- A top secret Russian intelligence unit was allegedly behind a plot to pay Afghan militants to kill US troops and allies, according to a bombshell New York Times report based on US intelligence.
- Unit 29155, part of Russia’s military intelligence agency, has been tied to assassination attempts and other nefarious activities across Europe.
- The shadowy Russian unit, formed a little over a decade ago, is tasked with destabilizing the West.
- President Donald Trump was briefed on the intelligence assessment months ago, but did not act, according to the report. Trump has so far denied that he was ever briefed on the intel.
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A Russian intelligence unit that’s been linked to assassinations and coup attempts in Europe has emerged at the center of yet another escalating scandal encircling the Trump administration.
American intelligence officials concluded months ago that the shadowy Russian spy group, known as Unit 29155, offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants in Afghanistan to take out US troops and their allies, according to a bombshell New York Times report published on Friday. The intelligence assessment in the Times’ report has been corroborated by multiple other major publications.
Though the Trump administration has downplayed the alleged intelligence and pushed back on damning claims in the initial story, including that President Donald Trump was briefed months ago and didn’t act, the report has sent shockwaves through Washington and is rapidly gaining more attention.
The allegations expand the shadowy group’s target list from Russian defectors and opponents to uniformed US troops in a war zone, potentially raising the stakes with a US administration that recently risked a war by killing a top Iranian general they alleged was threatening US troops in the Middle East.
The report came as Trump is pushing to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan ahead of November’s election as part of tenuous peace talks with the Taliban. The US military recently reported that it’s reduced its footprint in Afghanistan to 8,600 under a preliminary peace deal.
Here’s what we know about Unit 29155:
- Unit 29155 is an arm of Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU.
- US intelligence officials also believe the GRU was at the center of Russia’s 2016 election interference.
- The unit is tasked with destabilizing Europe and the West and has been tied to attempted or successful assassinations in the UK, Germany, and Bulgaria. It’s also suspected of politically destabilizing activities in Montenegro, Spain and Moldova.
- The top-secret team is believed to have formed in 2008 in the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia war.
- The intel group, first identified publicly in a 2019 New York Times report, has been tied to a host of incidents in Europe originally thought to be isolated or unrelated crimes, including:
- A 2016 failed coup in Montenegro.
- A 2018 assassination attempt on a former Russian spy, Sergei V. Skripal, via the use of a nerve agent in Salisbury, England.
- A 2015 assassination attempt on a Bulgarian arms manufacturer, Emilian Gebrev, via the use of poison. The team attempted to kill Gebrev twice.
- “Some people will point to the sloppiness of some of their operations but in each case they were able to hit the target and in some cases even eliminate it. The real issues seem to come in trying to make an escape without being detected,” a European intelligence official told Insider’s Mitch Prothero of Unit 29155 last October.
- “If you took what happened to us in the UK, if you look at the coup in Montenegro, if you look at the panoply of cyber attacks that we have called out … you can see there is a concerted program of activity – and, yes, it does often involve the same people,” Alex Younger, the chief of MI6, the UK’s foreign intelligence service, said in February 2018 at the Munich Security Conference. “We assess there is a standing threat from the GRU and the other Russian intelligence services and that very little is off limits.”
- Unit 29155 has used diplomatic cover for operations around Europe, according to intelligence officials and open-source researchers who spoke to Insider in March.
- Maj. Gen. Andrey Averyanov, the unit’s commander, was awarded Russia’s highest honor, a Hero of Russia medal, in January 2015.
- He’s believed to have fought in the first and second Chechen wars.
- Averyanov was photographed at a 2017 wedding standing next to Col. Anatoly V. Chepiga, one of two Russians indicted in the poisoning of Skripal.
- Unit 29155’s existence typifies Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hybrid approach to warfare, a strategy of inflicting as much damage as possible via low-cost operations that stop short of full-blown war with other major powers.
Here’s what we know about the alleged Russian bounties on US troops in Afghanistan and Trump:
Trump was briefed about the Russian bounties months ago, according to the Times, adding that the National Security Council met about the plot in late March. The Trump administration has not taken any known actions in response to the intelligence assessment.
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The Trump administration over the weekend claimed that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were never briefed on the intelligence. Adding to this, the president in a tweet on Sunday said: “Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me.”
It’s not entirely clear whether the alleged Russian plot led to the deaths of any Americans. The Times reported that intelligence officers and special operations forces in Afghanistan informed their superiors as early as January of the suspected bounties, adding that at least one US troop death was thought to be the result of the plot.
A separate Washington Post report said it’s believed the bounties led to the deaths of several US service members, based on intelligence gathered via interrogations of captured militants.
Twenty US service members were killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2019, and four were killed in combat in the early part of 2020. The Taliban hasn’t attacked US positions since an agreement was reached in February.
Both the Russian government and the Taliban have vehemently denied the reports on the bounties. Though Russia has fostered a relationship with the Taliban in the past several years, it’s unclear what motivation it may have to see militants attack US troops.
It’s possible Russia wished to see the US further bogged down in Afghanistan, the site of the longest conflict in US history. A theory has also circulated among officials that Russia sought revenge for an incident in 2018 in which US commandos killed hundreds of pro-Syrian government forces, including Russian mercenaries, as they advanced on an American outpost.
Some of Unit 29155’s officers have been in service for years, including during the Soviet Union’s war in the 1980s. The US supported and armed Mujahideen fighters who exacted a heavy toll that ultimately forced Soviet soldiers to withdraw.
Meanwhile, there are growing calls in Washington for intelligence officials to brief members of Congress on the matter, which is just one of many negative storylines plaguing the Trump administration as the president fights for reelection.
Pelosi tells Haspel and Ratcliffe she wants full House briefing on Russian bounty intelligence, saying Congress needs answers “now” pic.twitter.com/hUABfUVIed
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) June 29, 2020
Trump has garnered a reputation for behaving in a subservient manner to Russian President Vladimir Putin. At an infamous July 2018 summit in Helsinki, Finland, for example, Trump appeared to side with Putin over the US intelligence community regarding Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.
The relationship between Trump’s 2016 campaign and the Kremlin was also central to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference. Though Mueller did not find explicit evidence of collusion between the campaign and Russia, he did conclude that members of the campaign welcomed the Kremlin’s interference. He also did not fully exonerate Trump.
It has not helped matters that the president has repeatedly criticized NATO as member states work to counter Russian aggression in Europe. Trump has also driven a wedge between the US and its traditional allies by calling for Russia to be invited to rejoin the G7. Russia was indefinitely suspended from the annual meeting of the world’s major economies after its 2014 annexation of Crimea.