Pentagon officials speak at a hearing

Russian bounty allegations shine spotlight on what Trump admin knew and when

According to reports, senior White House officials were aware as early as the beginning of 2019 of classified intelligence indicating that Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban for killing US troops. The World spoke with Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the British-based Royal United Services Institute, to get his take. 

The World

It’s still unclear if there’s any truth to the allegations that Russia paid bounties to Taliban troops to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.

Some American intelligence officials reached the conclusion Russia did so. But the White House says there's no consensus within the intelligence community around the claims.

Meanwhile, Moscow has categorically denied the allegations. 

“This is 100% b***s***,” said Dimitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, in an interview with NBC News.  

On Thursday, Pentagon officials told members of Congress there is no evidence that any payments led to the deaths of American service members. 

"That is a unique, discrete piece of information that is not corroborated," Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee in comments echoed at a hearing by Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Related: Petraeus on Russian bounties in Afghanistan: 'We were looking for this kind of activity' 

President Donald Trump, who has worked to cultivate warmer relations with Moscow, has downplayed the significance of the intelligence and denied being briefed on the matter before it was reported by news outlets last month.

The World's host Carol Hills discussed the allegations with Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the Britain-based Royal United Services Institute and an expert on Russia’s security services. 

Carol Hills: What do you make of the allegations?

Mark Galeotti: Well, they are pretty extraordinary. It's hard to say. I'll be perfectly honest,  I'm not yet convinced that it's true, but nor would I be so precocious to say they're definitely not. But if it is true, it represents an astonishing escalation by the Russians.

In what way?  

Up to now, essentially — yes, the Kremlin kills, but it kills people it regards as traitors. In other words, its own people who have turned against it. They have a very different calculus for the potential costs of going after outsiders and especially Americans. They would know there'll be a massive political price tag on any dead Americans that could be ascribed to Russian machinations.

Now, according to most of these allegations, it was Russia's notorious unit 29155 from Russia's military intelligence organization that was leading this bounty operation. What is this unit 29155?

There’s a danger in making too much of it. It seems to be essentially one of the Russian military intelligence’s in-house group of throat slitters. They're the guys that they turn to precisely when they have what they call “wetwork,” in other words, killings to be done. On the other hand, they are not grand planners. They are not sophisticated geopoliticians. But if you did have to take suitcases full of cash into the mountains of Afghanistan, you'd want to send tough guys to make sure it arrived in the right place, and its people from this unit are precisely the kind of tough guys you might send.

If we're to zoom out for a moment, what are Russia's geopolitical motivations here or what would they be here? 

From Russia's point of view, Afghanistan matters for all kinds of reasons. It matters because of the massive heroin trade there. Russia has the highest heroin consumption per capita in the world. And it also matters because they're worried that if it fell into an explosion of radicalism, that could well stretch into neighboring Central Asia, and from there into Russia itself. So they need to keep tabs on what's going on. The second thing is, Russia is trying to once again assert itself as a great power. If the United States withdraws as is meant to happen, it’s an opportunity for Russia to then reintroduce itself as some kind of power broker. 

What do you make of how US officials have reacted to these reports? I mean, as you point out, the National Security Agency dissented from the claims of other US intelligence agencies. What do you make of all this?  

From an intelligence point of view, you have to have pretty high confidence in an assessment if you're actually going to make a potentially very inflammatory claim. And on the whole, intelligence agencies are conservative. This is one of the reasons why it has not come up through the formal channels but instead has been leaked. More broadly, this speaks to something that a lot of Americans and non-Americans think — looking at Washington, the American debate about Russia is not about Russia. It's about the White House. It's about whether or not Trump is [Vladimir] Putin's puppet or whatever. And very quickly, this became mobilized to point the finger at Trump. And it's certainly true —

What do you mean by that?

Well, you know, did he actually sort of basically refuse to confront President Putin about this? Did he bother reading his presidential daily brief? Is he someone who, frankly, doesn't even bother paying attention to the intelligence assessments, or is he surrounded by people who shield him? I mean, all these questions are entirely valid questions to ask, frankly. It matters to know the answer to these, whether or not you have a chief executive who really is on top of international affairs. But in some ways, the whole issue about how this is managed within the administration has actually overshadowed the more fundamental question of what is actually going on in Afghanistan.

Or whether it's true or not.

Exactly. Of course, the Russians are involved in Afghanistan and of course, Russian military intelligence are the people whom they would put out on the ground to form their alliances and build their networks of agents. That's understood and accepted. What we don't know is whether that kind of relationship has gone further into actually indicating that they're willing to pay money for American dead or similar. This is a very specific and difficult thing to trace. And at the moment, it doesn't sound like that's where the current main emphasis is going.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Reuters contributed to this report.

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