The fifth of November is formally the 100th anniversary of Russia’s Military Intelligence Directorate, which the world has long known as the GRU but, as President Putin pointed out, was for some reason re-designated as GU (Main Directorate).
Not just readers of this blog will know that the Directorate recently received about the worst publicity any secret intelligence service can receive with the botched attempted assassination of its most recent traitor Skripal’. The acute embarrassment suffered by “one of the most secretive special services” was exposed in an unprecedented manner thanks to an outstanding investigation of the Skripal’ affair and the brilliant publicity given to the results by MI5 and MI6, down to the photographic identification of the two culprits. This, on top of the notoriously amateur escapades fully exposed in the field of cyberwarfare against the United States and its allies.
President Putin was clearly none too pleased. As a consequence, while he publicly honoured the 100th anniversary of the GRU with an onsite visit, press coverage indicates that the Directorate is under heavy pressure to institute a spring clean from top to bottom to restore past best practice. This much is apparent in reading between the lines of two recent articles in the authoritative Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie.
The Directorate never had a press service. Had one been on hand, the disastrous interview of Skripal’s aspirant assassins on Russian television would probably never have happened. But two insiders were designated to present the anniversary in the press, Dronina and Ivanov, (“Glavnomu razvedupravleniyu – 100 let! Ob istokakh, traditsiyakh i dostizheniyakh samoi zakrytoi otechestvennoi spetssluzhby”, Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, 2 November 2018.)
The peculiarity of this article is that it makes no mention of the current director, Igor Korobov. Instead it quotes the former director, Valentin Korabel’nikov. And it quotes him saying “Our main task consists of providing the leaders of the country with reliable and precise information to meet the threats to the national security of Russia in a timely manner.” In other words, the Directorate should focus on intelligence gathering. No mention here of covert operations. The second article – V. Stal’tsov, “Iz svoego kabineta on videl ves’ mir. Shtrikhi k portretu generala armii Pyotra Ivashutina” – looks back to a more celebrated history under Director Ivashutin between 1963 and 1987.
Pyotr’ Ivashutin, a counter-intelligence specialist, formerly of SMERSH, subsequently the hammer of the nationalist resistance movement in the Ukraine, was put in as deputy head of the new KGB in 1954 to the derision of CIA which scorned him as an inappropriate appointment. But the agency was forced to eat its words as Ivashutin’s effectiveness thereafter could not be doubted. Even typewriters in the US embassy were not safe from eavesdropping. CIA in Moscow was the first to suffer to the point where operations within the Soviet Union were repeatedly disrupted.
When the vain and careless Director of the GRU, Ivan Serov, blotted his copybook by giving cover to a favourite, MI6 spy Colonel Oleg Pen’kovskii, Ivashutin ruthlessly exposed the Colonel to the acute embarrassment of the directorate. With Serov dismissed on 2 February 1963, Ivashutin was put in to replace him and clean up. He arrived with just his assistant from KGB and carefully won over existing staff while promoting the “polyarniki” who sought to match the Americans in outer space. His signal contributions were to stamp down on corruption and introduce widespread technological innovation to match the Americans in the field of electronic intelligence; though the institutional tendency to present the General Staff with the threat assessments they wanted rather than what they needed continued unchanged.
In publishing a celebratory article on Ivashutin and highlighting Korabel’nikov’s priorities, it would seem that Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie is buttressing calls for a new broom at the head of the directorate. Is it goodbye Korobov?