Inside Russia’s Secret Propaganda Unit

Newly discovered documents reveal the role of a secret Russian intelligence section called Unit 54777 in propaganda and espionage operations

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Inside Russia’s Secret Propaganda Unit
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov (R) look at the emblem during their visit to a newly-built headquarters of the Russian General Staff’s Main Intelligence Department (GRU) in Moscow, 08 November 2006/ Dmitri Astakhov/ AFP via Getty Images

In the late 2000s, former deputy head of Moscow’s spy station in New York Sergei Tretyakov, who defected, was explaining how Russia’s foreign intelligence, or SVR, handled propaganda and disinformation. “Look, the department responsible for running active measures,” he told Andrei, referring to the term of art used for influence operations, “was given a new name, but the methods, structure, and employees were retained.” When asked about specific operations, Tretyakov indicated Russian photo exhibits at the United Nations headquarters in Turtle Bay, a shocking collage depicting alleged atrocities committed by Chechen separatist militants. He also noted screenings before U.S. and NATO officials of state-produced documentaries purporting to show that Russia in Chechnya and the United States in the Middle East were fighting a common jihadist enemy, just on different fronts. The objective, Tretyakov continued, was to signal to Washington that it would be morally hypocritical to kick up a fuss about Russian human rights abuses in the Caucasus. It was part of concerted effort by the Kremlin government to pitch itself as America’s indispensable ally in the nascent war on terrorism.

Back then, Tretyakov did not volunteer (and may not have even known) the provenance of these exhibits and films, but now, thanks to a tranche of documents obtained by Michael from within Russia’s military intelligence agency, or GRU, we can finally answer that question. The Chechnya propaganda was manufactured by a secret section of the GRU known as Unit 54777 in a remarkable period of collaboration between two Russian spy agencies.

One of those documents is the personal memoir of Col. Aleksandr Viktorovich Golyev, a psyops and propaganda specialist in the GRU who began his career in the early 1980s and was active in chronicling and trying to suppress various anti-Communist movements sweeping the Warsaw Pact nations. Golyev was sent to Poland at the start of Solidarity; then to Lithuania in 1990 after the storming of the Vilnius television center, whereupon he launched a regime-loyalist newspaper, Soviet Lithuania, which was actually printed in Minsk. His final foreign posting as a Soviet special propagandist was East Germany, just as Russian troops began withdrawing from the German Democratic Republic. When the first Chechen war broke out, Golyev was seconded into the newly created Unit 54777 and, as he writes, had a hand in the manufacture of “Dogs of War” and “Werewolves,” the anti-Chechen films to which Tretyakov referred.

His memoir is part of a remarkable collection of GRU texts – never before seen outside of the agency’s rarefied circles – which the Free Russia Foundation is releasing under the title, “Aquarium Leaks: Inside the GRU’s Psychological Warfare Program.” The collection also includes two long lectures delivered within the last decade by GRU faculty at the Military University (not to be confused with the Military-Diplomatic Academy, where GRU operatives are trained), a definition of terms used in one of those lectures, even a set of exam questions put to cadets at the university.

The authenticity of these documents has been corroborated by a Western intelligence agency consulted by Michael. And the story they tell will be of great use to historians of the Cold War and analysts and scholars trying to understand how Unit 54777’s ongoing influence operations are waged, not only against NATO, the United States, and Europe, but against the Russian people.

To understand Unit 54777’s remit, it’s first necessary to understand its provenance.

In the Soviet Union, psyops were conducted by the Special Propaganda Directorate, incorporated in the massive directorate of the army, GLAVPUR (Glavnoye Politicheskoye Upravlenie, or the Main Political Department). GLAVPUR was a powerful testimony to Bolsheviks’ constant fear of the army going rogue or mutinying. In 2019 the Russian army proudly celebrated the centenary of GLAVPUR, established by the Revolutionary Military Council of Bolsheviks a year and a half after the October Revolution as the political department to supervise thousands of commissars, Communists attached to military units to spy on and oversee their commanders (the commissars had the final word in military operational planning).

