For a secret service, Russia’s GRU spy agency has been in the public eye an awful lot lately.
And it hasn’t been a good look.
Like Russian President Vladimir Putin, the GRU — the country’s military intelligence agency — is more accustomed to being feared than being mocked.
But a recently exposed run of bumbling spycraft — think Austin Powers, not James Bond — has made the spy agency the subject of biting humor, at which Russians happen to excel.
Memes and jokes abounded on Russian social media last month after an unintentionally comic turn on RT, the Kremlin-backed international broadcaster, by the two men suspected of traveling to Britain and trying to kill turncoat Russian spy Sergei Skripal. The pair claimed, unconvincingly, to have been innocent tourists drawn to ecclesiastical architecture in the quiet southern English city of Salisbury.
Another wave of online gibes came this month when authorities in Britain, the Netherlands and the United States unveiled what they described as compelling proof of cyberattacks around the world by Russian intelligence agents, resulting in the indictment of seven Russian agents by the U.S. Justice Department.
The consequences for Russia have been anything but amusing, including diplomatic expulsions and sanctions. But the humiliating espionage-related gaffes and brazen denials, while providing plenty of fodder for dark humor, are probably no laughing matter for Putin, analysts say.
“The real source of frustration for Russian leadership is not at the credibility of Russia as some sort of normal, [law]-abiding state in an international system that has now been exposed for having conducted all these notorious operations,” said Michael Kofman, a specialist in Russian military and security issues at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington.
Instead, he said, the Kremlin is worried about its “brand, image and reputation as a great power.” And Putin, a former KGB officer whose approval ratings have been slipping, is doubtless “unhappy with the image of Russia as being incompetent, and the potential public perception of themselves as fools,” Kofman said.
Some Putin-watchers saw peril for the head of the GRU, Igor Korobov. Unconfirmed reports in the Russian press said that after the U.S. indictments of seven military intelligence officers, the Russian president summoned Korobov for an official dressing-down.
In the eyes of the Kremlin, the Russian intelligence services are so closely associated with the state itself that “it’s an embarrassment to the state that Putin is the head of,” said Alina Polyakova, an analyst at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “It’s almost a personal attack.”
Still, the Kremlin is not at all likely to change its behavior despite the now very public revelations about sloppy spycraft.
“If Putin is showing his anger, it is not because they are spying and hacking and killing, but because they are not doing it well enough,” Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security services and a senior fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, wrote in a blog post.
The overarching Kremlin narrative, primarily for a domestic audience, is that of Putin standing up to an arrogant West — and any tactic employed is presented as a fair one, analysts said.
However implausible official denials might be, opinion polls show most Russians believe their government is routinely accused by foreign powers of acts it did not commit — for example, meddling with U.S. elections.
The Skripal affair has been a case in point. In March, when the former Russian spy and his daughter, Yulia, were found to have been poisoned with a Soviet-era nerve agent, Novichok, the Kremlin not only vehemently denied involvement, but demanded definitive proof of the suspects’ guilt, which seemed at the time like a tall order.
But British authorities, painstakingly poring through footage gathered by near-ubiquitous security cameras, identified two Russian men traveling under the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, and produced a meticulous timeline of their movements.
It was at that point that the Kremlin appeared to overplay its hand and tip the grim episode into farce: The two sat for the RT interview, earnestly insisting they were sports nutritionists on a holiday jaunt to Britain — and that with all the iconic tourist sites available to them in London, what they really, really wanted to see was the cathedral in a provincial city.
Russian Twitter memes depicted the two spies striking an elaborately casual demeanor at the Salisbury train station, with Queen Elizabeth II peering suspiciously at them. A cartoon showed them dragging a towering Soviet-era statue to compare its height with the spire of Salisbury Cathedral.
A Russian political scientist, Grigorii Golosov, mused on Facebook that thanks to the efforts of the two, the word “Novichok” was now better known to non-Russian speakers than “Sputnik.”
Then it got worse for Russia: Bellingcat, an independent investigative journalism website based in Britain, revealed the identities of the two as Alexander Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga. Not only were they both GRU officers, it developed, but each had been designated a Hero of Russia, Russia’s highest military honor.
By then, the dark online jokes were primed and ready. When it came to light that Mishkin, during his upbringing in a rural town, had been a teenage DJ with a penchant for Europop, a Russian news outlet swiftly pulled together a compilation of the top hits of the era and dubbed it “DJ Novichok EuroDance Mix.”
Soon afterward, Dutch investigators announced that they had ousted four Russian spies who were caught red-handed trying to hack into the computers of the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which had been investigating the Skripal case.
As the Kremlin railed against a Western plot to discredit Russia, a slapstick-style slip-up came to light: The agents had saved their taxi receipts from the GRU headquarters in southern Moscow to the airport, where they caught a flight to Amsterdam.
And the exposed agents unwittingly led researchers down a trail revealing a consecutive passport-numbering system that in turn led to the exposure of 305 agents in one traffic-police database — each of whom had registered their cars at the address of the GRU headquarters.
During Russian spies’ recent spate of seemingly fumbled misdeeds, the Kremlin’s response has been solidly consistent, analysts say.
“Step No. 1 is deny; Step No. 2 is to undermine whoever made the allegations,” said Polyakova. “And usually Step No. 3 is to spin multiple versions of the story, to try to confuse the public narrative about what is the truth, and what is not.”