Subscriber Essay (now unlocked): What do we know about the NYT's Russian bounty bombshell?

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I’m very bad at predicting which stories are going to become A Big Deal and which aren’t, so I try not to do too much of that in the regular newsletter. My tendency is to overestimate the likely impact of things that strike me as important and if I made a fuss about all of those things I think it would make this whole operation more alarmist than either you or I would like. That said, Friday’s New York Times report that a unit inside Russia’s military intelligence apparatus (the “GRU” if you’re still in a Cold War-era mindset) offered Taliban-aligned forces in Afghanistan bounties to kill US and other coalition soldiers seems like it’s gotten some traction.

In addition to the initial Times report, the Washington Post claimed on Saturday to have “confirmed” it, although as we’ll see below I’m not sure what the word “confirmed” is supposed to mean in this context. There have been scores of other pieces on this story that I’ve seen, but these two appear to be the main ones in terms of adding information to the mix. At the non-informational end of the spectrum, if (like me) you spent an unhealthy portion of Saturday Online, you probably saw a lot of chatter about this story. So it probably warrants a closer look. Here are my thoughts at this point, which are not comprehensive and may change should new information come to light or should I realize I’ve been an idiot about some part of this.

What is the story?

As the Times has reported, the story is that a Russian military intelligence unit, called “Unit 29155,” “secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan.” Such is the conclusion, reached “months ago,” of the US intelligence community, according to unnamed “American intelligence officials.”

…and?

And what? That’s pretty much the entire story. There’s no indication as to when this alleged program was implemented, no indication if it’s still in place (the Taliban has stopped attacking coalition forces anyway, under the terms of its February agreement with the US), and no indication if these bounties were offered to all Taliban factions or just some (the Taliban is not as monolithic as it’s usually portrayed). We apparently don’t know if any bounties were ever collected or if any US/coalition deaths are even suspected of having resulted in a payout. We also don’t know if anybody in the Russian government outside of “Unit 29155” knew about the program, let alone how high that knowledge reached into the Kremlin. Assuming, again, that there actually was a bounty program.

Isn’t it safe to assume there was a bounty program?

I don’t know about you, but when the same newspaper that brought us such gems as “U.S. SAYS HUSSEIN INTENSIFIES QUEST FOR A-BOMB PARTS” and “BREACH AT LOS ALAMOS” (the corrections at the end of that one are quite something) tells me that it’s got a Major Scoop that’s based on nothing but anonymous intelligence sources, I figure it’s OK to maintain a little skepticism. I don’t mean to single out the Times, which (leaving the editorial department’s travails aside) does do good reporting and may well be on to something here. But hopefully the past 20 years or so have taught us to be somewhat discerning about this stuff.

There are other sourcing issues. The Times says that the claims its sources are making are “based at least in part on interrogations of captured Afghan militants and criminals.” Who were these captured militants and criminals? How do we know their apparent confessions have any credibility? While we’re on that subject, who captured them and who interrogated them? The CIA may not be in the business of “enhanced interrogation techniques” anymore, but it doesn’t seem to have any problem with our allies engaging in that sort of thing, and Afghan security forces definitely engage in it. If this information was obtained via torture, then that undermines the entire story.

Didn’t you say the Washington Post had “confirmed” the story?

No, I said that they said they’d confirmed it. If you read their piece you’ll note that it, too, is based on anonymous intelligence sources, just like the Times. Maybe they’re different anonymous intelligence sources. I have no idea. But all they seem to have really confirmed is that some members of the US intelligence community are claiming that a Russian military intelligence unit offered bounties to Taliban fighters. There’s no independent reporting that would verify those claims, as far as I can tell.

OK, but if you had to guess…

On one level it seems plausible. In fact it’s one of the things that people the DC foreign policy establishment regularly dismisses as “isolationists” have been warning about for several years. One of the effects of open-ended, aimless US military deployments in places like Afghanistan and Iraq is that they leave the soldiers on those deployments vulnerable to countries that may be of a mind to hurt the US without doing anything so serious and so overt that it might trigger a war.

