Western intelligence officials say the unit, which has operated for more than a decade, has been accused by the Kremlin of campaigning to destabilize the West through subversion, sabotage and murder. In addition to the 2018 poisoning, the unit was behind a 2016 coup attempt in Montenegro and the poisoning of an arms maker in Bulgaria a year earlier.
US intelligence officials say the GRU was at the center of Moscow’s undercover efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. In the months leading up to that election, US officials say two GRU cyberunits, known as 26165 and 74455, they hacked into Democratic Party servers and then used WikiLeaks to post embarrassing internal communications.
Partly because those efforts were intended to help tilt the elections in favor of Trump, his handling of issues related to Russia and Putin has come under particular scrutiny. A special lawyer’s investigation found that the Trump campaign welcomed Russia’s intervention and hoped to benefit from it, but found insufficient evidence to establish that his associates had participated in a criminal conspiracy with Moscow.
Operations involving Unit 29155 tend to be much more violent than those involving cyberunits. Its officers are often decorated military veterans with years of service, which in some cases date back to the failed Soviet Union war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The unit has never before been accused of orchestrating attacks on Western soldiers, but officials informed of its operations say it has been active in Afghanistan for many years.
Although Russia declared the Taliban a terrorist organization in 2003, relations between them have been heating up in recent years. Taliban officials have traveled to Moscow to hold peace talks with other prominent Afghans, including former President Hamid Karzai. The talks have excluded representatives of the current Afghan government, as well as anyone from the United States, and at times appear to work against the grain of US efforts to end the conflict.
The revelation comes at a time when Trump has said he would invite Putin to an expanded Group of 7 nations meeting, but tensions between the US and Russian military are mounting.
In several recent episodes, in international territory and airspace from the Alaskan coast to the Black and Mediterranean Seas, fighter jets from each country have rushed to intercept military jets from the other.
Mujib Mashal contributed reports from Kabul, Afghanistan.