Saturday 21 September 2019

Obituary: Igor Korobov

Head of Russian intelligence, said to have been blamed by Putin for his agents' bungled operations

SPYMASTER: Igor Korobov
SPYMASTER: Igor Korobov

Colonel-General Igor Korobov, who has died aged 62, was the head of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, better known as the GRU intelligence agency; it was his operatives who were identified as having carried out the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

Even Russian sources knew little of Korobov when he emerged fleetingly from the shadows to receive his pennant of office at the defence ministry in February 2016. Described only as "a serious man", he had been previously one of four deputy directors of the GRU, running its strategic intelligence directorate.

This section controls its bases overseas, meaning that Korobov would have been involved in operations carried out in recent years by the GRU's special forces soldiers, Spetsnaz. These are thought to have included operations in Crimea at the time of its annexation by Russia in 2014; in the ensuing unrest in Ukraine; in Chechnya; and perhaps activities as part of an attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016.

Under Korobov's predecessor, Igor Segun, the agency had also been tasked with furthering Russia's aims in the war in Syria. Its symbol is a black bat spreading its wings over the globe. The agency was thought, however, to have lost ground latterly to its rivals in domestic security and foreign intelligence - while the army aspired to wrest control of Spetsnaz.

Segun, however, had Putin's ear, and despite a nominal name change, it had recovered much of its prestige before his sudden death at the start of 2016. Aged 58, Segun was said to have suffered heart failure.

Kremlin-watchers speculated that the month's delay it took to announce his successor meant Korobov was not first choice. Some thought the role might have gone to one of the increasingly prominent circle of former bodyguards of President Putin.

Korobov accordingly assumed his post under some pressure to justify his appointment. At the end of 2016, in one of the last acts of the Obama administration, he was among those to whom sanctions were to be applied for having conducted "malicious cyber-related activities" during the US elections. It therefore came as a surprise when in January this year he was included among those invited by the Trump administration to Washington to discuss intelligence matters, including the threat posed by returning members of Isis.

Then in March came the attack on the Skripals. In 2010, Sergei Skripal, a former GRU officer convicted four years earlier of being an agent for MI6, was among those swapped at Vienna airport for 10 Russian spies, including Anna Chapman. He settled in Salisbury, where he and his daughter were poisoned with what was revealed to be the nerve agent Novichok. A police officer, Nick Bailey, who was investigating the incident, was also affected.

With Russia held responsible by Britain, international outrage led to 150 of its diplomats being expelled from countries worldwide. In June, Dawn Sturgess and her partner Charlie Rowley came across a bogus perfume bottle thought to have contained the poison. She died after spraying some on herself, while the damage to his immune system has led him to contract meningitis requiring further treatment in hospital.

Two Russian nationals were identified as the suspects, and when in September they gave a peculiar television interview claiming to have been in Salisbury as tourists, this was widely ridiculed. The investigative website Bellingcat stated that they were two officers in the GRU. These revelations were undoubtedly of concern to Korobov, not least because of how they reflected on President Putin.

Then in October, it became known that in April four other GRU agents had been caught in The Hague trying to hack into the wi-fi system of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Warfare (OPCW), an international watchdog.

The quartet had neglected to carry out even the most elementary precautions to cover their traces or disguise their mission, which included targeting an OPCW laboratory in Switzerland. This series of bungles is said to have led to Korobov to being reprimanded in person by Putin, after which he suffered a collapse in his health.

There were claims that Korobov, who died on November 21, had been unwell for some time and had offered his resignation earlier this year but had been asked to carry on. On the announcement of his death, he was said to have been suffering from a "long and serious illness".

Igor Valentinovich Korobov was born on August 3, 1956 in Vyazma, some 100 miles south-west of Moscow in the region around Smolensk. On leaving school, he began training in 1977 at the Stavropol military aviation academy in the Caucasus and served with a fighter regiment in Archangel on the shores of the White Sea.

He is thought to have joined the GRU in the early 1980s. His talents included the ability to speak several foreign languages. Among his many awards was the Hero of Russia medal. He and his wife had two daughters.

© Telegraph

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