Reports that a Russian intelligence unit paid Taliban fighters to kill coalition troops in Afghanistan are true, British security officials have confirmed to Sky News.
The news, which was first published on Friday evening by The New York Times, is “on the nose” according to a source briefed on the matter.
“This is another example of the moral vacuum the GRU (an arm of Russia’s military intelligence agency) operate in,” Sky News has been told.
“Offering rewards to attack soldiers who are trying to bring peace to a nation is repugnant.”
There are currently around 1,000 British troops deployed in Afghanistan, mainly in the capital Kabul, and no confirmation any have been hurt as a result of the Russian efforts.
Tom Tugenhadt, chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and a former soldier in Afghanistan, told Sky: “Reports of Russian attempts to incite attacks on British troops are deeply concerning.
“We know the GRU have been caught in the UK and are active around the world and that’s a danger to our forces.”
The New York Times reported that 20 US soldiers were killed in Afghanistan last year but “it was not clear which killings were under suspicion”.
It is thought that Moscow has been trying to destabilise a possible US-negotiated peace deal in Afghanistan.
In a statement, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany denied that either President Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence had been briefed on the “alleged Russian bounty intelligence” which the newspaper reported took place in late March.
“This does not speak to the merit of the alleged intelligence but to the inaccuracy of the New York Times story erroneously suggesting that President Trump was briefed on this matter,” the White House added.
Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden said: “The truly shocking revelation that if the Times report is true, and I emphasise that again, is that President Trump, the commander-in-chief of American troops serving in a dangerous theatre of war, has known about this for months, according to the Times, and done worse than nothing.”
It is understood the intelligence was only shared with British officials recently but Boris Johnson has now been briefed. Downing Street will be under pressure to respond to the news and take action against Moscow.
Sky has been told that the group responsible for the plan is the 29155 unit of the GRU, the same Russian intelligence outfit behind the Skripal poisonings, and the failed 2016 coup in Montenegro.
News of this Russian plan, and the direct targeting of British troops, will again raise the question of when the long overdue report into Russian interference by parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) will be published.
The report, which examined claims of Russian interference in Britain, was sent to Downing Street on 17 October last year for sign-off.
That process usually takes no more than 10 days, but the report is still yet to be published and the ISC hasn’t been reconvened after December’s general election.