in peacetimeand in wartime in the intelligence interests of the front. Thecompanies, battalions, and brigades of army, military-district,and naval special operations forces, which are officially subordinateto the Intelligence directorates of the military districts andfleets, in fact, get all their training, and material and technicalsupply from the GRU, which is the true boss of the special operationsforces.

Neither the SVR nor any of the other Russian intelligence serviceshave such might at their disposal. And moreover, neither the SVRnor any other intelligence service has space reconnaissance, whichis under the GRU’s exclusive jurisdiction, nor air reconnaissance,nor radio and radio-technical intelligence, whose stations andposts, both on the territory of the former USSR and in other countries,leave no foreign military signals unnoticed, and can crack theintricate codes used by foreign governments to conceal their mostsensitive national security information easily.

Everything mentioned above is part of a single and strictly-centralizedintelligence system, which is able to deliver intelligence informationof a strategic character to the country’s highest military andpolitical leadership upon demand. To think that the GRU worksfor itself alone would be simply naive, for questions of wheremilitary intelligence activity is to be directed are decided bythe political leadership, not by the General Staff or the ministerof defense. Having before it the tasks posed by the politicalleadership, the GRU collects, processes, analyzes and collatesinformation on the country’s most likely adversaries, their militaryand political plans and intentions, the condition of their armedforces, military-industrial complex, scientific-research workin the military field, and, in general, on everything which couldbe used to achieve military victory in the case of a possibleor probable armed conflict in the future.

Therefore, it is not by chance that when the highest Russian leadersspeak about intelligence matters, they, as a rule, touch on theactivity of the well-known successor to the KGB’s First Main Directorate– the present SVR, but almost never mention the subject of militarystrategic intelligence. Because it would be rather difficult forthe same Russian government which tells the USSR’s former politicaland military adversaries of its desire for peace, cooperation,and strategic partnership, and even a future alliance, to explainits support for the activities of the GRU, which, as always, isworking with its eye towards a future war against those countrieswhich Moscow today officially declares to be its partners andfriends.

The organization of this work, intended to help Russia in a futurewar, is, naturally, a rather complicated process, but it can beexplained with concrete examples. Suppose, for example, that theradio-technical intelligence station in Lourdes, Cuba mentionedabove takes bearings on "unidentified" electronic signalscoming from the USA’s East Coast. On the leadership’s command,the GRU’s system is immediately set into motion, and intelligencesatellites are used to help define the source of the signal. Airand naval reconnaissance, whose ships and planes, disguised ascommercial and research vessels, are specially equipped for thispurpose, and are on constant patrol, are called in for assistance.

As far as is possible, the GRU’s agents, who can penetrate whereradio, radio-technical, optic, laser, and other forms of radiationcannot, are also called in. All of this information is then usedto form an idea of what the "unknown installation’s"purpose and capabilities are, which can later be sharpened, broadened,supplemented, etc., and reported to the country’s highest leadershipand used in the General Staff’s plans for the possible destructionof this installation at the beginning of a new war.

All in all, the GRU is a carefully-calibrated intelligence mechanism,able to carry out virtually any task the country’s military andpolitical leadership sets before it at any time. And today, thequestion of the practical use of this mechanism is not how itworks in everyday practice, but to what end it can be used mosteffectively at the present time. For example, today, the GRU coulddevote its attention to local and regional conflicts to ward offfuture conflicts and localize existing ones or take part in theworld community’s efforts to fight international terrorism andorganized crime.

But to this day, there are no encouraging reports to this effectin the press, and, on orders of Russia’s highest military andpolitical leadership, the country’s strategic military intelligencecontinues to work towards the same goal it had in the past –to prepare Russia and its armed forces for a new war, althoughpossibly in the remote future. Against whom–it is hard to say,but the target could be any one of the countries where its forwardelements or field offices are stationed. And here, it doesn’tmatter whether the prospective target is, in the "near"or the "far" abroad.


1. The Jamestown Foundation’s Monitor, October 17, 1995

Translated by Mark Eckert