Secret Russian assassination squad linked to claims of bounties on US troops in Afghanistan, report says

·3-min read
Agentes de policía con máscaras protectoras pasan por la Torre Spasskaya del Kremlin en Moscú el 13 de marzo de 2021 (AFP via Getty Images)
Agentes de policía con máscaras protectoras pasan por la Torre Spasskaya del Kremlin en Moscú el 13 de marzo de 2021 (AFP via Getty Images)

Claims of Russian bounties against US troops in Afghanistan were linked to a Kremlin-backed spy team known as Unit 29155, according to reports.

The intelligence community released newly-declassified documents of its assessment to The New York Times after the Biden administration’s review said they had "low to moderate" confidence in the intelligence.

Claims that Donald Trump did nothing about Russian bounties on American soldiers were leveraged by Joe Biden as a major election issue during the presidential campaign and tied to accusations that the Republican had consistently shown a deferential attitude to Vladimir Putin. Conservative commentators said the only “low to moderate” assessment meant the Biden administration had effectively walked back the bounties claim.

Reporting by theTimes suggests the Central Intelligence Agency’s judgement was bolstered by traces of evidence left by a unit of the GRU Russian military intelligence service known for assassination operations.

“The involvement of this GRU unit is consistent with Russia encouraging attacks against US and coalition personnel in Afghanistan given its leading role in such lethal and destabilising operations abroad,” the National Security Council said in a statement provided to the newspaper.

Quoting officials and statements on two prior operations, theTimes identified the group as Unit 29155, which has been accused of involvement in explosions at ammunition depots in the Czech Republic and the assassination attempt of a Bulgarian arms manufacturer.

It has also been linked to the assassination attempt against former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury in 2018.

The connection to the GRU in managing relationships with a Taliban-linked Afghanistan criminal network that first revealed allegations of a Kremlin plot to encourage attacks on US and allied troops, was highlighted by White House press secretary Jen Psaki when announcing the administration’s findings.

"The involvement of this GR unit is consistent with Russia’s encouraging attacks against US and coalition personnel in Afghanistan," she told reporters.

"So while there’s low to moderate assessment of these reports, we felt it was important for our intelligence community to look into it."

The release of newly declassified documents suggests disagreement among different agencies within the intelligence community on whether to assign a "medium" or "low" level of confidence in corroborating the intelligence, which reportedly came from members of the criminal network detained in early 2020.

While they ultimately had "low to moderate" level of confidence in the bounties, they had "high confidence" in the associated but circumstantial evidence of ties between the criminal network and the GRU’s Unit 29155.

“We have independently verified the ties of several individuals in this network to Russia,” the National Security Council statement to theTimes said.

“Multiple sources have confirmed that elements of this criminal network worked for Russian intelligence for over a decade and travelled to Moscow in April 2019.”

The Biden administration gave a warning, but issued no sanctions, against Russia for the bounties. Asked if the president had any regrets for attacking Mr Trump for not taking action based on the same intelligence, Ms Psaki said she’s "not going to speak to the previous administration".

During the 2020 campaign, Mr Biden said the previous administration didn’t "lift one finger" to respond to the bounties placed on US troops.

“Not only has he failed to sanction or impose any kind of consequences on Russia for this egregious violation of international law, Donald Trump has continued his embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself before Vladimir Putin,” Mr Biden said.

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