A Quick and Provisional GRU Update

Update: the afternoon I wrote this, it was announced that Lt Gen Igor Korobov has been appointed. Needless to say, I take full credit for forcing the Kremlin’s hand ;). Meanwhile Dyumin, perhaps as a consolation prize, perhaps because his position at the defence ministry had thus become untenable, moves across to become acting governor of Tula. So the military win this round – but apparently not easily.


GRU logoA month ago tomorrow, military intelligence chief Igor Sergun died of heart failure in the suburbs of Moscow (not in Lebanon, not anything exciting…). That the announcement of his successor would be delayed because of the long Christmas-to-Orthodox-New-Year holidays was expected. But despite a couple of times hearing suggestions that a name was about to be announced, no one yet.

It’s bad enough that we don’t even know what the agency should be called — it’s traditional form, the GRU, that even Putin uses, or the more anonymous GU (“the Main Directorate”) in official parlance? I talk a little about this in War On The Rocks here. But as the leadership vacuum continues to resist being filled, it is hard not to assume this is because the appointment is proving contentious. As near as I can tell–and all this needless ought to be taken with caution, as the people who really know aren’t going to tell–there is a three-cornered, asymmetric fight:

Steady As She Goes. The obvious stakeholders want the obvious choice: defence minister Shoigu, CoGS Gerasimov (probably) and the bulk of the GRU itself want one of Sergun’s deputies to succeed: Vyacheslav Kondrashev, Sergei Sizunov, Igor Lelin, or most likely, Igor Korobov. Obviously the new director’s interests and personality would have an impact, but essentially this is the continuity choice.

A Fork in the Road. Seemingly the least-likely option, being floated by a few senior figures within the regular Ground Forces, is one of their number. This is really to push forward their own agenda, which is to split the GRU, with one portion sticking to the “spy” stuff, and the other–taking with it the Spetsnaz commandoes–engaging in tactical reconnaissance, special ops and that kid of thing. I don’t at present see any wider constituency for this, although in such circumstances it is always possible the main candidates cancel each other out and open the way for the mutually-least-objectionable one.

Praetorians to the Fore. There has been something of a trend of late to see security apparatus insiders known to Putin, especially from the Presidential Security Service (SBP) and its parent, the Federal Guard Service (FSO) parachuted into key positions across the security sector. It could be that Putin will want to make sure a personal client is heading the GRU, in which case the obvious candidate would be Lt. Gen. Alexander Dyumin, whose strangely meteoric rise from presidential bullet-catcher to deputy defence minister in less than a year I have sketched here.

What I have to confess I don’t see any signs of, is a land-grab by any of the other intel agencies, notably SVR and FSB. The military is still not a bloc to mess with, and any such move would unite them more than anything else.

January 2016 publications round-up


Putin Will Be Forced to Choose Between Oligarchs and Public,’ Wikistrat, 1 January 2016

Talking Policy: Mark Galeotti on Russia,’ interview in World Policy Blog, 1 January 2016

Russia’s New National Security Strategy: familiar themes, gaudy rhetoric,’ War On The Rocks, 4 January 2016

Yuri Andropov Would Drop Assad Like a Hot Kartoshka,’ Foreign Policy, 7 January 2016

Fix Russia’s ****ing Prison System,’ Russia! magazine, 18 January 2016

STOLYPIN: Russia needs its Brains,’ IntelliNews Business New Europe, 18 January 2016

We Don’t Know What To Call Russian Military Intelligence and That May Be A Problem,’ War On The Rocks, 19 January 2016

Who Needs Assassins When You’ve Got Hackers?’New York Times, 22 January 2016

Mark Galeotti: in Russia corrupted elite often interact with organized crime‘, interview with Dozhd-TV, 27 January 2016 [video, in English; here dubbed into Russian]

The Litvinenko Affair: An Anglo-Russian Exercise in Futility,’ Moscow Times, 28 January 2016


Park Pobedy (Victory Park) – a warrior state’s love poem to itself

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Do you feel small yet, petty human?

