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Russia’s GRU failures in midst of COVID-19 pandemic

Hereby, we publish this information review, which first appeared on the website of the Ukrayinskyy Tyzhden [1] (The Ukrainian Week) magazine on July 31, 2020. The review was prepared by the founder of the InformNapalm international volunteer community [2]Roman Burko. You can also report important information and insiders’ observations from the occupied territories of Crimea and Donbas to Roman Burko on Facebook [3]; this can be used in new review materials on this topic.

From cyber-terrorism in the EU to interfering with the elections in Belarus and invading Ukraine

The COVID-19 pandemic has become a real test for humanity. The scale of this disease is difficult to overestimate, just as one should not underestimate another, but no less dangerous and insidious aspect that threatens many countries around the world – the hybrid aggression of the Russian Federation. It has a lot in common with the coronavirus: for some it is almost asymptomatic, but more and more often in different parts of the world “temperature rises” and fever begins. And here, as in the human body, everything depends on the immune system, as far as it is able to overcome the disease or take preventive measures for its rapid localization.

Less than a week has passed since the world was stunned by information about yet another hybrid attack initiated by Russian special services against sovereign states. The previous review [4] drew attention to the scandal surrounding the alleged involvement of Russian intelligence and the government in the financing of terrorism in Afghanistan and the “muscle flexing” near the Ukrainian borders. Now, two weeks ago, there was a high-profile scandal over cyber-sabotage by Russian hackers [5] working for Russian intelligence and trying to steal research into vaccines and COVID-19 treatment from academic and pharmaceutical institutions around the world. This week, there was some follow-up on several of these topics.

EU sanctions against Russian GRU staff

On July 30, the EU imposed sanctions on four Russian hackers working for the General Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces (better known by its former name, Main Directorate of Intelligence, or GRU). The sanctions were reported [6] on the pages of the official journal of the European Union. The Russian GRU officers Alexei Morenets, Alexei Minin, Oleg Sotnikov and Yevgeny Serebryakov, who were also previously suspected of operations in the United States, the Netherlands, Brazil, Malaysia and Switzerland, were targeted by European penalties. In addition, the EU imposed sanctions on one of the well-known structures of the GRU – the Main Center for Special Technologies of the General Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. According to the report, both individuals and entire units of Russia’s intelligence agencies, which have been subject to new EU sanctions, are involved in attacks against the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, in the WannaCry and Cloud Hopper cyber-attacks, and in the well-known Ukrainian cyberattack using the NotPetya virus. It might be recalled that in Ukraine in 2017, financial companies, energy, telecommunications, media and government agencies became victims of the Russian NotPetya virus. In particular, the victims include Boryspil Airport, Ukrposhta, Ukrtelecom, the Ministry of Infrastructure of Ukraine and others.

Here, it is very relevant to mention the interview [7] with the former commander of the US Armed Forces in Europe, an expert of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), Lieutenant General Ben Hodges (now retired), published on the pages of the Week on July 10. In this interview, Gen. Hodges stressed that if the Kremlin dares a new offensive against Ukraine, Ukrainians should expect powerful cyber attacks aimed at destroying their country’s communications and governance. (The InformNapalm community website has a reprint of this interview [8], which was translated by volunteers into 12 languages of the world.)

Belarus becomes a Russian target

However, interfering in the computer systems of different countries was not the only context in which the members of the General Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces were mentioned by media this week.

On July 29, 33 Russian citizens were detained in Belarus as part of a group of Russian saboteurs called the Wagner Armed Private Company, a proxy used by the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces to conduct illegal military operations abroad. The Wagner APC was actively used by the Russian Federation in the war in Ukraine, as well as in Syria, Libya and other military conflicts. Belarus’s intelligence services also said it was only part of a group of 200 people who arrived in the country to destabilize the election.

Numerous studies of this hybrid military formation carrying out dirty and bloody tasks of the Kremlin under the leadership of Russian intelligence have been published [9] on the website of the InformNapalm international intelligence community. Such a failure of the Russian secret services could not be left without attempts to blur the event with a barrage of fakes, misinformation and conspiracy theories, which were momentarily thrown into the information space by Russia and the media under its control. “Heavy artillery” was also involved in the excuses: the situation was commented on by the press secretary of the President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Peskov and the Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Belarus Dmitry Mezentsev. The latter even laid out his fantastic version of the reason for the Wagnerians’ stay in the Belorusochka sanatorium near Minsk. Allegedly, the Russian militants were rank-and-file security guards who made a stop in Minsk while traveling, were late for a plane to Turkey and were forced to stay temporarily in the sanatorium. This version does not stand up to criticism on many points. One can only imagine how the Turkish secret services would react if a whole platoon of Wagner’s APC, the proxy of the GRU of Russia, which had fought both the US military in Syria and the Turkish military in Libya, were actually transferred to their country. The Turkish military has effectively destroyed these Russian units by drone strikes and considers them their direct enemies.

On July 30, the website of the InformNapalm international intelligence community published two separate studies that completely debunk this version of the Russians:

The publication titled, “TOP 9 facts about what did the Wagner’s APC group of Russian militants do in Belarus” [10] eliminates, step-by-step, all the clumsy attempts of the Russian side to justify the presence of a whole platoon of militants in Belarus. Among the detainees there are people who have a bloody trail of participation in the war against Ukraine, as well as military missions in the Middle East and Africa.

