In one more night, Russian military intelligence would have been without a director for almost a full month. But an appointment was finally made — and it was the obvious, continuity candidate. So is there anything to be read in this delay and this seeming non-story? There certainly is.
We learned three things. That the Kremlin wants to put trusted men in key security positions. That the military, while kept out of much of the decision-making process these days, still knows how to stonewall. And that the new chief is starting already in an uncomfortable position: Does he try to rebuild bridges with the Kremlin by sugarcoating the intelligence?
Gen. Igor Sergun, head of the agency, died of heart failure on January 3. He led an organization stranded in limbo between its old name, the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU: Glavnoe ravzedyvatel’noe upravlenie), and the ambiguous alternative, the Main Directorate (GU).
From the first, it was clear that all the main stakeholders — Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Chief of the General Staff Valeri Gerasimov, and the GRU hierarchy itself — favored the promotion of one of Sergun’s depties: Vyacheslav Kondrashev, Sergei Sizunov, Igor Lelin, and Igor Korobov. Of them all, Korobov, head of the Strategic Intelligence Directorate (USR: Upravlenie strategicheskoi razvedky) was clearly the front-runner.
And then there was nothing, except a few rumors and a string of informal “any day now” claims that an announcement was imminent. Then, on February 2, Lt. Gen. Igor Valentinovich Korobov was formally presented to the media as Sergun’s successor and presented with his pennant of office (because what self-respecting spymaster doesn’t have his own flag?).
So why the delay? The answer appears to lie in an asymmetric three-cornered political struggle. The big battalions were clearly behind Korobov. There was a small but medal-bedecked lobby within the Ground Forces who wanted a regular soldier appointed, not least because they hoped to split the GRU in two and steal back the Spetsnaz special forces. If all else failed, they favored Lelin, who had been their deputy chief of staff for a while. But the rival with the serious political firepower was Deputy Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Alexei Dyumin.
To say that Dyumin has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the past year would be to undersell him dramatically. Although subsequent official accounts have suggested he was in charge of the special forces who seized Crimea in spring 2014 — the so-called “little green men” — and that he owes his success to this operation, a year later, in May 2015, he was being name-checked as a colonel in the Presidential Security Service (SBP: Sluzhba bezopasnosti prezidenta). Perhaps even more importantly, he was included as a valued player in Vladimir Putin’s personal ice hockey team (playing sport with the president is always a fast track to success).
Somehow, by the end of that year, he had become head of the military’s special operations forces, then chief of staff of the Ground Forces, then deputy defense minister, albeit conveniently without portfolio. In the process, Dyumin also jumped from one-star major general to two-star lieutenant general.
There has been a creeping process of late as the people closest to Putin — which often means his bodyguards — start getting appointed to key positions. Most notoriously, another bodyguard and judo partner, Viktor Zolotov, rose at an almost equally high speed within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, from commander of its Interior Troops to first deputy interior minister, and potential minister-in-waiting, should present incumbent Viktor Kolokoltsev prove insufficiently robust.
Dyumin had no real credentials for heading the GRU. But then again, nor did he have the experience or seniority to be army chief of staff. Ultimately, it is just that he has Putin’s trust, and this seems to explain the push from the Kremlin for him to be appointed.
Whatever some pundits may think, Putin’s Russia cannot simply be written off as a one-man monarchy. That this move was eventually blocked says something about the political heft of the military, who had been lobbying both behind the scenes and through the press to keep Dyumin out of the GRU. They may seem to have very little traction on the policy process (they weren’t meaningfully consulted over Crimea, and scarcely much more over Syria). But their capacity to resist something they don’t like should not be underestimated.
Furthermore, there are some hints here in Moscow that they received unexpected backing from the Federal Security Service (FSB: Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti). Putin’s old service, the FSB has long since moved beyond its old role purely as domestic security and counter-intelligence and now operates internationally, from assassinating “enemies of the state” to running political “active measures.” This sometimes makes it a rival of the GRU, notably in Ukraine’s Donbas, where the two agencies seem to run parallel networks of agents and militias.
However, the FSB would likely have been alarmed at the precedent set. If a crony from the SBP or FSO can be parachuted into the GRU, why not other agencies? Why not, indeed, the FSB? Better, presumably, to fight this war in the “Aquarium” (as the GRU’s headquarters are known) than on their own turf.
Whether as a consolation prize, or because his position at the ministry was no longer tenable, Dyumin was suddenly and unexpectedly appointed as acting governor of Tula Region, south of Moscow, after the equally sudden and unexpected resignation of the current incumbent, Vladimir Gruzdev. The Kremlin may not always get its own way, but Putin is loyal to his own, whatever the cost to anyone else.
But meanwhile, Korobov, about whom all the Russian media can find to say is that he is a “serious man,” starts work with a formidable agenda before him. As head of the USR, he had already been playing a key role in the Syrian operation, so there is unlikely to be any real change there. However, one of Sergun’s great strengths had been his capacity to play well with Putin and the powerful Presidential Administration. His successor starts with the handicap of knowing that they didn’t want him and would have preferred to be talking to Dyumin.
This could be a good thing, if it means Korobov is willing to be more honest than Sergun may have been in playing to the Kremlin’s prejudices. But it could be a very, very bad thing if he instead goes overboard the other way, and dumps the objectivity and honesty so crucial to good intelligence, all in the name of winning friends and influencing people in tsar Putin’s court.
Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and director of its Initiative for the Study of Emerging Threats. His most recent book is Spetsnaz: Russia’s Special Forces (Osprey, 2015).