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The Real Russia. Today. A guidebook to Russia's intelligence community; how Putin's ‘rocket man’ got rich; and a supposedly treasonous aviation geek

Meduza

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

This day in history. On November 6, 1945, Elizabeth Bentley turned herself in to the FBI and confessed to spying for the USSR. She went on to accuse dozens of Americans of collaborating with Soviet intelligence, though the accuracy of many of her claims remains disputed to this day.
  • Here are the most important things you should know about Russia’s intelligence community
  • How Vladimir Putin’s ‘top missile adviser’ got rich on Russia’s defense industry
  • A Russian aviation technician was convicted of treason for writing about airplanes in online forum. Here's his story.
  • Chechen heroes in Austria
  • Russia gives instant messengers 20 minutes to verify users' identities
  • Reconstructing the 2010 attack on journalist Oleg Kashin
  • Russian cinema's new genre: the romantic-patriotic comedy
  • Washington inches closer to more sanctions against Russia over the Salisbury poisonings
  • A new report on the Kremlin's efforts to control cyberspace

Your guidebook to Russia's intelligence community 🕵️‍♂️

Both at home and abroad, the Russian abbreviation of the year has been “GRU” — the erstwhile but still commonly used initialism for the country’s Military Intelligence Directorate. The agency’s staff now stand accused of hacking the Democratic National Committee computer network and trying to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election; hacking various anti-doping agencies and the International Court of Arbitration; and trying to hack the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Netherlands. Additionally, in what has led to a new wave of Western sanctions against Russia, GRU agents are also accused of poisoning Sergey Skripal (a former GRU colonel who spied for the British) in Salisbury, England. “Alexander Petrov” and “Ruslan Boshirov” — the two individuals identified by London police who came to Salisbury to try to kill Skripal — are apparently cover names for the GRU agents Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga. To add some context to this explosion of publicity, Meduza special correspondent Daniil Turovsky reviews the past and present of Russia’s intelligence community.

Questions answered in this report:

  • What is the GRU? What does the initialism stand for?
  • What’s the difference between the GRU and Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR)?
  • How does the GRU choose and train its staff? What is the “Conservatory”?
  • What are GRU agents' areas of expertise?
  • What are GRU agents’ assignments?
  • Is the GRU responsible for “information war,” too?
  • Are the hackers from the GRU, too?
  • What are these “research institutes”? How are they tied to Russian military intelligence?
  • The GRU has its own Spetsnaz? Who carries out its special operations?
  • What are some known GRU Spetsnaz missions?
  • Who’s in charge of the GRU?
  • Where is the GRU headquarters located? What is the “Aquarium”?
  • Are GRU agents often exposed?
  • Have there been any double agents embedded in the GRU?
  • How dangerous is it to work in Russia’s intelligence community?
  • What happens to former intelligence operatives?

Read the whole story here: “Here are the most important things you should know about Russia’s intelligence community”

Putin's rocket man 🚀

The Tactical Missiles Corporation (KTRV) is one of the biggest state corporations in Russia’s military industrial complex. Among other things, the company manufacturers hypersonic weapons, air-to-surface and air-to-air missiles, and naval weapons systems. Sergey Prikhodko (Dmitry Medvedev's current first deputy chief of staff) served as KTRV’s board chairman until 2013, and former State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov has had the job for the past several years.

Since 2003, KTRV’s CEO has been Boris Obnosov, a former member of Russia’s permanent mission to the United Nations and a proxy for Vladimir Putin in recent presidential elections. In a new investigative report, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta claims Obnosov is also Putin’s “top adviser on missiles.”

For the past six years, KTRV has made all its purchases through a company based outside Moscow in Korolyov called “TRV-Engineering” (which went by a different name before 2017). Roughly 20 percent of this firm is owned through other companies by Obnosov’s 29-year-old daughter, Olga Zorikova, who works as a makeup artist and hairstylist at weddings and fashion shows.

The company affiliated with Zorikova earns a ton of money on KTRV’s purchases. In the past five years, TRV-Engineering has signed contracts with the Tactical Missiles Corporation and its enterprises worth more than six billion rubles ($90.8 million). Novaya Gazeta cites a court ruling that says TRV-Engineering collects a whopping 12-percent broker’s fee for every contract with a KTRV-connected factory. On at least one occasion, TRV-Engineering delivered goods to a defense plant that turned out to be counterfeit.

Another 20 percent of TRV-Engineering belongs to other companies owned by KTRV board member Vladimir Maslensky. Maslensky is also the head of the Taganrog-based company “Zvezda-Strela,” which receives money from KTRV to build residential housing in Taganrog. Zvezda-Strela takes these homes (built with money provided by the state) and sells them back to the state, namely to Taganrog City Hall, as part of various social programs. Additionally, Zvezda-Strela formed a cartel with another development company to sell apartments to the city at the highest possible prices.

Zvezda-Strela’s various projects also included the construction of a grain elevator at the Taganrog seaport. When the project was virtually finished, the company sold the elevator on the cheap to “Agroprime,” one quarter of which belongs to Rostislav Zorikov, the husband of Olga Zorikova and the son-in-law of Boris Obnosov. Another fourth of Agroprime is owned by Ivan Sadchikov, the son-in-law of former Deputy Prime Minister and former KTRV board chairman Sergey Prikhodko. Sadchikov and Zorikov owned other companies together, as well. Today, Agroprime belongs to Vladimir Maslensky and the director of a KTRV subsidiary.

Sergey Prikhodko’s son-in-law also owns a ski cottage in the French Alps worth at least 2.1 million euros ($2.4 million). Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation previously filmed Sadchikov’s alpine home from an aerial drone. According to Novaya Gazeta, Sadchikov owns another 69 acres of “premium ecovillage” in Latvia’s Vidzeme region, which he bought in 2013 for roughly 30 million rubles (about $960,000 at the time).