The Communists never fully trusted their soldiers since soldiers had played a decisive role in all attempted or successful seizures of state power in Russian history. It was the commissars who kept the Red Army loyal to the regime even during the first two disastrous years of war with Nazi Germany, when millions had been killed or captured, thanks to the incompetence of the officers’ corps, which had been hollowed by Stalin’s purges. (Hitler, inspired by Soviet experience, had his own commissars and version of GLAVPUR called the National Socialist Leadership Office, or NSFO, whose officers embedded with the Wehrmacht to kindle a fighting spirit at the late stage of World War II.)

After the war, ideological overseers in the Soviet military proliferated. By the late 1980s, there were 20,000 political departments with 80,000 “political workers” – the new designation for commissars – and all were supervised by the ubiquitous and all-powerful GLAVPUR. The Special Propaganda Directorate was part of that empire. Then, in the early 1970s, the Soviet military established special propaganda training facilities in the Military Institute of Foreign Languages, where Golyev studied, and for the faculty of Journalism at Moscow State University, the goals being to train officers in psyops and create a reserve of Soviet journalists in the event of war mobilization, respectively.

The fidelity of the Soviet army remained a primary objective of GLAVPUR. The Special Propaganda Directorate was, in theory, busy developing methods of subverting the hostile armies’ morale but was mostly focused on its own military personnel rather than on Western soldiers. It was the body that played a largely defensive, not offensive, role.

Unless, of course, actual war broke out again. “As for special propaganda,” Arsen Kasyuk, one of the top authorities on Soviet-era special propaganda, told official Russian Defense Ministry newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda in June 2011, “it is present wherever there is a conflict, where active hostilities begin. Prior to that, the special propaganda bodies are, so to speak, in a waiting-preparatory mode, they assess the situation, improve their methods, their technical base.”

Whether by accident or design, this exact doctrine was articulated in a slightly more excitable fashion by Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of RT, the Kremlin’s English-language propaganda channel. “Right now, we’re not fighting anyone,” Simonyan told the Russian newspaper Kommersant in a 2012 interview. “But in 2008 we were fighting. The Defense Ministry was fighting with Georgia, but we were conducting the information war, and what’s more, against the whole Western world. It’s impossible to start making a weapon only when the war [has] already started! That’s why the Defense Ministry isn’t fighting anyone at the moment, but it’s ready for defense. So are we.”

Except “Aquarium Leaks” definitively shows that the distinction between war and peace was completely elided after 1991.

Golyev observes in his memoir that when the Soviet Union collapsed, the new Russian army, which was still very much the same as the old Red Army, was undergoing the trauma of depoliticization. With the almighty Party gone, GLAVPUR was destined to follow it into oblivion. And yet, according to Golyev, the army wanted to salvage at least some parts of GLAVPUR, especially the Special Propaganda Directorate. Where might it find a powerful and permanent new patron? It was a difficult question for the military bureaucracy to answer, although they finally did by transferring the directorate to the GRU – to the second floor of the Aquarium, as the service’s Moscow headquarters is colloquially known, where it was rebranded Unit 54777 in 1994. (Vladimir Putin restored GLAVPUR in 2018, but Unit 54777 remains under GRU control.)

That bureaucratic reshuffle, as “Aquarium Leaks” further demonstrates, had far-reaching consequences.

Since its founding in 1918, the GRU has always been a full-scale intelligence service, running operations all over the world. Unlike the KGB, which was dissolved and then refashioned into several separate agencies, the GRU has remained a constant institution throughout the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. It has recruited spies and run “illegals” from Manhattan to Tokyo; it’s stolen industrial, military, and atomic secrets; it’s attempted coups and assassinations; it’s propped up disinformation portals masquerading as “news” agencies; and, as we’ve been amply informed over the last five years of government reports and legitimate news investigations, it’s run ambitious cyber operations that have inveigled or damaged democratic electorates, shut down national power grids, and temporarily halted international commerce to the cost of billions of dollars. Unit 54777 has provided plausible deniability or shaped the narrative of many of these more recent interventions, most spectacularly the GRU-led invasion and occupation of Crimea in 2014.