Snow day at Park Pobedy, Victory Park, billed as a memorial to the people who fell defending the Motherland but, frankly, rather a monument to tsarist and Soviet regimes that comfortably allowed their people to be used as human ammunition, in the name of defending, asserting or extending its own power. In winter, it is inevitably especially bleak, a chiaroscuro landscape of blowing snow and darkly skeletal trees. I’m sure in summer, with green grass and lush foliage, children playing below and sunlight above, it’s a very different place, but to be honest, I am glad I saw it in its starkness. Given the message of the place, it seemed much more fitting; softening the edges with excess humanity would be a little like furnishing Death Row with chintz curtains and bean bags, insulting brutal purpose with twee distraction.

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Victory Park is on Poklonnaya Hill, literally ‘Bow Down Hill,’ the symbolic site where Moscow’s princes–who rose, after all, as the chief quislings of the Rus’–met and abased themselves to the emissaries of the Mongol Horde in early medieval times. It was on this vantage point that Napoleon waited in vain to be presented with the keys of the city. And here the Soviet leadership decided first to build a monument to victory over Napoleon, and then later a major complex commemorating the Great Patriotic War.

Completed under Yeltsin, it nonetheless has the understated touch and elegant finesse for which Soviet architectural iconography has never, ever been known. It is massive, a brutalist concrete and marble monument to an unyielding, uncaring state. And fittingly, it continues to be expanded and developed, effortlessly folded into the new, syncretic tsarist-Soviet-postmodern Putinist Russia-for-all-seasons.

There is a truly huge museum, behind an equally dramatic obelisk 141.8m high (that’s 10cm for each day of the war). There’s a glittering, onion-domed church–but also a memorial synagogue and a mosque, and the promise of a monument to the Armenians who fell in the Great Patriotic War, and even something for the Buddhists too. (I wonder if the latter reflects the influence of current Defence Minister Shoigu, a Tuvan Buddhist by birth?) There are memorials to the Republicans of the Spanish Civil War. There are tanks and guns, railway engines and planes. There are, needless to say, children’s play areas with slides and swings festooned with pictures of Russian heroes.

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To the heroes of the First World War, too

And it hasn’t stopped. There is, for example, an impressive monument to the “soldier-internationalists” who died in the Soviet war in Afghanistan, with a dedication making it clear that Putin was a backer. I wonder how long before Chechnya gets its own slab and statue, historically entombing it and converting it from tragedy in living memory to glorious exploit of official history?

Don’t get me wrong, it is an extraordinary impressive site, well-done and carefully maintained. Even in the middle of winter, with very few visitors, it was being tended and watched, the snow was being dug from the paths, the rubbish cleared. But compared even with the serried ranks of austere mass graves at St. Petersburg’s Piskarevskoe cemetery, this was all about victory and national will, and not about people. The statues were all square-jawed and defiant, the iconography dwarfing the human scale. This was–and is–a state’s love poem to itself, not a celebration of the people on whose backs and lives it rested and rests.

December 2015 Publications Round-Up

Here’s the usual summary, of a pretty sparse month; as ever, ignore if you’re not interested, follow the links is you are.

Moscow Must Avoid Shadow War With AnkaraMoscow Times, 3 December 2015

CGI Asks: Will Turkey-Russia Tensions Spill Over Into the Caucasus?CGI, 18 December 2015

‘Russia’s Middle Eastern adventure evolves,’ IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review, 21 December 2015 (with Samir Naser)

The Kremlin’s Theatre of TyrannyRussia! magazine 26 December 2015

Cruising Towards Cooperation?, conversation with Oxana Boyko on RT’s World Apart programme, 27 December 2015

I was also delighted to see that my April article ‘“Hybrid War” and “Little Green Men”: How It Works, and How It Doesn’t,’ was the excellent e-IR online journal’s most viewed article in 2015.


