By Hollie McKay | Fox News
It is something of an elite Russian squad tasked with sabotage and targeted assassinations.
Some call it “Putin’s assassination squad.” Some say, “Russian killing squad.”
In any case, there is a Russian clandestine military intelligence unit known as the 29155, and it is believed to behind a string of scandals – most recently, a reported scheme to pay bounties to Afghan insurgents to kill U.S. troops.
So what exactly is the shadowy assemblage?
“There’s no real U.S. analog. It’s like a mix of CIA and special forces,” Matthew Schmidt, associate professor of national security at the University of New Haven, told Fox News. “It’s trained to make mayhem. The overall goal is to destabilize targeted political systems, including in Europe, to attack the political will to maintain NATO, with other missions as opportunity allows, including the killing of traitors.”
Ultimately, experts and analysts define it as something of an elite squad tasked with sabotage and targeted assassinations.
In this June 16, 2018 file photo, Taliban fighters gather with residents to celebrate a three-day cease fire marking the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr, in Nangarhar province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)
Unit 29155 operates under Russia’s umbrella intelligence agency the GRU, officially termed the Main Directorate of the General Staff, which formed after the folding of the Soviet-era KGB. This specialized outfit is believed to have been birthed around 2008, two years after Russian President Putin legalized targeted killings on foreign soil and in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Georgia that same year.
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While it is unclear exactly how many operatives make up the unit, reports indicate that some involved have decades of experiences beneath their belt – dating back to the ultimately failed Soviet incursion into Afghanistan in the 1980s.
While it is unclear exactly when in recent years 29155 came onto the radar of Western intelligence, the Russian Defense Ministry is said to have lavished bonuses and praise on the team in 2012, and the Unit commander Maj. Gen Andrei Vladimirovich Averyanov – a veteran of the Chechen wars, starting in 1994 and 1999 respectively – was awarded the esteemed Hero of Russia medal in 2015, according to Business Insider.
It is also suspected that 29155 played a pivotal part in Russia’s 2014 takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea region, both through propaganda and media efforts and in the notion of “little green men” – as described to Fox News by locals – that mysteriously popped up in the peninsula ahead of the highly controversial annexation.
In this file photo taken on Wednesday, June 24, 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, watches the Victory Day military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Nazi defeat in Moscow. Russian authorities seem to be pulling out all the stops to get people to vote on a series of constitutional amendments that would enable President Vladimir Putin to stay in office until 2036 by resetting the clock on his term limits. (Sergei Guneyev, Host Photo Agency via AP, file)
However, 29155 has spread its wings well beyond Eastern Europe in recent times.
The division is alleged to have been behind two 2015 attempts to assassinate Emilian Gebrev, a Bulgarian arms manufacturer, through poisoning. The following year, the unit was implicated for having likely orchestrated a botched coup in Montenegro, which entailed taking out Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic.
And in 2018, U.K. officials pointed fingers at unit members as having carried out an assassination pursuit – using a nerve agent – on defected Russian spy Sergei V. Skirpal.
In 2019, French officials reportedly unearthed a clandestine GRU base in the Alps, used to execute regional missions, on the heels of media reports that the Unit was videoed giving a retired military leader a wad of cash in Serbia.
Spanish officials have also blamed the 29155 of rousing the Catalan independence push, which started in 2010 and gained momentum following a referendum in November 2014. German leaders are also wary of foul play by the group on their soil – and subsequently expelled two Russian diplomats late last year over the audacious murder of a Georgian man in Berlin.
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The unit is assumed to sometimes operate under diplomatic cover abroad.
But in regards to Afghanistan, U.S. intelligence is still trying to piece together the extent to which the assumed bounty operations were conducted. But according to multiple defense sources who spoke to Fox News on the condition of anonymity, there is some skepticism and questions as to whether it is being blown out of proportion.
“It’s being portrayed that the Russians paid the Taliban to hit coalition forces, especially Americans. But whenever you have an operation using proxies, money is going to be involved,” said one insider. “And it definitely shows that there are people in the intelligence community that are willing to leak information even if it is unverified. Clearly, that was done for political purposes.”
U.S. troops patrol at an Afghan National Army (ANA) Base in Logar province, Afghanistan August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani – RC1D8EB3A110
A former Afghan military official also told Fox News that mercenary-type activities are nothing unprecedented into the bloodied nation, although this unit in-particular has ostensibly gone under the radar for some time.
Indeed, Russian meddling in U.S. interests inside the country is also hardly new, with evidence surfacing in 2017 that Moscow was arming the Taliban. The Kremlin has openly advocated its support of any group fighting ISIS – which the Taliban has done – but denied any weapons transfers.
The Trump administration has mostly rebuffed the story as not being credible, with national security advisor Robert O’Brien telling Fox News on Wednesday that “the president’s career CIA briefer decided not to brief him because it was unverified intelligence.”
So what is Putin’s play in Russia all about?
“The goal is simple: They want us out of Afghanistan. They want us out of their backyard,” noted one U.S. defense source. “The same way we would view the situation if Russia suddenly brought troops to Mexico. Afghanistan is mineral-rich and has an incredible amount of precious metals; it has always been Russia’s policy to [dominate] that.”
According to the New York Times, an individual by the name of Rahmatullah Azizi – a businessman who wants to take advantage of the U.S. contractor cash flow into the beleaguered nation – was the “middle man” figure behind alleged efforts to launder money from Russia into Afghanistan to pay off militants, and presumably fled to Russia before the funds were located in one of his properties.
It also remains to be seen what – if any – impact accusations of Taliban taking Moscow money might have on their peace deal with the United States, which was signed in February following months of negotiations and paves the way for a withdrawal of U.S. troops after almost 19 years of stalemate war.
“This administration is set on a deal in order to get American troops out,” Schmidt added. “Because the cost in lives wasn’t worth it.”
The Russian government and the Taliban have strongly denied the reports on the bounties.