As Czechia and Russia spar over revelations that a 2014 explosion at an arms depot came at the hands of the shadowy Russian military intelligence Unit 29155, the incident is turning out to be a veritable Rosetta Stone — providing insight into the tactics, aims, and identities of the Kremlin’s agents. But a key element of this story is being overlooked, and it may be one of the most potent weapons against the kleptocratic regime built by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Russian government is full of absolute morons.
Don’t get me wrong, there are countless clever and skilled bureaucrats, intelligence officers, and public servants in Russia. But, again and again, genuinely stunning incompetence from people tasked with important duties spills out into the open with sometimes disastrous effects. Russia isn’t the only country with blundering bureaucrats and spies — but it is one of the few that treats exposing these humiliations like a mortal threat to the state.
THE SPY WHO POSTED
Bellingcat, the investigative team that has uncovered many of the operations conducted by GRU Unit 29155, detailed some of the sophomoric mistakes made by the officers conducting the 2014 bombing. One agent outed himself by posting on social media from Prague after, reportedly, trying to hit on a local woman while he was stuck waiting around. When she said she couldn’t connect with him on VK — the Russian version of Facebook — he made a new throwaway Facebook profile and started posting publicly from Prague to try to connect with her. Who says a honeytrap needs to be intentional?
Unit 29155 is the same team responsible for the 2018 UK poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Their commander, General Andrey Averyanov, was linked by Bellingcat to the 2014 Czech operation because of a mistake that was bone-headedly similar to his social media savant underling — Averyanov traveled to Prague during the operation under the mysterious, untraceable cover identity “Andrey Overyanov” and returned to Moscow just hours after the explosion. With only one letter changed (in fairness, two letters in Russian), it may not exactly have been a herculean task for the Bellingcat investigators to make the link.
It is entirely too easy to laugh at the forehead-slapping simple mistakes these supposed super-spies have made — particularly when considering the crimes and violations of international law they have committed. But above all, the most remarkable thing is how painfully human it is. A mysterious team of intelligence officers conducting brazen assassinations and attacks around the world is driven, in part, by the desire to intimidate and scare. It is much more difficult to maintain that mystique when posting on social media because you’re lonely in a strange place and want a date. Highlighting these simple, humanizing failings saps the power and fear from those who rely on it.
TAKING THE FEAR OUT OF THE FEARFUL
It is a tactic that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has found to be potent when weaponized against the Kremlin. Before his return to Russia, where he was promptly arrested and summarily imprisoned for his challenges to the state, Navalny prank called one of the FSB officers responsible for stalking and poisoning him.
Pretending to be a state official, Navalny spent half an hour on the phone with one of his would-be assassins, getting him to describe the operation in gruesome detail. In a stunning act of public humiliation, Navalny then posted the whole conversation on YouTube where it has racked up more than 28.5 million views.
Whatever the Russian state does to dress-up and hide the corruption and criminality running rampant, it’s a state filled with bumbling, embarrassing fools granted enormous power over others. Highlighting their incompetence and humanity is one of the greatest threats to that power.
Once you get past the surrealness of watching a man get his would-be killer to confess to the crime, it is striking just how unremarkable the FSB operative is. Whenever he displays (wise) caution at discussing sensitive details of a plot to commit murder by smearing Novichok poison on the crotch of Navalny’s underpants, the opposition leader easily coaxes him into spilling the beans with talk of boring bureaucracy and the need to write a report for one’s boss. It’s just a formality after all, and doesn’t this officer want to cover his own behind by giving his version of how things went wrong? He even has the chance to throw a co-worker under the bus.
Navalny rose to prominence by focusing on the rampant corruption in Putin’s kleptocracy, especially from Putin himself and his minions like former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. A landmark 2016 investigation into Medvedev’s mansions went viral for the lavishness on display and their connections to dirty money. A plethora of memes sprouted up about how even Medvedev’s treasured pet ducks had their own house on the grounds, hatching a lasting, silly, and corrupt association between the one-time president and his amphibious friends.
The opposition leader’s greatest triumph came earlier this year when, just after he was taken into custody by Russian authorities, his team released another investigation with Navalny spending over two hours detailing the stunning, corrupt opulence of “Putin’s Palace.” Reportedly costing over $1.3 billion, funneled from various corrupt oligarchs, Navalny claimed that Putin’s massive seaside compound was the “world’s biggest bribe.” Replete with laughably luxurious items like a $28,000 sofa, an indoor hookah lounge, and personal casino, and the rapidly memeified “Aqua-Disco,” the exposé has grown to be one of the hottest YouTube videos in Russian history with over 116 million views.
These tactics of highlighting laughable humanity and the connection to criminality are genuinely effective — it’s why Navalny’s life has been in jeopardy, with real fears in recent weeks that he was in imminent danger of dying in a penal colony. These tactics pierce an intentionally constructed veil of indomitability perpetuated by the Russian state.
BREAKING THE FACADE
With a growing surveillance state used to monitor and arrest protesters, persecution of student journalists who inform others of their political rights, murders of critics and dissidents, and having forced so many Russians into their own “compromises” with the state, the Kremlin has created an ecosystem designed to make individuals feel that the Russian state can reach them anywhere and know just about anything they do. This veil of inhumanity and otherworldly power is in direct conflict with the realities exposed by folks like Navalny and the investigators at Bellingcat.
Whatever the Russian state does to dress-up and hide the corruption and criminality running rampant, it’s a state filled with bumbling, embarrassing fools granted enormous power over others. Highlighting their incompetence and humanity is one of the greatest threats to that power — and it’s something they are willing to kill over.
So, bring on the memes. Post all the prank calls. Spotlight the duck mansions. Mock the opulence and the appalling corruption that enables it. Humiliate the blundering assassins. Keep breaking the illusion of their immutable power. They can’t hold on to it forever.
Doug Klain is a program assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.