Recently, a retired GRU officer with knowledge of Unit 29155 confirmed that it specialised in preparing for ‘diversionary’ missions, ‘in groups or individually—bombings, murders, anything!’
Surreal was the only way of describing that day 31 years ago. As a member of a small UK delegation, I was sitting on a sofa on a mountain ledge at the end of Pakistan’s Khyber Pass, overlooking the Torkham Border Crossing into Afghanistan. As I chewed the nuts and sipped the non-alcoholic drink provided by the Khyber Rifles, the army general briefed us on the terrain beyond and the progress of the war. In the far distance the occasional flash and explosion of Soviet bombs added a sound-track to the occasion.
As our armed convoy sped back to Peshawar, the numerous British army regimental badges carved into the rocky hillside along the Khyber Pass were a reminder of earlier Afghan wars, competition for power and influence in Central Asia between Britain and Russia. The explosions I had witnessed earlier were signalling the retreat from Afghanistan of the more recent invaders, the Soviet army, after a brutal 9-year Cold War proxy-conflict. The disastrous consequences of this war were Pakistan’s creation of the Taliban, the rise and fall of Osama bin Laden, the 2001 Twin Towers attack in New York and America’s retaliatory invasion of Afghanistan a month later. Afghanistan’s destabilisation continued.
After 18 years of conflict, the longest war in American history, and with some 2,500 American troops killed and 12,000 remaining stationed in the country, President Donald Trump is desperate to withdraw totally from Afghanistan. An “agreement for bringing peace” to Afghanistan was signed in February, under which the US and NATO allies agreed to withdraw all troops if the militants upheld the deal. Since then, a succession of car bombs and suicide attacks carried out by the Taliban have created doubt that the withdrawal will actually happen, further increased when the US carried out an airstrike against 25 armed Taliban fighters last month.
The latest episode in this long drama was revealed last week when multiple intelligence agencies reported that Russian intelligence operatives secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing American troops in Afghanistan. The Associated Press reported that, while Russian meddling in Afghanistan wasn’t new, Russian operatives had become more aggressive in their desire to contract with the Taliban and members of the Haqqani Network. A report in the New York Times pointed out that 20 Americans were killed in Afghanistan in 2019 and posited that this was the result of a bounty. These suspicions were further underlined when in early 2020, members of the elite US Navy SEAL Team raided a Taliban outpost and recovered $500,000, believed to be Russian money offered to Taliban militants and associated fighters as a bounty for murder. Both Russia and the Taliban have denied this claim, but of course this is always the position when it comes to clandestine operations. Always deny.
How did the money get to Afghanistan? Enter the secretive GRU military Unit 29155, one of several top-secret military intelligence units which are believed to have been operating for at least a decade, yet only recently discovered by Western officials. While working in the British Embassy in Moscow at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union I was, of course, very much aware of the GRU and FSB, successor to the KGB, but the existence of these special GRU intelligence and assassination groups was not on my radar.
Recently, a retired GRU officer with knowledge of Unit 29155 confirmed that it specialised in preparing for “diversionary” missions, “in groups or individually—bombings, murders, anything!” “They were serious guys who served there”, he continued, “working under cover and as international agents”. In 2012, a directive from the Russian Defence Ministry assigned bonuses to three units for “special achievements”. One was Unit 29155, the sabotage and assassination unit. Another was Unit 74455, home to the Russian military’s best mathematical minds, later involved in the 2016 US presidential election cyber interference. The third was Unit 99450, whose officers are believed to have been involved in the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
Unit 29155 has been active in at least four operations in Europe in the last decade. In Britain, their most recent operation was the 2018 attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, a former GRU officer who in Putin’s opinion had betrayed Russia by spying for the British. President Putin had earlier announced that “traitors will kick the bucket”, and Unit 29155 was sent to carry out this threat. The “Novichok” story is well known, but the operation itself helped to uncover Unit 29155. The two members sent to carry out the mission, Colonel Anatoly Chepiga and Dr Alexander Mishkin, were tracked by CCTV cameras throughout their two days in Britain, including London and Salisbury where the Skripals lived. Both Chepiga and Mishkin were later awarded by Putin a Hero of Russia medal, Russia’s highest honour, although the Kremlin has denied they had any connection with the Skripal attempted assassination, claiming that they were in Salisbury just to admire the “famous” cathedral. Always deny.
Why did the Kremlin use Unit 29155 to pay the Taliban to murder American soldiers in Afghanistan? There are a number of theories. Revenge is one possibility. Ever since the bloody confrontation in Syria in 2018, when a massive US counterattack killed hundreds of Syrian forces along with Russian mercenaries nominally supported by the Kremlin, Russia has been keen to even the scales. The Taliban payment was the way of achieving this.
Another theory is that while Russia has at times cooperated with the US and showed interest in Afghan stability, it frequently appears to work at crosscurrents with its own national interest if the result is to damage American national interests. Russia is conducting a continuous hybrid war with America, with cyber-attacks and covert military operations which can always be denied.
For a more convincing theory, however, you have to go back 31 years to the time I was sitting on that sofa at the end of the Khyber Pass. At that time an unknown KGB colonel, Vladimir Putin, was working in the East German city of Dresden and was about to witness the collapse of his Communist world. Putin would have received reports of endless streams of military body bags leaving Afghanistan for the homeland. About 14,500 young Soviet soldiers were killed in the war, many as a result of a secret CIA programme to supply the Afghan Mujahideen with US Stinger shoulder launched anti-aircraft missiles. These weapons were perfect for destroying Soviet helicopters and without air defence and re-supply, the Soviet invasion was doomed to failure.
Vladimir Putin has a lasting memory of the Soviet Union’s ignominious defeat and withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 being directly linked to American undercover operatives assisting the enemy. Could it be that Unit 29155 is doing the same, albeit in only a small way? If more and more Americans are killed by the Taliban, and there is emerging evidence that Russia has been supplying the Taliban with weapons since 2018, then the peace initiative will fail and in desperation President Trump might decide to withdraw unilaterally—and ignominiously. That would give President Putin enormous satisfaction. Touché.
Many analysts have identified the disaster of the Soviet military adventures in Afghanistan as one of the causes of the collapse the Soviet Union two years later. Putin has always lamented this collapse as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”, so could Unit 29155 be his way of payback to America?
John Dobson is a former British diplomat to Moscow and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998.