Russian Military Intelligence Chief Dies Amid Criticism of Botched Operations
The head of the Russian military intelligence agency GU (still commonly known by its previous acronym GRU) has died from a “serious illness.” The news, first reported to Russian state media on Nov. 22, 2018, makes Colonel General Igor Korobov the second spy chief to have died within two years. Korobov had succeeded his predecessor, Colonel General Igor Sergun, after Sergun’s sudden death under mysterious circumstances in January 2016.
The Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, abbreviated as GU from the phonetic transliteration of its Russian name, is the Russian military’s chief foreign intelligence body. Unlike other security and intelligence agencies in Russia — namely the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the Federal Security Service (FSB), both successors of the Soviet-era KGB — the GU, headed by a three-star colonel general, reports to the Minister of Defense and the Chief of the General Staff within the military hierarchy instead of directly reporting to the President of the Russian Federation.
The most high-profile aspect of the GU’s scope of activities is its command of a wide network of espionage agents and elite special forces (the Spetsnaz GRU) that is used to execute operations abroad. In recent years, the GU has been accused of carrying out several notorious missions, including the seizure of Crimea in 2014, an abortive coup attempt in Montenegro in October 2016, and the hacking and release of emails from the US Democratic National Committee and candidate Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US presidential campaign.
This year, the GU was embroiled in two alleged high-profile botched operations: the poisoning of an ex-GU officer and his daughter in Salisbury, England with a rare nerve agent in March; and a thwarted hacking attack on the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, as alleged by the Netherlands in October. While Moscow vehemently denies any involvement by government-sponsored nationals or agencies in the events, the United States and the United Kingdom, along with their allies in Europe, have brought espionage charges against Russian nationals and increased diplomatic pressure on Russia to curb the activities of the GU.
The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed the death of Colonel General Korobov on Nov. 22, noting that “the leadership of the Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation, General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and [GU] inform with great sadness that on 21 Nov. 2018, after a serious and long illness, head of the [GU], Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation Colonel General Korobov Igor Valentinovich passed away at the age of 63.”
Additionally, the Defense Ministry called Korobov “a true son of Russia, a patriot of the Fatherland” and announced that he would receive the award of Hero of the Russian Federation, the highest honorary title in Russia, for his service as GU chief. Per the short biography promulgated by Russian state media, Korobov entered military service in 1973 and joined military intelligence in 1985, becoming fluent in several foreign languages while climbing the GU ranks and racking up accolades and awards before being appointed GU head in 2016. At the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the GU earlier this month, President Vladimir Putin praised the “legendary” GU for its “unique capabilities including in special operations” along with the professionalism and “personal courage and dedication” of individual GU agents.
The vagueness of Korobov’s cause of death has given ample room for theories about how (and why) exactly Korobov died. While certain commentators have pointed to the short tenures of recent GU chiefs — cut short by death in office — other analysts have pointed to the fact that Korobov was battling cancer prior to his death and the likelihood of an operation to take out Korobov succeeding would have been infinitesimally low.
Korobov is expected to be officially succeeded as GU chief by his immediate deputy Vice-Admiral Igor Kostyukov, who has already begun service as acting GU head. Should Kostyukov be formally appointed by presidential decree, he would become the first naval officer to ascend to the post of GU chief. The Vice-Admiral shares a dubious distinction with his late predecessor: both are on the US Treasury Department’s March 2018 list of individuals targeted for sanctions over Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.