Despite a little confusion (RIA-Novosti and Kommersant say yes, Rossiiskaya gazeta said no at first, then yes), it seems clear that, as predicted, Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) chief Colonel General Alexander Shlyakhturov, not seen at headquarters for months (despite claims that he’s been on duty), has stepped down on grounds of age. He’s 64 – an age at which remaining in post requires a clean bill of health and also presidential approval. Shlyakhturov will presumably be given a suitable sinecure, possibly as civilian adviser to the GRU, and/or Shlyakhturov would in the near future chairman of the board of directors of the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology (MITT).
His successor is Major General Igor Sergun. We know very little about Sergun (my apologies, by the way: I am writing this on my travels, away from my paper files, and also many of my obvious contacts on this kind of issue aren’t around at this time of year), but he was Shlyakhturov’s deputy and his background appears to have been in field intelligence, including time as a military attache. In other words, he’s career GRU, not a drop-in from elsewhere in the General Staff apparatus. I could be wrong, but I don’t believe he has a Spetsnaz action-man background, either.
So this looks like a very business-as-usual transition. However, what makes this interesting is precisely the length of time it has taken for Shlyakhturov’s fate to be decided – or at least announced – at a time when the GRU is facing serious challenges and a probable further downgrading in status. Today’s confusion as to his departure is just extra indication of this. Although Sergun appears to have been Shlyakhturov’s protege, the choice would not have been his but that of Defence Minister Serdyukov, Chief of the General Staff Makarov, and whoever makes these decisions at the top level – presumably Putin. In this context, it makes sense to choose a spook given that. as the GRU contracts, its defence attache network will be one of the few strategic-level assets it is likely to retain. However, I suspect there is more to it than that. There is a faint suggesttion that the appointment was delayed by the need to secure Sergun’s compliance with plans further to clip the GRU’s wings. There may also have been some interference from the other spook agencies, perhaps as the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) tried to restore its fortunes by asserting a degree of authority over the GRU, albeit with no success. We’ll see.