10 August 2014

12 Russian Spetsnaz Special Ops Soldiers Have Reportedly Been Killed in Ukraine Fighting in Recent Weeks

Sam Jones

Financial Times, August 8, 2014

President Vladimir Putin, left, and Sergei Ivanov, defence minister, visit Russia’s GRU (main intelligence agency)

In an anonymous military classroom somewhere in Moscow, 12 portraits in identical tortoiseshell frames stand on a metal bench placed on a dais. In front of each picture is a bunch of six roses, red and pink.
The dead, according to a source who showed the Financial Times photographs of last month’s quiet memorial – an individual with intimate knowledge of the Kremlin’s intelligence community – were operatives of Russian special forces. All 12 died in Ukraine in recent weeks. Officially, they were all on holiday.

The provenance of the photographs cannot be precisely verified. However, three of the deceased can be independently identified, using separate, open-source images of their training and uniforms, as serving military intelligence commandos.
Two bodies were also among those photographed by a Russian journalist for Novaya Gazeta crossing the Ukrainian border in June. Their truck was labelled “Cargo 200” – the Russian military code word for a transport of dead soldiers being repatriated.

It is a compelling, if circumstantial, fragment of evidence to back up claims Kiev has been making since April. Russia, Ukraine’s military chiefs allege, is not just arming separatist rebels in their country’s east but is waging an active, covert military campaign there using its own elite special forces and intelligence agents.
The Kremlin has consistently denied all such charges. Now, however, as Kiev’s military continues to push back rebels in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, the evidence is mounting – and the involvement of Russian operatives will become more crucial to the way the conflict plays out.

Western intelligence chiefs agree with Kiev’s assessment of Russian undercover activity, sanctioned by President Vladimir Putin. Serving Russian operatives and special forces are “undoubtedly” operating extensively in eastern Ukraine, one senior UK security official said.
As to who is directing them – and what it may indicate about Russia’s intentions – that is also becoming easier to answer.

The individuals concerned are distinct from groups of Russian mercenaries,former Russian service personnel and Chechens who have been identified previously as fighting alongside separatists in the pro-Moscow insurgency.
A handful of pictures gleaned from social media indicate their identity: they show individuals wearing ratnik combat gear – sophisticated equipment only introduced by the Russian military this year and available so far only to crack units, orspetsnaz.

“[They are] the sort of characters who work with precision, quickly, and then disappear,” said a senior Nato military intelligence officer. “It is very difficult to pinpoint where they have been. These are specialist troops. It is a small number of them, a very small number.”
[They are] the sort of characters who work with precision, quickly, and then disappear. It is very difficult to pinpoint where they have been. These are specialist troops. It is a small number of them, a very small number

- Nato officer

Indeed, while spetsnaz forces were quite visibly deployed in Crimea before it was annexed, in eastern Ukraine – perhaps because of lessons learned from Crimea – they have been more discreet.
“Spetsnaz are like a cross between US Rangers and the British SAS,” says Igor Sutyagin, a Russian military and intelligence expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “They have a range of uses. They can fight but they are also trained for intelligence work. To establish insurgencies. To control them. To smuggle arms. To wage guerrilla wars.”

Mr Sutyagin has documented spetsnaz activities in eastern Ukraine using dozens of open-source images and data to build up a picture of their positions and operations.
The use of spetsnaz points to one Russian military organisation in particular as running the operation: the GRU, the main intelligence directorate of the general staff. The GRU – a vast security apparatus housed in a building known as the “aquarium” in Moscow and whose logo is a bat, wings stretched over the globe – is emerging as Russia’s key agency in its handling of the Ukraine crisis.

The GRU suffered a significant decline in prestige and importance in the early years of Mr Putin’s presidency. Russia’s other intelligence services, particularly the FSB, were his preferred levers of power. But with the conflict in Russia’s “near abroad”, GRU’s strong-arm tactics have returned to favour. Its director, Lt Gen Igor Sergun – a personal Putin appointee – was among the first individuals targeted by western sanctions.

The GRU runs eight ground spetsnaz brigades. It also controls a spetsnaz unit of paratroopers, the 45th regiment of the VDV – an elite-within-an-elite squad of 700 “blue berets”. Two of those pictured in the Moscow funeral service were serving members of the 45th.
Kiev spy chiefs have compiled numerous other pieces of evidence suggesting the GRU has been the puppet master behind the insurgency. Wiretaps by the Ukrainian security service, the SBU, purport to have recorded numerous calls being made by separatist commanders to GRU handlers.

Igor Strelkov, the military commander of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, is a GRU colonel, according to the SBU.

Most compellingly of all, military analysts say Russian activities in eastern Ukraine are a textbook example of a GRU operation.

Assassinations, arms smuggling, the creation of guerrilla movements led by stooges (known in GRU parlance as konservy – canned foods) and the use of special forces operations to support them: these are all well-rehearsed elements of the GRU’s covert warfare doctrine.

The agency is almost certainly behind the huge supplies of arms that are making their way into rebel hands, according to one western intelligence official. Many of those arms come from GRU stockpiles of “deniable” weapons, such as Polish-made GROM shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles. GRU operatives seized those in Georgia in 2008 and have been stockpiling them.

“It is about subversion, it is about espionage with limited use of deniable special forces and the use of deniable proxies,” says Nigel Inkster, former director of operations and intelligence for MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service, and now the director of transnational threats at the think-tank IISS. “It is a war that is never really declared.”

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