In Afghanistan, you can take your pick of potential adversaries—China, Iran, and Russia being the big three. And we know that Russia and Iran, at least, have been working with the Taliban in other ways, for example supplying them with arms and other resources. There are justifications for this support. One is that the Taliban is opposed to the Islamic State (at least at the organization level, if not always at the factional level) and is definitely the lesser evil in comparison. Another is that the Taliban will probably have a major role in the post-war Afghan government and so its neighbors are inclined to cultivate a relationship with it. But part of the thinking is also that, by supporting the Taliban, Moscow and Tehran can inflict some harm on the United States.

Wait, this is all starting to sound familiar.

What, you mean this isn’t the first time you’ve heard of a country arming and aiding Afghan extremists who happen to at war with a geopolitical rival? I’m afraid I’m not sure what you’re talking about.

So what-

Wait, sorry—before we move on I should also note that part of this story doesn’t make sense to me. While offering bounties to the Taliban seems like it’s up “Unit 29155’s” alley (see below), there’s an unanswered question, which is “why would a Russian military unit offer to pay Taliban fighters to do something they’ve been happily doing for free?” I can’t answer that, and neither (apparently) can our friends the anonymous intelligence officials, since the NYT notes that “the motivation remains murky.”

The Times’ sources offered several suggestions, like revenge for the attack on a Russian mercenary unit by the US and Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province in 2018 or a general desire to cause trouble for the US, but those motivations don’t address the basic fact that Taliban fighters already had a strong interest in killing coalition soldiers, and incentivizing them with bounties probably wouldn’t have made much difference. I’m sure they wouldn’t turn down the cash, but it’s hard to believe that there was a large number of Taliban members who weren’t interested in fighting until some Russian operatives started paying them.

In general the “why” behind this story is not very clear. Do the Russians want to raise casualties to drive the US out of Afghanistan? There’s never been a strong indication from Moscow that it supports a US withdrawal, and from a geopolitical perspective it actually benefits Russia for the US to remain bogged down there. Even if their goal were to force a US withdrawal, Trump already wants to leave Afghanistan anyway so why bother inflaming things? Maybe the goal is to get the US to stick around by undermining US-Taliban peace efforts, either because the Russians don’t like what they see of a post-war Afghanistan or because they want the US to keep spilling blood and treasure there. Or maybe there’s no goal other than causing trouble.

So what is this “Unit 29155” anyway?

The existence of “Unit 29155” is the subject of another largely anonymously sourced New York Times article, from last October, along with some work by other outlets like Bellingcat. It is allegedly housed within the “Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation,” also known by the acronym “GU.” It is more commonly known by its Soviet name, the “Main Intelligence Directorate,” and acronym, “GRU.” It was established in 1942, although predecessor organizations went back well before that.

The GRU is Russia’s military intelligence service, akin to the Defense Intelligence Agency in the US. Because it was never really broken up after the fall of the Soviet Union, unlike the KGB (which was divided into separate foreign and domestic intelligence services), the GRU is probably the strongest and certainly the largest intelligence organization in Russia today.

Unit 29155, and I’m dropping the quotes because I think it’s reasonable to assume it exists though I wouldn’t take that as ironclad, is purportedly one of a few units within the GRU tasked with conducting “destabilizing” operations with respect to the US and Europe. The others mostly seem to operate in more of a cyber or at least online capacity, so what sets this unit apart is that it engages in more kinetic kinds of operations. It’s been implicated in a “destabilization campaign” in Moldova in 2014 and an attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016, neither successful as far as I can tell though the purpose may have been to create chaos more than anything else. It’s also alleged to have been behind the attempted murder of a Bulgarian arms dealer in 2015 and former GRU officer Sergei Skripal in London in 2018, both also unsuccessful. There’s also an allegation that it’s been fueling the Catalan separatist movement.

