One of the most powerful intelligence figures in Russia died unexpectedly, according to a Russian government announcement on January 4th.
Igor Sergun, the head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of Russia’s General Staff (GRU), died of unspecified causes at the age of 58, The Wall Street Journal reports, although there is no indication died of anything other than natural causes.
The GRU is Russia’s most important military intelligence department, and is believed to have a vast foreign operative network.
It is also responsible for a range of paramilitary activities as well — including the Spetsnaz, the clandestine special forces that Moscow deployed in its March 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
Under Sergun, the GRU recovered from a range of setbacks stemming from Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. Although Georgia’s military was decisively beaten in the war, the GRU performed poorly during the conflict. According to an IHS Jane’s analysis, during the war the GRU was deemed responsible for “friendly-fire incidents as a result of poor inter-service co-operation,” including one in which six Russian paratroopers were killed.
As a result, the directorate underwent what New York University professor and Russian security sector expert Mark Galeotti described in a May 2014 blog post as “a savage round of cuts,” in which 1,000 officers and 80 of the directorate’s 100 general-level officers were either transferred or retired. All Spetsnaz brigades were disbanded or moved under other military commands, while the GRU’s presence in Russian embassies abroad was dramatically scaled back.
Under Sergun, the GRU regained control of the Spetsnaz and became a crucial instrument of Russian policy. The Spetsnaz were expanded in early 2014 under the pretext of providing additional security for the Sochi Winter Olympics, according to IHS Jane’s. And shortly after that, they became a central part of the boldest Russian geopolitical gambit in a generation, helping to annex Crimea and maintaining pro-Moscow separatists’ control over parts of eastern Ukraine.
The GRU’s emergence under Sergun demonstrates the evolution of Russia’s strategy and priorities since the Georgia war. Galeotti notes that after that conflict, there was some doubt as to whether the GRU would even retain its status a main directorate.
Military espionage and paramilitary aspects of Russian military operations were in danger of being reorganized under a series of different offices, showing the GRU and its functions had fallen out of favour among Russia’s security elite.
It now seems surprising that this was ever the case. After the Ukraine war, the annexation of Crimea, and a host of other GRU activities — including its role in propping the military of embattled Syrian president Bashar al Assad — it’s hard to imagine Russian foreign policy without “Putin’s secret weapon.” Sergun was a crucial part of Russia’s security apparatus in a time when Moscow became increasingly ruthless, and less restrained by international norms.
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