In another brazen attack on the U.S., a Russian military intelligence unit has secretly paid bounties to Taliban-linked fighters to kill U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, according to a bombshell New York Times report.
The report represents a deadly escalation in Moscow’s repeated efforts to undermine U.S. policy, and came as the administration was seeking to find ways to extract itself from the decades-long war by making peace with the Taliban.
U.S. Intel believed the operation to have been initiated by the notoriously violent Unit 29155 of the G.R.U, an arm of Russia’s military intelligence agency.
U.S. intelligence concluded a Russian unit paid bounties to Taliban elements for killings of U.S. troops, it is reported
President Donald Trump delivers remarks to U.S. troops, with Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani standing behind him, during an unannounced visit to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, November 28, 2019. A Russian military unit paid Taliban fighters bounties to kill American forces, according to the New York Times
In recent years, the unit has been linked to assassination attempts or revenge plots aimed at destabilizing the West.
Yet it would be the first time that it was known to have initiated attacks on Western troops, a major escalation of force against the U.S.
There were times when the bounties were in fact paid, according to the paper, although it did not identify specific U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan were killed as a result of the Russian bounty payments.
According to the paper, the money went to Islamist militants.
Twenty Americans were killed last year in the bloody Afghan war, which began in 2001, but it was not clear if any of these deaths were under suspicion.
The matter was discussed at the White House national security council as early as March.
According to the paper, U.S. policy members developed a ‘menu’ of options, from a diplomatic slap to further increases in U.S. sanctions or other unnamed responses.
What is the G.R.U?
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, often called the GRU, was founded during Russia’s civil war in 1992.
Today, it uses a combination of covert special-forces operations, spying, cyber attacks and internet trolls to destabilise its enemies.
It has its roots in the intelligence-gathering agency that bolstered Trotsky’s Bolshevik Red Army.
The GRU sits apart from the SVR, the external spying service, and the domestic FSB), which were created when the KGB was split in 1991.
The agency is s based in a headquarters nicknamed The Aquarium on an airbase near Moscow.
It deploys six times as many agents in foreign countries as the SVR.
But officials said the White House has taken no response to date and no explanation for the delay was given.
The bounties allegedly came as peace talks to end the long-running war in Afghanistan were ongoing and information was kept a closely guarded secret until the administration began expanding briefings this week.
They also shared intelligence with the British government whose troops are said to be among those targeted.
The news hit the Trump Administration as it was already grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and as Trump hoped that a peace deal with the Taliban would end the Afghanistan War in the last few months of his re-election campaign.
Russia fiercely denied the allegations on Friday night, accusing the New York Times of fake news and claiming that the story had placed the lives of employees of the Russian embassies in the United States and the United Kingdom at risk.
‘In the absence of reasons to #BlameRussians, @nytimes is there to invent stories,’ the Russian embassy in Washington D.C.. tweeted Friday night, adding that journalists ‘obviously lack information on cooperation between Russia and U.S. on the Afghan peace process, on Syrian, North Korean, Venezuelan, Iranian agendas’.
With the tweet, the embassy shared images of previous tweets and stories they said backed up the co-operation.
‘Baseless and anonymous accusations of Moscow as mastermind behind killing of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan have already led to direct threats to the life of employees of the Russian Embassies in Washington D.C. and London,’ they added in a second tweet.
‘Stop producing #fakenews that provoke life threats,’ it continued, tagging the New York Times.
‘We demand the relevant U.S. authorities take effective measures to ensure the fulfillment of their international obligations under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961.’
Earlier Friday, the New York Times had reported that The Kremlin was not yet aware of the accusations.
‘If someone makes them, we’ll respond,’ said Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
Exact details of the Russian operation have not been shared but the New York Times states that information came, in part, from interrogations of captured Afghan militants and criminals.
Russia has previously been accused by American officials of providing arms to the Taliban in destabilizing attempts.
A February agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, however, had led to a peaceful period in recent months after four American troops were killed in combat early this year.
It is not known how high-ranking those involved may be in the Russian government or the reason why the operation would begin now.
Some that it is an attempt to disrupt peace talks while others claim it may be a revenge plot over the deaths of numerous Russian mercenaries in a battle in Syria in 2018.
The G.R.U. unit, otherwise known as Unit 29155, believed to behind the operation is notoriously violent.
Officials believe the group has been operating for a decade and is responsible for attacks including the nerve agent poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom.
The former Russian spy and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned with potentially deadly novichok in March 2018.
Putin is also believed to have sent Unit 29155 to stage a coup in Montenegro, which failed, according to intelligence sources who also blame the unit for a campaign to destabilise Moldova and the poisoning of Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev in 2015.
In this photo taken on June 6, 2019, US soldiers look out over hillsides during a visit of the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan General Scott Miller at the Afghan National Army (ANA) checkpoint in Nerkh district of Wardak province
A U.S. Army carry team moves the transfer case containing the remains of U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Goble during a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base, December 25, 2019 in Dover, Delaware. The Times did not identify which of 20 American forces were killed after alleged bounty payments from a Russian military intelligence unit
A key factor in Unit 29155’s operations is that they are often apparently sloppy, with their methods easily noticed by law enforcement in the countries they target.
But spy sources said it was unclear whether that was due to poor planning or a deliberately cavalier attitude, intending for their attacks to become public as a warning to potential targets.
It is comprised of veterans from wars with Afghanistan, Chechnya and Ukraine and the outfit appears to function as a tight-knit community.
Two G.R.U cyberunits are also believed to have hacked into Democratic Party servers and then used WikiLeaks to publish embarrassing internal communications, interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election,
Trump received substantial criticism during the 2016 campaign for his repeated calls to improve relations with Moscow. Then after he took office, he came under fire for his closed-door meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin with only translators present, and for publicly accepting Putin’s denial of interference in the elections.
Former Trump national security advisor Micahel Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his Russia contacts after urging the Russian ambassador not to retaliate against U.S. sanctions imposed during the Obama administration for election interference.
The U.S. has already sanctioned Russia following the country’s interference in the U.S. elections, which prosecutors connected to President Vladimir Putin. The Trump administration took no action to retaliate for the bounties, according to the report
Afghan Taliban fighters and villagers attend a gathering as they celebrate the peace deal signed between US and Taliban in Laghman Province, Alingar district on March 2, 2020
Flynn then sought to reverse his guilty plea.
The revelation follows serious allegations in a new book by former National Security Advisor John Bolton, who claims Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to help his reelection by buying U.S. farm products.
Trump weathered a House Democratic impeachment effort after the release of his call to the president of Ukraine urging investigations of rival Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. Trump said the call was ‘perfect’ and was acquitted of impeachment articles on abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
The CIA, the NSA, and the Pentagon all declined comment to the paper.
In February the U.S. inked a deal with the Taliban that would bring about an end to the war, the longest in U.S. history, while slowing drawing down U.S. forces.
‘I really believe the Taliban wants to do something to show that we’re not all wasting time,’ Trump said after the U.S. and the Taliban reached the agreement in Doha. He said he would be meeting with Taliban leaders and added: ‘They will be killing terrorists. They will be killing some very bad people. They will keep that fight going.’
Russia has longstanding ties to Afghanistan, having been ousted by Mujahadeen forces who got American backing in the 1980s after Russia’s 1979 invasion.
Last fall, Trump called off secret meetings with the Taliban planned for Camp David during one phase of peace talks after a car bomb attack in Kabul. The talks eventually resumed.
Taliban officials held talks in Moscow in September following the collapse of U.S.-Taliban balks. Russia publicly stressed dialogue at the time, Al Jazeera reported at the time, quoting Russia’s TASS news agency.