A top secret Russian unit has been running a coordinated campaign to destabilise Europe for years, the New York Times reported on Tuesday (Oct 8), citing Western security officers.
Known as Unit 29155, the military intelligence group is now thought to be responsible for a number of high profile cases, including the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain last year, a thwarted coup in Montenegro and the poisoning of an arms dealer in Bulgaria.
Western security officials told the US newspaper that what appeared to be isolated incidents were actually part of a "coordinated and ongoing campaign to destabilise Europe".
And while they only recently discovered the existence of the unit, it could have been operating for more than a decade.
Unit 29155 sits within the Russian military intelligence agency widely known as the GRU, but its operations are so secret that its existence may not be known to other GRU operatives, according to assessments by Western intelligence services.
The intelligence agencies first identified the unit after the failed coup in Montenegro in 2016, when two operatives plotted to kill the country’s prime minister and seize the parliament building.
The agencies began to connect the dots after the March 2018 poisoning of former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia, in Britain.
They were found slumped on a bench in the southern English city of Salisbury in March last year after Novichok nerve agent was smeared on his front door.
European countries and the United States expelled 100 Russian diplomats after the attack and London has charged two Russian men in absentia.
Its operatives have also been linked to attempts to kill Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev in 2015.
These operatives, some of whom are decorated veterans, specialise in "diversionary" missions, and can commit bombings, murders, or "anything", a retired GRU officer with knowledge of Unit 29155 told NYT.
"They were serious guys who served there,” the retired officer said. "They were officers who worked undercover and as international agents."
However, the unit appears to operate on a "shoestring budget", the NYT report said.
The commander of the unit, General Andrei Averyanov, lives in "a run-down Soviet-era building" and drives a "rattletrap Russia-made sedan", the report said, citing Russian records. Operatives often share cheap accommodation while on the road, it added.
European security officials are "perplexed" by the apparent sloppiness of the operations that have been uncovered. It is possible that other, more successful operations have yet to be found.
The Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to NYT's requests for comment.