A U.S. intelligence report found that a Russian military intelligence unit offered bounties to Afghanistan militants to kill American and other coalition forces in the country, reports the New York Times (NYT).
The Russia unit has been linked to operations that are intended to destabilize the West and had offered rewards to Taliban-linked militants and Afghan criminals for successful attacks last year.
There were 20 American soldiers who died in Afghanistan in 2020, however it is not clear which killings are being investigated.
The NYT said President Donald Trump and the White House discussed the intelligence findings in late March and potential options such as starting a diplomatic complaint to Moscow or escalating sanctions, were discussed. However, the White House is yet to authorize any action.
An operation to incentivize the killing of U.S. and other NATO troops would be a significant escalation of what they have said is Russia’s support for the Taliban, the NYT said. It would also be the first time the Russian spy unit was known to have orchestrated attacks on Western troops.
Any involvement with the Taliban that resulted in the deaths of American troops would also be a huge escalation of Russia’s multi-pronged attack against the U.S., which has taken the form of cyberattacks, fake news and other tactics to destabilize the adversary.
The Kremlin had not been made aware of the accusations.
“If someone makes them, we’ll respond,” said Dmitry Peskov, press secretary for President Vladimir Putin of Russia, told NYT.
The Taliban has not yet commented.
Spokespeople at the U.S. National Security Council, the Pentagon, the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency declined to comment.
President Trump has often adopted an accommodating stance towards Moscow despite claims and proof of Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 presidential elections. Trump had criticized a bill imposing sanctions on Russia when he signed it into law after Congress passed it by veto-proof majorities.
The intelligence officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to NYT, said the American administration has expanded briefings about the Russian bounty by sharing the information with the British government, whose forces are among those said to have been targeted.
The intelligence assessment is said to be based in part on interrogations of captured Afghan militants and criminals.
The officials attributed the operation to be the handiwork of Unit 29155, an arm of Russia’s military intelligence agency, known widely as the GRU. The unit is linked to the 2018 nerve agent poisoning of a former officer and his daughter in England.
Both U.S. and Afghan officials have previously accused Russia of aiding the Taliban by providing small arms and other support, which the Russian government has dismissed as baseless.
The revelations came at a time when the Trump administration is struggling with the unchecked spread of Coronavirus in the country and an election year. Trump is pushing hard for a peace deal with the Taliban to end the Afghan War before he is up for re-election in November.