Geeking out a little too hard ✈️

This Tuesday, the human rights group “Team 29” published a report about what happened to Roman Dmitriev, the aviation technician at an aircraft factory in Komsomolsk-on-Amur who was convicted of treason in October 2017. Dmitriev’s crimes included posting information about planes on the forum Airforce.ru, and — according to Russia’s Federal Security Service — handing over secret data to a supposed Israeli intelligence agent. Last year, the Khabarovsk Regional Court sentenced Dmitriev to 4.5 years in a maximum-security prison. He was 26 years old at the time.

The FSB classified three of Dmitriev’s 230 online comments as state secrets. In one comment, for example, he wrote about the export of Sukhoi Su-35 and Su-57 aircraft to China between 2016 and 2020, also listing the planes’ tail numbers. The first expert evaluation of Dmitriev’s online activity determined that he had disclosed no state secrets, but the Gagarin Aircraft Plant’s security department later conducted its own review and decided that he had leaked classified information. According to Team 29, Dmitriev’s comments with this data are still accessible at Airforce.ru.

Prosecutors also argued that Dmitriev passed state secrets to a former Russian pilot and Israeli citizen named Mikhail Tsaiger. A military history buff who likes to talk shop in online forums, Tsaiger reportedly met Dmitriev on one of these websites in 2009. The Khabarovsk Regional Court determined that Dmitriev identified Tsaiger as a Mossad agent, “using his knowledge gleaned from films and books.” Dmitriev then allegedly tried to sell state secrets to Tsaiger. When Tsaiger didn’t pay him the agreed-upon fee, Dmitriev shared some of the classified information at Airforce.ru, supposedly looking for new buyers.

Tsaiger told Team 29 that he is not an Israeli intelligence operative. He says he first started talking to Dmitriev about nine years ago, when Dmitriev was just eighteen. “I didn’t ask him for any secret information, and he didn’t provide me with any,” Tsaiger says. He acknowledges that they corresponded by email, but he insists that there was nothing in their letters “that could have interested any intelligence agency in the world.”

Roman Dmitriev’s defense attorney, Alexey Livitsky, was hired by the Gagarin Aircraft Plant’s legal department. A source told Team 29 that Livitsky never once visited Dmitriev in pretrial detention, never met with him alone, and did not attend the reading of his verdict. Speaking to Team 29, Livitsky said, “The case proceeded according to the law.” He declined to offer any additional details, citing a gag order, the classified investigation, state secrets, and attorney-client privilege.

Chechen heroes in Austria 🚒

With a little help from local community leaders, Internet users have tracked down the three Chechen men who literally ran into a burning building in Vienna on November 1 and rescued nine people, including an 87-year-old bedridden woman. The men then simply walked away from the disaster, after firefighters finally extinguished the flames. The three Chechen men later said they don't believe their actions were anything special. “We saw smoke and rushed in to see if there were any people in the burning building. Any decent person would have reacted the same way. How could we have just kept walking?” one of the men told Kavkaz.Realii.

Tick tock ⌚

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has approved bylaws regulating the identification of instant messenger users. The new requirements will take effect 180 days after the new bylaws are published officially, obligating messenger administrators to verify users’ identities through their telephone numbers.

According to the new regulations, instant messengers must deny service to individuals whose phone providers don’t respond to identification requests within 20 minutes. Additionally, people who change their profile information or telephone numbers must authenticate their identities all over again.

The federal law requiring instant messengers to identify users through telephone numbers came into force on January 1, 2018, albeit without the necessary enforcement bylaws. Companies that operate instant messengers face fines as high as 1 million rubles ($15,180) for failing to comply with the new regulations.

Read it elsewhere 📰

👊 “The Kashin Obscenity”

In a special report for RFE/RL, Sergei Dobrynin and Carl Schreck reconstruct the eight-year history of an attack that nearly killed journalist Oleg Kashin. The story, “The Kashin Obscenity,” details Kashin's online spat with then Pskov Governor Andrey Turchak, which allegedly led to the assault. Dobrynin and Schreck put together the entire timeline of events that followed, going from Dmitry Medvedev's empty promise to “tear off [the attackers'] heads” to the bizarre kidnapping of Alexander Gorbunov (who allegedly planned the attack with Turchak) to the confession by Danila Veselov (the former MMA fighter who says was one of Kashin's attackers) to the even more muddled aftermath, where Veselov is no longer so eager to confess and Turchak's political career is soaring to new heights. Read the whole story here at RFE/RL.

🎟️ Russia's new romantic-patriotic comedy genre

Writing for the Associated Press, Theo Merz summarizes the critical responses (including Meduza's own review by Anton Dolin) to a new film written by Russia Today chief editor Margarita Simonyan about the new bridge linking Crimea to the Russian mainland. Read the story here and watch the trailer here. Warning: you must be this patriotic to enjoy this ride.

🌨️ The sanctions are coming (again)

The Trump administration says it is consulting with Congress about additional sanctions on Russia over the poisoning of Sergey Skripal in Britain this spring. The State Department says Russia has failed to meet a 90-day deadline that fell on Tuesday to comply with a 1991 U.S. law on preventing the use of chemical weapons. Also on Tuesday, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce issued a statement urging the White House to take action to deter “more Russian aggression.”

💾 The Kremlin's online struggle

The Foreign Policy Research Institute has published a new report by Oxford University postgraduate student Lincoln Pigman, titled “Reining In the RuNet: The Kremlin’s Struggle to Control Cyberspace.” The 21-page document looks at “Russia’s evolving domestic Internet-control regime” and analyzes “the online struggle between Russia’s political elites and its non-systemic political opposition.” Read it here.

Yours, Meduza