Lt. Gen. Alexei Dyumin, another presidential bodyguard doing well…


Hero of Russia, Lt. Gen. Alexei Dyumin

The former relationship of Lt. Gen. Alexei Dyumin to the GRU, mentioned in my last blog, is still unclear. As of 24 December 2015, he is a Deputy Defence Minister, although of still unclear portfolio. However, accounts of his promotion say that he was before then head of the Special Operations Forces (SSO: Sily spetsial’nykh operatsii) — and the Spetsnaz are a GRU asset, so this might have been a position giving an equivalence to a deputy headship of the GRU — and even before than, Ground Forces Chief of Staff. That’s a pretty solid pedigree, but given that even back in May 2015 he was being name-checked as still being in the Presidential Security Service (SBP), that suggests a pretty meteoric rise.

Let’s assume there aren’t two Alexei Gennad’evich Dyumins within the Russian security elite. Let’s further assume that these various accounts are correct. That means that in the space of at most seven months, Colonel Dyumin (as he was then), one of the deputy heads of the SBP, moved across to the Defence Ministry, took a senior operational role in the Ground Forces (despite not having been a career soldier), then a crucial command position in GRU special forces, and then a hop up to to deputy ministerial rank. In the process, he also went from colonel to major general to (two-star) lt. general. Pretty impressive.

But not wholly unprecedented — let’s not forget the infamous Viktor Zolotov, close Putin associate and judo sparring partner, who went at flank speed from head of the SBP to commander of the Interior Ministry’s Interior Troops, to First Deputy Interior Minister and potential minister-in-waiting.

It’s all conjecture, but the rapid promotion of close Putin clients from the SBP, people he knows, people he plays judo and ice hockey with, people who are his neighbours, may suggest a degree of insecurity. If he feels he cannot trust the elite as a whole (and I suspect he may be right), the temptation to colonise the key security structures with those you feel on whom you can rely, if push comes to shove, is logical. And interesting.


The Unexpected Death of Russia’s military intelligence (GRU) chief, Igor Sergun

SergunToday, news broke about the death yesterday (3 January) of 58-year-old Colonel General Igor Sergun, head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff, better known as the GRU.

No cause of death has yet been announced, but there has been no suggestion of anything shady or strange about his demise, even at this relatively young age (especially by the standards of Russian military gerontocracy!). No doubt more details will follow tomorrow; today it’s just the hurried eulogies. Putin issued a statement that said “Colleagues and subordinates knew him as a real military officer, an experienced and competent commander, a man of great courage, a true patriot. He was respected for his professionalism, strength of character, honesty and integrity.” Defence Minister Shoigu and the Collegium of the ministry extolled “the bright memory of a wonderful man, a true son of Russian patriots of the Motherland […who…] forever remain in our hearts.”

Sergun was an extremely important figure in the revival of the fortunes of the GRU, an agency that was pretty much at rock bottom when he took it over at the end of 2011. Since then, it has regained control over the Spetsnaz special forces, been crucial in the seizure of Crimea and operations in the Donbas, emerged as the lead agency for dealing with violent non-state actors and generally consolidated its position as a crucial instrument of today’s “non-linear war.” Indeed, it was a perverse accolade to this effect that he was included in the EU’s post-Crimea Western sanctions list.

It will be interesting to see who replaces Sergun and whether they are able to consolidate and maintain this turnaround. Reportedly — and thanks for Michael Kofman for bringing this to my attention — one of Sergun’s deputies is recently-promoted Lt. Gen. Alexei Dyumin, formerly of the Presidential Security Service (SBP) and close to Putin not just from that role but also as a dacha neighbour and ice hockey team player. If Dyumin gets the job, he’ll have a solid krysha, political cover, and it will also represent one more example of the colonisation of the security structures by veterans of the SBP and its parent organisation, the FSO. But on the other hand, Dyumin — unlike Sergun — is not a career military intelligence officer but essentially a security guard. Whether or not he will be anywhere near as successful operationally, and whether he is willing to bring unwelcome news to the president may well be another matter.

In any case, we await details. I’ll follow up as they emerge.


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