The GRU – an acronym for Glavnoye razvedyvatel’noye upravleniye, or Main Intelligence Directorate – is at the center of the election meddling scandal, according to the Director of National Intelligence.
Members – or former members – of the agency are also believed by British intelligence to have been behind the Novichok attack on Sergei Skripal, a former colonel in the GRU, in Salisbury, England in March.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team handed down indictments last week against 12 senior members of the GRU, alleging that they masterminded a hacking campaign against the Democratic Party.
The indictment alleges a wide-ranging conspiracy involving sophisticated hacking and staged releases of documents.
GRU officers covertly monitored computers of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign and Democratic campaign committees, and stole large amounts of data, the indictment said.
In addition to releasing documents directly to the public, the defendants transferred stolen documents to another organization, not named in the indictment, and discussed timing the release of the documents in an attempt to enhance the impact on the election,’ Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told a news conference.
Friday’s indictment was secured by Mueller as part of his probe into Russian involvement in the election.
It was the first by Mueller that directly charges the Russian government with meddling in the election, which Trump unexpectedly won. The Kremlin denies it interfered.
The GRU’s head, Igor Korobov, was one of those sanctioned by the US in December 2016 for ‘malicious cyber-enabled activities’.
But he visited the country in January of this year.
The agency, one of whose divisions has an emblem showing a bat hovering above a globe, was founded as the Registration Directorate in 1918 after the Bolshevik Revolution.
Revolutionary dictator Vladimir Lenin insisted on its independence from other secret services, and the GRU was seen as a rival by other Soviet secret services.
Before the Russian Federation came into existence, the unit was subordinate to the more famous and feared KGB, the notorious internal security service of the Soviet Union.
The KGB was ultimately succeeded by the FSB – the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation.
Vladimir Putin was a member of the KGB for 16 years and later briefly the head of the FSB.
According to Yuri Shvets, a one-time KGB agent, GRU officers were referred to as ‘boots’ – tough but unsophisticated.
‘The GRU took its officers from the trenches,’ he said, adding that the KGB picked its agents – including Putin – from the USSR’s best universities.
It was the KGB that determined who could work for the GRU.
John Barron, a historian and journalist, once wrote that the KGB used ‘coercion and bribery to recruit informants among GRU officers, just as it does in every other element of Soviet society’.
The GRU would train agents and then send them to represent the Soviet Union abroad as military attaches in foreign embassies, according to Barron.
But once a member of the GRU, it is believed to be exceptionally difficult to leave. And those who do so to join foreign agencies are punished savagely.
Viktor Suvorov, a GRU officer who defected to Britain in 1978, said new recruits were shown a video of a traitor from the agency being burned alive in a furnace as a warning.