What is Russia's GRU? Spy unit may be behind mysterious 'Havana Syndrome' sonic attacks on US personnel

US government officials have been repeatedly attacked since 2016, and now the nation has a suspect — Russia's military intelligence agency the GRU


                            What is Russia's GRU? Spy unit may be behind mysterious 'Havana Syndrome' sonic attacks on US personnel
Vladimir Putin with an insert of the GRU logo (Getty Images/ Wikimedia Commons)

Since 2016, US government officials in Cuba, Russia, China and now mainland USA have been suffering from mysterious health issues. The symptoms have not been linked to any specific disease. Now, officials have their eyes on a major suspect — the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces or the GRU.

According to reports, officials are getting increasingly confident that Russia is to be blamed, even without much concrete proof. But knowing the source does go a long way. Since the attacks first began, officials have been struggling to respond. We now know CIA Director William Burns is receiving daily updates on the matter, indicating that it has become a matter of great concern for the US. 

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A poster showing six wanted GRU officers is displayed as FBI Special Agent in Charge of the Pittsburgh field office Michael Christman speaks at a news conference at the Department of Justice, on October 19, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Getty Images)

Three current and former officials all confirmed to Politico that the GRU was indeed the primary suspect, as the attacks have outraged lawmakers and defense officials. This isn't the first time the GRU has been a suspect. As one of Russia's primary intelligence agencies, the GRU has a long and dark history of being involved in many cases across the globe.

What is the GRU?

The agency is controlled by the Russian Military command, reporting to the Minister of Defence and the Chief of the General Staff. Apart from military intelligence, the GRU also has its own special forces unit, the Spetsnaz GRU. While Russia's military intelligence units date back to the Napoleonic wars, its current avatar dates back to Joseph Stalin and World War 2. The GRU was formed by Stalin in 1942 following the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany. 

Initially, the GRU was tasked with collecting information outside the Soviet borders but made a name for itself by playing against Russia's allies as well. By the end of the war, the GRU had penetrated Britain’s atom-bomb program and over 70 American institutions. It then played a vital role in the Cold War. The unit was responsible for the backchannel with Robert Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a pivotal moment that helped avoid nuclear war. 

Vladimir Putin addresses an event marking the 100th birthday of the Main Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces' General Staff in 2018 (Getty Images)

Russia's KGB may be the king of cinematic villains, but the GRU is the real star of Russian intelligence. The GRU is often credited with the downfall of Harold Macmillan's Conservative government in 1961 in the UK and has played key roles in many modern-day conflicts as well. The organization wasn't known to western intelligence services during the Soviet era, but all that changed following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

While the KGB dissolved, the GRU lived on and even thrived in the new Russian Federation. All that changed though, following the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Reportedly, the unit failed to discover that Georgia had obtained new anti-aircraft missiles. But they were able to make up for that when the Spetsnaz GRU played a pivotal role in seizing Crimea from Ukraine. GRU hackers, nicknamed “Fancy Bear”, also ran riot in cyberspace, penetrating everything from Germany’s parliament to Emmanuel Macron’s campaign for presidency. 

However, it's not been all smooth sailing as the organization has had a series of massive setbacks of late. In 2016, the GRU was linked with a failed coup in Montenegro, and in 2018 they were linked to the Salisbury poisoning of former GRU officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal. Robert Mueller has also named multiple GRU names and ranks in his 2019 report. Now, the GRU faces even more scrutiny as the source of the mysterious sonic attacks.

Military personnel wearing protective suits cover two ambulances with tarpaulin as they prepare to remove them from Salisbury ambulance station in Salisbury, England (Getty Images)

Officials have their eyes on the GRU

The exact role of the GRU is unclear as of now, with officials only suspecting the agency "may" be behind the attack. According to Politico, officials "do not have a smoking gun" to link the GRU, but they are certainly prime suspects. “It looks, smells and feels like the GRU. When you are looking at the landscape, there are very few people who are willing, capable and have the technology. It’s pretty simple forensics," a former official told the publication. 

Another told Politico that the GRU "are the only ones (we) know have the capability to attack our people like that on our soil.” Other suspects include Israel and China, but officials believe they aren't guilty because "neither country operates in all of the locations where the incidents were reported, or has shown the desire to attack Americans in this way." Burns was appointed at the CIA Director in March, and within a month he has already made the sonic attacks a high-priority item. 

There's still a lot we don't know and may never know since such talks are usually highly classified. Nonetheless, we could see President Joe Biden move against Russia if the GRU is confirmed to be behind the attacks, especially after one occurred on the South Lawn of the White House. A National Security Council (NSC) official is believed to have developed a mystery illness after being hit in 2020. The illness has been informally nicknamed the 'Havana Syndrome' since it was first reported by diplomats in Havana, Cuba, in 2016. 

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