US and European officials, who spoke to the New York Times on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation, claim that Russian military intelligence officers are working closely with militant far-right groups across the EU and are behind the letter bombs in Spain.
Spanish and foreign investigators are still looking into who sent six letter bombs to addresses in Madrid in late November and early December, including the official residence of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, the US and Ukrainian embassies and the Spanish defence ministry. No one was killed in the attacks, which US officials described as terrorist, but a Ukrainian embassy staff member was injured when one of the packages exploded.
In recent weeks, according to US officials, investigators have focused in particular on the Russian Imperial Movement, a radical group with members and associates throughout Europe, as well as military training centres in St Petersburg, Russia. They add that this group, which has been declared a global terrorist organisation by the US State Department, is linked to Russian intelligence services. Prominent members of the group are known to have visited Spain and their contacts with far-right Spanish organisations have been monitored by the police there.
Secret Russian unit
At this point, there is no indication that Moscow is prepared to engage in wider sabotage or to plan terrorist attacks in Europe. But Vladimir Putin’s strategy could change if Russia continues to suffer major setbacks in Ukraine, US officials say. The same sources told the New York Times that there is a possibility that Russia could test its ‘proxy’ groups in this way if Moscow decides to escalate the conflict.
The apparent purpose of the action, according to the sources, was to send a message that Russia and extremist groups with which it is closely associated could carry out terrorist attacks across Europe, including those on the capitals of NATO Member States. Spain is also a NATO member and has sent military and humanitarian aid and diplomatic support to Ukraine.
Sources also note that Putin has given his military intelligence agency complete freedom to develop and carry out covert operations in Europe.
The Russian officers believed by US officials to be behind the bombing work for the GRU, one of Moscow’s more aggressive intelligence services, US officials say. The Russian military intelligence service of the General Staff of the Russian army – the GRU (Glavnoye razvedyvatel’noye upravleniye – Main Intelligence Directorate) – is an elite “spy” community created a hundred years ago, at the very beginnings of the Soviet state.
US sources claim that members of the agency have been involved in a range of covert operations, from meddling in the 2016 US presidential election to the downing of a Malaysian civilian airliner over Ukraine in 2014.
Unit 29155, which has already attempted to destabilise Europe with coup attempts and assassinations, is considered particularly dangerous, according to sources telling the NY Times. The unit includes hardened Russian war veterans, and operates in such secrecy that most other GRU operatives are unlikely to have even known of its existence. There are grounds to suspect that they were also involved in the attempted military coup in Montenegro in October 2016 to liquidate Milo Đukanović.
Fiona Hill, Senior Director for Europe and Russia at the White House National Security Council in the Trump administration, said it would not be surprising if the GRU had coordinated the Russian imperial movement in carrying out the attacks.
“Most extremist organisations of this kind are linked to Russian intelligence services, either the GRU or the FSB. Intelligence agents use groups to sow confusion,” Hill said.
It should be noted that the leadership of the Russian imperial movement even criticised the “incompetence of the Russian leadership in the Ukrainian war” and accused Putin of corruption. However, since the group shares Moscow’s objectives, notably undermining Western governments and sowing chaos in Europe, Russian intelligence has been able to influence its operations, US officials say.
Using the services of the Russian Imperial Movement is important for Russian intelligence services, especially because it makes it harder for rivals to attribute actions to the Russian government, reports the NY Times.
The State Department labelled the group and its leadership as global terrorists in April 2020, the first time such a label has been applied to a white supremacist group. The group reportedly has two training centres in St Petersburg, where they train trainees for forest and urban attacks, teaching them tactics and hand-to-hand combat.
The State Department has singled out Stanislav Anatolyevich Vorobyev, who founded the group in 2002 in St Petersburg; Denis Valyulovich Gariev, the head of its paramilitary unit, the so-called Russian Tsarist Legion; and Nikolai Nikolayevich Trushchalov, the organiser of the group’s activities abroad, as the main figures in the organisation.
Washington also believes that the two Swedes who carried out a series of bombings in Gothenburg in 2016 attended a training course run by the Russian group. The perpetrators, who have been convicted, targeted refugee and asylum seeker shelters and a café./jutarnji.hr/