While Unit 29155 doesn’t seem to be very good at achieving its objectives, it does seem pretty capable when it comes to causing mayhem, which is probably more valuable than achieving any specific operational goals. And it’s always possible that the unit has been successful in operations that are still secret.

What are the subjects of this sordid tale saying?

As you might expect, everyone is denying everything. The Russian embassy in Washington issued an angry rejection on Twitter that alleged that the NYT story sparked “direct threats to the life of employees of the Russian Embassies in Washington D.C. and London.” The Taliban also called the allegation “baseless” and suggested it was defamatory. How dare these reporters besmirch the good name of the Taliban, is I guess what they’re saying. Obviously neither of these denials means very much, since you’d expect both to deny the report whether or not it was accurate.

Additionally, the Trump administration is denying that Donald Trump was ever briefed on the bounty claim. Which brings us to probably the most incendiary part of the Times story.

“Dangerous Donald” is at it again, eh?

Yeah, sure, whatever. There are two potential scandals here. One is the alleged existence of the bounty-for-killing program itself, which we’ve covered. The other is Donald Trump’s alleged response to being informed of its alleged existence.

I won’t pretend to understand the Trump administration’s approach toward Russia, which has coupled heavy anti-Russian sanctions at an institutional level with Trump’s obsequiousness toward Russian President Vladimir Putin at a personal level. It is true that Trump has been dragged into at least some of those sanctions by Congress. It’s also true that he’s accepted Putin’s denial that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, though obviously that’s a self-serving thing for Trump. A lot of the “Trump loves Putin” narrative rests on unconvincing suppositions like “Donald Trump criticizes NATO, and this helps Putin in some indeterminate way” or on Trump’s personal conduct when in Putin’s presence. There seems to be no doubt that Trump is a little dazzled by Putin, as he seems to be with most powerful authoritarians. But US-Russia relations are ebbing, not improving, under Trump, and that’s having some troubling effects on, for example, bedrock arms control treaties.

Still, the NYT’s description here doesn’t paint Trump in a very good light and will fuel more speculation that he’s Russia’s Man in Washington:

The intelligence finding was briefed to President Trump, and the White House’s National Security Council discussed the problem at an interagency meeting in late March, the officials said. Officials developed a menu of potential options — starting with making a diplomatic complaint to Moscow and a demand that it stop, along with an escalating series of sanctions and other possible responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step, the officials said.

Again, the administration is denying that Trump was ever briefed on this story, which boggles the mind if true because you would obviously brief the president if there were credible information that the Russian military was paying bounties for dead US soldiers. So either their denial is a lie, which is likely, or it indicates a couple of alternatives. One is that this intelligence isn’t compelling enough (at least not yet) to take to the president, which frankly means it shouldn’t have been taken to the New York Times either. The other is that Trump either doesn’t want to know or somebody in either the White House or the intelligence community decided it would be better if he didn’t know. That latter possibility is actually more troubling than the notion that Trump was briefed and opted to do nothing. There are explanations for not responding that don’t have anything to do with being enthralled to Vladimir Putin. Maybe the administration is still trying to figure out what’s really going on, or is trying to calibrate an equivocal response, for example, though I understand the reluctance to give this White House any benefit of the doubt.

Since we’re approaching the end of this post, let’s assume that Trump was briefed and has opted to do nothing. I’m sympathetic to the notion that if Barack Obama were still president we’d already be on to the Senate impeachment trial by now. But I’m not sure it makes sense to take drastic action over a story that is as sketchy and unconfirmed as the one the Times reported on Friday. I mean, screw Donald Trump, who is an abomination, and if this hurts his reelection chances so be it. (One of the interesting aspects of this whole story to me is the question of whether the intelligence community, or some part if it, is leaking it to the media with the intention of hurting Trump’s reelection chances, but I digress.) But before we all succumb to the urge to Do Something here I think much more investigation is warranted, both of the allegation itself and of Trump’s alleged response to it.