Far from formidable, Russia's spy agency now looks like a comedy outfit
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Far from formidable, Russia's spy agency now looks like a comedy outfit

London: Vladimir Putin likes to pride himself on the sophistication and effectiveness of his intelligence services, which play a vital role in his vanity project to re-establish Russia as one of the world's leading powers.

As a former senior KGB officer, Putin has personal knowledge of the advantages gained from well-run intelligence-gathering operations against enemy targets.

To this end, the Kremlin has invested heavily in rebuilding the operational strength of the GRU, Russia's military intelligence service which, during the Soviet era, was regarded as one of the elite units in the ideological conflict with the West.

The only problem for Putin is that, far from an organisation famed for its fearless and ruthless approach, the GRU is starting to look more like a Laurel and Hardy comedy outfit.

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The realisation that the GRU is not all it's cracked up to be started to dawn after its failed attempt to murder one of its own: Sergei Skripal, the former GRU officer in retirement in Salisbury.

Four Russian officers are escorted to their flight after being expelled from the Netherlands on April 13, 2018, for allegedly trying to hack into the chemical watchdog OPCW's network.

Four Russian officers are escorted to their flight after being expelled from the Netherlands on April 13, 2018, for allegedly trying to hack into the chemical watchdog OPCW's network. Credit:Dutch Defence Ministry via AP

Not only did it fail to assassinate Skripal using the Novichok nerve agent, which had been smuggled into the country in a small perfume flask. (Skripal, and his daughter Yulia, survived after being exposed to the agent that had been smeared on the front door of his Salisbury home.)

But the ineptitude of the two GRU hoods sent to carry out the mission meant they were easily and quickly identified by British counter-terrorism experts, to the extent that Russia faces increased international isolation as a consequence.

Now the GRU has compounded its error-strewn performance in Britain by being caught red-handed trying to undertake another clandestine enterprise in the Netherlands, where it tried to mount a cyber attack on the global chemical weapons watchdog investigating ... er, the Salisbury poisoning.

Britain appealed to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to conduct its own analysis of the poison used in Salisbury to verify the government's claim that it could only have come from Russia.

Desperate to discover just how much the British authorities knew about the Salisbury attack, the GRU first attempted “spearfishing” attacks on the Foreign Office and the Porton Down research establishment. When these failed, the GRU then dispatched a four-man team to Amsterdam to penetrate the OPCW.

Vladimir Putin is clearly feeling the strain over the incompetence of his spies.

Vladimir Putin is clearly feeling the strain over the incompetence of his spies.Credit:EPA

The level of incompetence they displayed in this botched affair beggars belief. According to the evidence produced on Thursday at a press conference hosted by Dutch and British officials, this hapless crew used publicly accessible Wi-Fi hotspots, meaning that their login details were easily traceable. D'oh! And they flew into Amsterdam using forged passports bearing four consecutive numbers.

They also broke the iron law of any spying enterprise: they got caught. Even more humiliating, they were detained together with all of their equipment – mobile phones, computers, etc – which, now that it has been thoroughly examined by Dutch and British intelligence officials, has revealed fascinating details of other GRU espionage operations, including the Dutch-led investigation into the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014 with the loss of 298 lives.

The four agents, who were caught when their attempt to intercept the logins of OPCW staff triggered an alarm, were unceremoniously deported back to Moscow, where they are unlikely ever again to be trusted with a sensitive mission now that their cover has been well and truly blown.

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The fiasco certainly makes grim reading for Putin, who – for all his bravado – is clearly feeling the strain over the crass incompetence of his spies. Earlier this week, the Russian President let slip his true feelings about the Salisbury poisoning, referring to Skripal as a “traitor and scumbag”. It would be fascinating to hear him describe the performance of Russia's elite espionage agency.

Telegrah, London

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