What Is Unit 29155? The Russia Intel Branch Accused of U.S. Troop Bounties

The Russian military intelligence branch said to have offered the Taliban bounties to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan has been at the forefront of Moscow's covert efforts to destabilize the West and neighboring countries.

Unit 29155 is part of the Russian intelligence agency known as the GRU. The unit is thought to have operated since 2008 but was only identified publicly in 2019, The New York Times reported citing unnamed Western intelligence sources.

The shadowy force was thrown back into the spotlight this weekend by a Times report alleging that Russian intelligence offered to pay Taliban fighters to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan, prompting outrage in the U.S. that President Donald Trump has seemingly failed to act, despite being warned of the operation months ago.

The Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence officials believe that at least one military death in Afghanistan is linked to Unit 29155 bounties. American forces on the ground reported their suspicions as early as January and discussions about the assessment have been going on inside the Trump administration since March, the Times reported.

This is the first time that Unit 29155 has been accused of directly targeting American soldiers, but the group has been linked to multiple high-profile foreign plots and assassination efforts—part of President Vladimir Putin's attempts to destabilize Western democracies and cement Russian influence over its neighbors.

Investigations by Bellingcat journalists have suggested that Unit 29155 is made up of around 20 agents with hands-on combat experience. The group focuses on European destabilization, and according to the Times is so secret that not even other GRU units will necessarily be aware of it.

The Times reported last year that the unit's commander was General Andrey Averyanov, likely a veteran of the first and second Chechen wars and recipient of a Hero of Russia medal in 2015—the country's highest honor.

The unit is believed to have been responsible for the attempted murder of a former Russian double agent in the U.K. in 2018. Sergei Skripal—a former GRU agent who worked for British intelligence before defecting—and his daughter were poisoned by a nerve agent in the British city of Salisbury in March 2018. Both survived and are believed to have since been re-settled in New Zealand under new identities.

The bottle used to spray the agent on Skripal's front door was discarded by the would-be assassins—who were later unmasked by Bellingcat—but later found by a man who mistook the poison for perfume. He later fell seriously ill while his partner died.

Unit 29155 has also been linked to an attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016—allegedly a desperate effort by pro-Russian Montenegrin lawmakers to block the country from joining NATO. The plot was said to have been supported by Russians and Serbians, and reportedly envisaged an attack on the national parliament and the assassination of Prime Minister Milo Dukanovic.

Two Russian nationals—Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov—were charged in absentia when authorities dismantled the plot. The Russian government maintains it had no involvement in the attempted coup. Prosecutors said Shishmakov had earlier been expelled from Poland after being identified as a GRU agent.

The GRU operatives involved in the Salisbury poisoning are also believed to have been part of a team that twice tried to kill Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev with poison in 2015. Bellingcat has also identified Unit 29155 involvement in the annexation of Crimea in 2014, covert operations in Moldova in 2014, and found evidence of regular visits to Switzerland by a GRU agent in 2016 and 2017.

The unit is currently under investigation in Spain after Bellingcat analysis uncovered operatives' trips to Barcelona before and during the illegal 2017 Catalonia independence referendum, which stoked separatist tensions in Spain's richest region.

Russia, GRU, Afghanistan, bounties, US, troops, killed
This file photo shows a member of the U.S. military at the Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on May 24, 2019. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images/Getty