The English-language report, “Russia gearing up for meddling in elections in Belarus,” [11] prepared by analysts at The Institute for Global Threats and Democracies Studies (IGTDS), said that the detention of a group of “Wagnerians,” which includes snipers with combat experience, may indicate that the Kremlin is preparing a scenario of destabilization with the shooting of peaceful protests, which are likely to take place against the background of the elections in Belarus. This scenario is very similar to the events during the Ukrainian Maidan uprising in February 2014. Russia’s ultimate goal in the event of this scenario is the deployment of a “military peacekeeping contingent” ostensibly to stabilize the situation, meaning, in fact, the annexation of Belarus.

Denis Ivashin, the editor of the Belarusian language version of InformNapalm, posted [12] an interesting map on his Facebook page, commenting that the Belorusochka resort, where the Russian saboteurs were detained, is located on the shores of the Drozdy Reservoir, just 5,200 meters from the President’s residence in Belarus. The placement of Russian mercenaries and snipers near Lukashenko’s courtyard without his consent could also provoke panic in the Belarusian president, and this might also lead to a harsh reaction to the actions of the Russians and the publicity of these events.

And here it is worth emphasizing that in this case Belarus acts quite transparently and surprisingly adequately, which rejects the “conspiracy theory” about the alleged joint special operation of Russian and Belarusian special services in order to “raise the ratings of Alexander Lukashenko on the eve of the election.” First, these events are unlikely to help persuade Lukashenko’s opponents to support him, and second, it is doubtful that pro-Russian sections of the population will suddenly change their positive attitude toward the so-called “Russian World,” given that even among the outspoken leaders of the Belarusian protest movement [13], there are some Vatniki (“Quilted jackets,” i.e. those who tow the Russian line), who supported the annexation of the Ukrainian Crimea.

The “Wagnerians’ Capture” became a popular theme on Belarus’s central television channels, and it has already hit the Russian foreign policy narrative quite hard. It has shown to the world that Russia is an aggressor country a country that can deploy entire platoons of its mercenaries to the territory of sovereign states, including even Russia’s closest allies. Belarusians posted a video of the detention of a whole group of Russian militants; in it, they showed these men’s passports and tokens with personal numbers of “Wagner’s APC,” and appealed to the ambassadors of Russia and Ukraine. Moreover, Ukrainian diplomats were invited not because some of the detainees had Ukrainian passports in addition to their Russian passports, but to inform Ukraine about the situation and turn to our country for help [14]. After all, the detained militants will be checked for involvement in crimes committed in Ukraine during their participation in the war in the Donbas.

But this story has just begun to unfold and there may still be surprises ahead. Belarus’s intelligence services (possibly thanks to Western counterparts, given that in February 2020 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Belarus for the first official visit in which he stressed his support for Belarus’ sovereignty) detained a large group of militants working for Russian military intelligence. The United States closely monitors the actions of this proxy formation of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, periodically imposes sanctions on individuals and entities that are financially connected with Wagner’s APC, and monitors their movement in conflict zones. NATO countries also probably do not want to have a bridgehead of Russian aggression on their borders, which could spread from Belarus to the Baltic states. Therefore, this local success of the Belarusian secret services may not be accidental or personal, and the media’s high volume is not just a result of Lukashenko’s personal fears, but a pragmatically calculated media component of counteracting Russian aggression. Against the background of this high-profile scandal, will Putin curtail his plans to destabilize the situation in Belarus? Will this detention of one of the Wagner groups force the rest of the militants to withdraw and postpone the aggression? These issues remain open. But we must remember that the capture of Belarus opens for Russia not only space to advance to the West, but also a springboard for attacks of Ukraine from the north, which is why we pay much attention to these events in the neighboring country. Other scenarios of destabilizing Belarus or aggression against Ukraine when Putin decides to go full force are not ruled out.

Donbas: Calm before the storm

But while the issue of aggression in the Donbas is paused for the whole world, the President of Ukraine is once again trying to assure everyone that a “silence regime” is possible, although he already admits that Russia cannot “just stop firing” and violations still occur. Against this background, the news resonates that during the meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council, Ukraine informed the international community about the truce that lasted from July 21, 2019 to July 26, 2020. At that time, the armed forces of the Russian Federation committed 4226 violations of the ceasefire. This news is very important because the press center of the Joint Forces Operation in Ukraine then reported the complete absence of shelling, or only isolated instances of shelling [15], and this was then noticed by InformNapalm volunteers.

But shelling is not the only mechanism of hybrid aggression. For now, in the Donbas they really became less frequent, but the likely reason is the expectation of a next replenishment of the stock of arms and ammunition from the Russian Federation. On July 30, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine sent a note of protest to Russia [16] over yet another “humanitarian convoy” that had invaded the Donbas region. Such “humanitarian convoys” from Russia arrive sometimes without publicity [17], and sometimes openly under the guise of propaganda about the delivery of “food or medicine” to the residents of the Donbas, transferring unspecified cargo to the terrorists of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics.” It is obvious that they may contain weapons and ammunition. InformNapalm volunteers have repeatedly found in their research and reported that Russian troops are working under the guise of these “humanitarian convoys. [18]” It was established that the soldiers of the 108th Airborne Assault Regiment of the Russian Federation took part in carrying the “humanitarian convoys” to the Donbas. Also, one of the servicemen of the 22nd Special Brigade of the GRU of Russia, who took part in the operation to seize Crimea, was later seen as a member of “humanitarian convoys” under the cover of the Ministry of Emergencies of Russia.

Therefore, the currently observed reduction of shelling is not a reason for hopes for a gradual resolution of the conflict and the end of the war, but only an opportunity for the Russian Armed Forces to replenish their arms and ammunition and prepare for another escalation and testing Ukraine for strength.

Translated by George Pinchuk. Distribution and reprint with reference to the source is welcome! (Creative Commons — Attribution 4.0 International — CC BY 4.0) InformNapalm social media pages: Facebook [19] / Twitter  [20]Telegram [21]