Spy Wars: The Hidden Foe America Must Defeat to Save Its Democracy
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Russia's shadowy spy chief could determine whether Americans ever trust elections again.
By Charu Sudan Kasturi
- Russian military intelligence chief Igor Kostyukov is leading Moscow’s efforts to swing the 2020 election in favor of President Trump.
- It’s the biggest test for American democracy — and for Kostyukov, whose two immediate predecessors died in quick succession amid rumors Vladimir Putin wasn’t happy.
Angela Merkel is known for keeping her calm in difficult situations, but addressing the German Parliament in early May, the country’s chancellor appeared to briefly lose her cool. “Outrageous” is how she described the hacking of the parliament’s systems, including her own official email, by Russian agents in 2015, through a process German officials took five years to piece together.
Days later, Germany’s foreign office summoned Russian Ambassador Sergei Nachaev, and warned him that Berlin would seek European Union sanctions against both the suspected hacker and the man in charge of the agency believed to have orchestrated the operation: Russia’s military intelligence chief Igor Kostyukov.
But the successful attack on the German Parliament was merely a teaser. For Kostyukov, a navy vice admiral who has directed some of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most ambitious and dangerous recent overseas intelligence missions at the Glavnoye razvedyvatel’noye upravleniye or GRU, the November election in the U.S. is the ultimate prize, say experts. Enabling President Donald Trump to return to power would be the biggest success of the 59-year-old’s career.
It may indicate that the Kremlin sees the current intensive confrontation … as a prelude to an inevitable conflict.
Matthew Rojansky, Wilson Center
U.S. intelligence agencies have already warned that Russia is trying to repeat its 2016 attempts to influence the election to favor Trump. On Thursday, Microsoft said Russian government hackers had targeted 200-plus people, campaigns and organizations in both parties. But the involvement of Kostyukov’s GRU — also blamed for the Russian campaign in 2016 — in the November election is particularly “revealing” with Moscow and the West locked in confrontation on multiple fronts, says Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Washington, D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“Bear in mind that its [the GRU’s] main purpose is to support Russia’s military via intelligence gathering and operations in times of war,” says Rojansky, an expert on U.S.-Russia relations. “That does not necessarily suggest that Russia plans to expand or accelerate attacks, but it may indicate that the Kremlin sees the current intensive confrontation … as a prelude to an inevitable conflict.”
If Putin is indeed looking for someone to give him an edge in the event of a future military conflagration, the heavyset Kostyukov is the best man for the job. He led the Russian military operation in Syria that has given Moscow unprecedented control over the war-torn nation. His success in Syria drew public praise for GRU officers from Putin in 2016, with Kostyukov seated beside him. The Syria campaign earned Kostyukov the Hero of Russia medal in 2017. The GRU chief is also a central figure in Russia’s attempts to bring rebel Libyan leader Khalifa Haftar to power in Tripoli.
More recently, Kostyukov is believed to have masterminded the attempted bounty killings of American soldiers in Afghanistan by Taliban fighters, even as the militant group and the U.S. were finalizing a peace agreement.
But those wartime credentials aren’t the only qualities that Putin sees in Kostyukov, suggest experts. In the Russian espionage system, the GRU has significant autonomy with a “global remit,” says Rojansky. Yet Kostyukov has repeatedly shown that he sticks to Putin’s script, says a senior Indian intelligence officer who requested anonymity. “He’s reliable, he’s proper,” says the officer, who has met Kostyukov. So proper that his salt-and-pepper hair is never out of place. He is known to lower his eyes in Putin’s presence, out of respect.
Born in the Russian Far East region of Amur, Kostyukov was earlier the GRU station chief in Rome. He is known to have a son, Oleg, who has a weakness for Italian wines. But like a good spy, Kostyukov has made sure that beyond those tiny nuggets, even the closest watchers of Russia’s intelligence agencies know little about his private life.
That mystery is part of what makes Kostyukov one of the West’s most dangerous adversaries. The U.S. first imposed sanctions against him for Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, and added fresh ones in 2018, prohibiting any American individual or entity from engaging with him. Last year, the European Union put Kostyukov on its sanctions list for the 2018 chemical poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, U.K.
But the stakes are higher than ever in 2020 for both Kostyukov and his targets. He was deputy chief of the GRU at the time of the 2016 election interference and the Salisbury poisonings. He became top boss only in November 2018.
Compared to 2016, Russia’s online interference strategies have grown in sophistication, says Dov Levin, assistant professor of international relations at the University of Hong Kong. Its trolls are better at impersonating individuals and parties, “which makes the detection of the Russian hand much harder,” says Levin, whose book on foreign election interference, Meddling in the Ballot Box, was released this month. The GRU, he says, is also constantly creating “digital” equivalents of traditionally “analog” dirty tricks, making covert operations that used to involve agents or officials tougher to track. What if they hack traffic signal systems or electricity grids from thousands of miles away to make voting selectively harder in some pockets of the country?
America’s ability to counter Kostyukov could determine the very credibility of its democratic electoral process. But the risks are high for Kostyukov too: His two predecessors died mysteriously within a span of two years, amid rumors that Putin was unhappy with the GRU’s performance after the extent of its interference in the 2016 election and in the Salisbury poisonings became embarrassingly hard to deny.
It’s a battle he can’t afford to lose. Nor can the U.S. let him win.
- Charu Sudan Kasturi, OZY Author Contact Charu Sudan Kasturi