On 24 April 2009, General Valentin Korabelnikov was replaced by his deputy, Lt. General Alexander Shlyakhturov, as head of the GRU, Russian military intelligence (technically, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff).
Initial reports conflicted as to whether the 63-year-old was sacked or stood down, but given that his name has surfaced as one of the senior military leaders reportedly willing to resign over proposed military reforms at the end of 2008, arguably his card had been marked for some time. While his spokesman subsequently branded the suggestion he would resign as “brazen lies”, his discomfort with civilian defence minister Serdyukov was an open secret. It is hardly subtle that while President Medvedev awarded the outgoing intelligence chief the customary medial, this was only ‘For Services to the Fatherland’ third class. The honest answer seems to be that he chose to retire – because the alternative was to be sacked.
Korabelnikov became director of the GRU in 1997, and his 12-year tenure has seen mixed results. The GRU arguably recovered its aggressive edge more quickly that its larger ‘civilian’ espionage counterpart, the SVR, not least in assassinating Chechen rebel president-in-exile Zelimkhan Yandarbiev in Qatar in 2004 and, reportedly, involvement in other murders of Chechens abroad. The main focus of its tactical intelligence and armed operations, though – after all, the GRU controls the main Spetsnaz, or military special forces elements – were in Chechnya, where it supported warlord-turned-president Ramzan Kadyrov and played a key role in the conflict. Meanwhile, as well as its intelligence operations in the West, the GRU sought to penetrate the post-Soviet states of the ‘Near Abroad’, both covertly and also through developing relations with local security agencies.
The campaign of murders may have been operationally successful but were arguably politically problematic, not least as they helped cement a growing notion that Russia was dangerous, untrustworthy and unconcerned about international law. Such attitudes certainly helped sharpen British assumptions about the Livtinenko murder and leave London far more willing to see the Kremlin’s hand at work. Elevating Kadyrov may also prove a pyrrhic victory, in that he has all but created an autonomous and autocratic Chechnya under his personal control, fully aware of how far Moscow needs him and is thus forced to put up with his antics.
Perhaps more to the point, last year’s Georgian campaign did not show the GRU in especially good light. The war was won and Tbilisi was induced to start it, but this reflected both the disparity in the two sides’ forces and the planning of the Main Operational Directorate. However, the GRU’s tactical intelligence proved flawed and although Spetsnaz of the 45th Detached Reconnaissance Regiment were relatively effective in their work, this too has proved counter-productive. Delays in passing reconnaissance data to the frontline military units have been used by critics of the GRU within the military and the SVR. The former suggest that Spetsnaz ought to be transferred from the GRU’s control and integrated within the regular military. The latter argue that the GRU would be better able to manage its tactical reconnaissance role if it concentrated on it, abandoning strategic intelligence to the SVR. Both of these are pretty naked ‘land grabs’ and are unlikely to get anywhere, but the very fact that such arguments are being made underlines the present weakness of the GRU.
Beyond the internal wrangling of military-bureaucratic politics, though, is this a big deal? In terms of the GRU, Shlyakhturov was Korabelnikov’s First Deputy and himself a GRU careerist. There is no suggestion yet that he stands for anything different although after years in the shadow of a powerful and uncompromising master, we might not have expected to see anything beyond obedience. Time will show whether he is anything beyond a ‘mini-Korabelnikov’. Perhaps more significant will be what this dismissal shows about military and Kremlin politics. President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin must have been in agreement about this, given the implicit veto power the latter retains on security-related personnel changes, so suggestions of a widening breach between the two may be premature. Within the General Staff, the replacement of Korabelnikov with a more junior and still-unknown figure also helps ease the pressure on Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov, whose relationship with the senior commanders has been tense. Combined with the formal announcement of the end to the ‘counter-terrorist operation’ in Chechnya, this could potentially help open a window to substantive military reform. But then again, outside observers have wistfully looked for such opportunities time and again, without there being subsequent and sustained reform, so we’ll just have to keep watching…