The encompassing of military psyops by military intelligence forever changed the nature, scope and character of the former. The “waiting-preparatory mode,” to use Kasyuk’s formulation, gave way to permanent “active hostilities.” To quote from the second and third paragraphs of “Study of Targets of Psychological Warfare in the Interests of Conducting PSYOP,” one of the lectures from the Military University:

“Psychological warfare is conducted constantly, in peacetime and wartime, by the intelligence agencies of the Armed Forces. The chief feature of psywar in peacetime is that it is organized and conducted both from the territory of Russia as well as the territories of the target countries, but the main targets of information and psychological influence are defined as the military and political leadership, the staff of the armed forces and the population of foreign states.
During this period, psywar may be conducted at the strategic and operational level in cooperation with the forces and means of other [Russian Federation] executive branch federal agencies, state, civic, and religious organizations.”

Consider the irony. Just as the Soviet Union was disintegrating and its armored columns receding from half the continent, the military transferred its psyops unit into the GRU, which made it far more aggressive than it had ever been under Communist rule. Now it was never-ending and total, “in peace time and war time.” Moreover, Unit 54777 could second any government body or public or religious institution. The Orthodox Church, state-run newspapers and television channels, athletic clubs, tourist agencies, cultural outreach or exchange programs, and their constituent personnel are all hypothetical conduits for the GRU’s prosecution of information warfare.

If that sounds slightly totalitarian, it’s because it was borne of the espionage of totalitarianism.

According to “The Use of the Soviet Culture Committee for Cultural Ties with Compatriots Abroad in Intelligence Activity,” a KGB training manual written in 1968 that Michael obtained a few years ago and analyzed in The Daily Beast, the “main operational task for our intelligence to conduct through the Soviet Committee is to use the official work, propaganda, and other means of influencing compatriots to prepare the grounds for the deployment of recruitment and other intelligence and counterintelligence measures …” The Kremlin has always considered the presence of Russians in Western countries, particularly those in the United States, as either its most serious threats or its greatest opportunities for co-optation, as Andrei and Irina Borogan argue in their recent book “The Compatriots.”

The SVR, the successor of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate or foreign branch, certainly honors that Chekist tradition. In October 2013, the magazine Mother Jones broke a story about the FBI’s investigation of the head of the Russian Cultural Center in Washington, D.C. Yury Zaytsev was suspected of keeping files on young Americans the center had sent on all-expenses-paid trips to Russia, assessing each as a potential spy. The center was part of the Rossotrudnichestvo, the Russian agency run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which acts as an umbrella body overseeing a host of foundations claiming to foster compatriots abroad and provide funding for Russian-speaking media.

The GRU got up to much the same thing. In 2018, the Washington Post reported on two ostensible public diplomacy organizations targeting Russian expatriates, but really run by Unit 54777 and financed through Russian government grants. The first is InfoRos, which “launched an appeal, purportedly on behalf of Russian organizations in Ukraine, calling on Putin to intervene in the brewing crisis,” the Post stated, citing an unnamed Western intelligence officer. The second is the Institute of the Russian Diaspora, which maintains the websites of other commonly themed organizations such as the World Coordinating Council of Russian Compatriots Living Abroad and the Foundation for Supporting and Protecting the Rights of Compatriots Living Abroad, which Putin singled out in an October 2018 speech before the World Congress of Compatriots Living Abroad for its “legal aid” work in 20 countries, including Syria, Yemen and Libya, as well as its “courses for young human rights advocates.” As if to prove that “Aquarium Leaks” is no mere theoretical exercise, the Foundation was created by executive order in 2011 and founded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Rossotrudnichestvo.

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