Inside the Mystery of the Dead Russian Spy Chief
“Natural causes” can’t be ruled out. But those include stress, and there’s no doubt Gen. Korobov of the G(R)U was under a lot of that.
MOSCOW – Igor Korobov, the chief of Russian military intelligence, was buried on Friday at Moscow’s elite Troyekurovskoye Cemetery, next to the graves of famous cultural, political and military figures.
Three-star Colonel General Korobov died at age 62, after “a long and serious illness,” Russia’s state news agency reported – a story that raised considerable speculation about his demise in social media and the international press, especially among those who believe President Vladimir Putin’s ruthlessness know no bounds.
In fact, some 40 percent of Russian men die before their retirement, but Korobov’s job must have been especially stressful. His predecessor, Igor Sergun was only 59 when he died two years ago.
Russian experts say that if you want to live long, you probably should not take a job as the head of Russian military intelligence, since the burden of secrets and responsibility is just too heavy. And the last year of the Korobov’s life was especially tough. His agency, formally known as Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian General Staff (but better known as Glavnoye Razvedyvatel'noye Upravleniye, or GRU) became the but of jokes and widespread criticism after a series of public disasters.
Russian politicians Dmitry Gudkov told The Daily Beast that the troubles began in March, when “two clowns known as Boshirov andPetrov failed to fulfill the order, which must have been coming from the very top of Russia’s vertical power structure: they did not [fatally] poison former GRU colonel Sergei Skripal.”
President Putin referred to Skripal, as a “scumbag” and “traitor.”
In Soviet times the GRU made many citizens proud, but it does not today.
“The Skripal case was the first disastrous and disgraceful scandal involving GRU in a long time,” Gudkov pointed out.
Then in April Dutch officials caught four Russian GRU agents in The Hague. Eventually, the arrests were made public and Dutch authorities expelled Korobov’s four agents for allegedly trying – and failing – to hack agencies investigating the Skripal poisoning.
Russian spies also were exposed in Greece and in Austria, countries traditionally considered Russian allies.
“This is grim news about the general’s death but it appears symbolic: after a number of scandals and failures the head of the agency died,” Gudkov told The Daily Beast on Friday.
Earlier this month the first leaks appeared in Russian media about Korobov being sick with cancer, after the general did not show up at the celebration of the agency’s hundredth anniversary.
Since 2016 the general had commanded up to 15,000 units, including those conducting operations in Syria and Crimea, so his absence at the event was surprising news. Hundreds of the GRU’s top officers gathered on November 2 at the Theater of the Russian Army. Vice-Admiral Igor Kostyukov, Korobov’s substitute that day, received Putin, who congratulated the agency but made a remarkable comment, which many interpreted as signaling big changes. In 2010 the agency’s name was reduced to GU, losing its “R,” which stood for “intelligence” in Russian. Putin pointed out with his usual cold irony: “It’s not clear where the word ‘Intelligence’ went,” calling for restoration of the famous GRU brand.
The changes came rapidly, indeed. Korobov died just a few weeks later and 57-year-old Vice-Admiral Kostyukov was appointed to be the acting head of the agency. But it restoring the agency’s prestige won’t be easy.
According to investigative journalist Sergei Kanev, it does not take much effort to find personal details about GRU officers these days, including home addresses, information about property and families.
“After Korobov did not meet with Putin at the hundredth anniversary ceremony, I became curious what was going on with the head of GRU,” Kanev told The Daily Beast. The general must have been under a lot of pressure, since his agency was accused of “complete incompetence” and “boundless sloppiness,” Kanev said. “My source told me that shortly before the anniversary, the general had a stressful meeting with Putin, then came home and collapsed, so his family called for an ambulance to save him; we also hear that Korobov was widely criticized for his daughter’s residence in Switzerland.”
Korobov came to work for the GRU in Soviet times, in 1985, when the agency was a strong competitor of the KGB, where Putin was employed.
“Political and military intelligence agencies, the first department of KGB, PGU and GRU were always competing, but when former officers of KGB came to power, the Kremlin’s attention for the GRU faded away,” says Yuriy Krupnov, an expert on law enforcement agencies and the power of Russian “siloviki” or former intelligence officers who form a powerful clique within the Putin regime. “What Putin tried to say at the hundredth anniversary was that by losing their Russian ‘R’ for ‘intelligence,’ the GRU had lost the main meaning of their mission, which now grows especially important in the geopolitical situation.”
To Krupnov, who articulated the thinking of many pro-Kremlin experts, Russia had to focus more now on gathering information about cyber and military capacities of other countries all over the world. “All intelligence agencies do that – the West should realize, that it is great to have a strong Russia and a reformed, professional, effective GRU – that would guarantee peace in the region.”
For now the West is thinking more of the GRU’s attacks than of the agency’s improvements.
In July the U.S. Grand Jury and Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 GRU officers for conducting “active cyber operations with the intent of interfering in the 2016 presidential election.” The U.S. included both Korobov and Kostykov in its sanctions list issued in December 2016 for their “efforts to undermine democracy.”
None of that stopped Korobov from meeting with the U.S. intelligence community in Washington in February 2018 to discuss the war against terrorism. (Apparently ignoring the plots against American democracy. Korobov joined the heads of the Russian agencies that succeeded the KGB: Alexander Bortnikov, director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and Sergey Naryshkin, director of Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).
“No matter what Washington says about Putin or the GRU, they will not stop meeting with generals like Korobov, even if they are on the sanctions list,” Russian senior political analyst Georgy Bovt told The Daily Beast. Why is that? “Simply because Russia has more than 2,000 nuclear warheads.”
Rest In Peace, General Korobov.