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Russian Agents Suspected of Directing Far-Right Group to Mail Bombs in Spain – The New York Times

U.S. officials say the operation may be a signal by Russia that the country and its proxies could carry out more terrorist actions in Europe if nations continue supporting Ukraine - by Edward Wong, Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt - 22.01.23.

WASHINGTON — American and European officials believe that Russian military intelligence officers directed associates of a white supremacist militant group based in Russia to carry out a recent letter bomb campaign in Spain whose most prominent targets were the prime minister, the defense minister and foreign diplomats, according to U.S. officials.

Spanish and foreign investigators have been looking into who sent six letter bombs in late November and early December to sites mostly in Madrid, including the official residence of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, which also serves as his office; the American and Ukrainian Embassies; and the Defense Ministry. No one was killed in the attacks, which U.S. officials consider terrorism. An employee of the Ukrainian Embassy was injured when one of the packages exploded.

Investigators in recent weeks have focused on the Russian Imperial Movement, a radical group that has members and associates across Europe and military-style training centers in St. Petersburg, the officials said. They added that the group, which has been designated a global terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, is believed to have ties to Russian intelligence agencies.

Important members of the group have been in Spain, and the police there have tracked its ties with far-right Spanish organizations.

U.S. officials say the Russian officers who directed the campaign appeared intent on keeping European governments off guard and may be testing out proxy groups in the event Moscow decides to escalate a conflict.

The apparent aim of the action was to signal that Russia and its proxies could carry out terrorist strikes across Europe, including in the capitals of member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which is helping defend Ukraine against Russia’s invasion, said the U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivities around the investigation. Spain is a member of the alliance and has given military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, as well as diplomatic support.

One of the letter bombs was sent to Instalaza, a weapons maker in Zaragoza that manufactures grenade launchers that Spain is giving to Ukraine, and another went to the Torrejón de Ardoz Air Base outside Madrid.

There are no signs that Moscow is ready to engage in widespread covert attacks or sabotage in Europe, which Russian officials believe could provoke a response from NATO and, potentially, a costly wider conflict, according to U.S. and allied officials. For that same reason, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and his generals have not ordered a conventional attack on a NATO country.

Mr. Putin’s calculus on terrorist attacks could change if Russia continues to suffer major setbacks in Ukraine, U.S. officials say. Mr. Putin has given his military intelligence agency wide latitude to develop and conduct covert operations in Europe, but the degree to which the Kremlin was involved in the letter bomb operation is unclear, they say.

“This seems like a warning shot,” said Nathan Sales, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator in the Trump administration, when the Russian Imperial Movement was designated a terrorist organization. “It’s Russia sending a signal that it’s prepared to use terrorist proxies to attack in the West’s rear areas.”

The Russian officers behind the bombing campaign work for the Main Directorate, commonly referred to as the G.R.U., one of Moscow’s more aggressive intelligence shops, U.S. officials say. In recent years, the group has carried out bold and lethal covert actions with impunity.

The State of the War

Members of the agency have been involved in a range of shadowy activities, from interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to shooting down a Malaysian civilian airliner over Ukraine in 2014, according to U.S. officials.

One specific part of the agency, Unit 29155, has tried to destabilize Europe through attempted coups and assassinations, according to U.S. and European security officials. Its agents include Russian war veterans, and it was so secretive that most G.R.U. operatives probably did not know it existed. American and allied officials learned about the unit only in recent years.

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Russian Agents Suspected of Directing Far-Right Group to Mail Bombs in Spain – The New Yor
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Charlie Savage contributed reporting from Washington, and José Bautista from Madrid.

Edward Wong is a diplomatic correspondent who has reported for The Times for more than 22 years, based in New York, Baghdad, Beijing and Washington. He received a Livingston Award and was on a team of Pulitzer Prize finalists for Iraq War coverage. He has been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and a visiting professor of journalism at Princeton and U.C. Berkeley. @ewong

Julian E. Barnes is a national security reporter based in Washington, covering the intelligence agencies. Before joining The Times in 2018, he wrote about security matters for The Wall Street Journal. @julianbarnesFacebook

Eric Schmitt is a senior writer who has traveled the world covering terrorism and national security. He was also the Pentagon correspondent. A member of the Times staff since 1983, he has shared four Pulitzer Prizes. @EricSchmittNYT

A version of this article appears in print on Jan. 23, 2023, Section A, Page 7 of the New York edition with the headline: Russian Cell Suspected In Spain Terror Attacks. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper - Subscribe

Spanish and foreign investigators have been looking into who sent six letter bombs in late November and early December to sites mostly in Madrid. Credit...Samuel Aranda for The New York Times.

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