The official government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on September 28 that General Aleksandr Shlyakhturov, head of the GRU, would be stepping down in the near future. The official confirmation followed anonymously sourced reports in "Izvestiya" and elsewhere that the 65-year old Shlyakhturov was on his way out.
"Rossiiskaya gazeta" made a point of stressing that Shlyakhturov was retiring and his departure was routine. "It would be correct to say that Shlyahturova has served the military for a very long time and is leaving because he has reached the maximum age of service. This was inevitable. There is no intrigue connected to this," the daily wrote.
There was nothing routine, however, about Shlyakhturov's brief tenure as head of Russia's super-secret military intelligence agency. Shlyakhturov took over as GRU head in 2009 when his predecessor, Valentin Korabelnikov, was fired for resisting Kremlin efforts to reform and streamline the military.
A close ally of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, Shlyakhturov was clearly appointed to carry out the changes Korabelnikov was resisting.
In his "Spooks And Scoundrels" column in "The Moscow News," Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," sketched out the extent that the GRU has been downsized under Shlyakhturov (h/t to Moscow News editor Tim Wall for tweeting this):
It has also lost the Spetsnaz special forces. It used to have eight commando brigades: three have been disbanded, the rest transferred again into the regular military. Most of the GRU’s 'residencies' – the separate intelligence offices it ran inside Russian embassies abroad – have been closed down, or reduced to a single officer working as a military attaché. Only in the neighboring countries of the 'Near Abroad' does the GRU maintain anything like its old espionage networks.
He adds that more changes could be on the way:
There is talk of the GRU -- technically the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff – being downgraded next year to an ordinary directorate. That may not sound like a big deal, but in the past, the GRU enjoyed privileged access to Putin and Medvedev. Now the GRU increasingly has to work just for the Chief of the General Staff instead.
Galeotti writes that the overhaul of the GRU "reflects a stocktaking of the intelligence agencies as Putin prepares to return to power" next year. And while it might seem counterintuitive that Putin would target his main power base -- the siloviki -- the move actually makes sense:
Putin was once a spook; he believes in them and draws many of his closest allies from their ranks. But he also knows that left to their own devices they will tend to be distracted by futile turf wars. They also get too big for their own boots and from time to time need reminding who’s boss. In this respect, the GRU is simply the sacrificial victim of the hour. The FSB and SVR [Foreign Intelligence Service], though, are expected to learn the lesson.
They may, in fact, already be learning it. As I have blogged here and here, in the wake of the Anna Chapman spy scandal last summer, stories began appearing in the Russian media suggesting that Putin was going to use that fiasco as an excuse to overhaul the SVR with the goal of ultimately merging it into the FSB -- essentially re-creating the monolithic KGB of old.
Here's an excerpt from a report by Argumenti.ru at the time that cited anonymous intelligence sources as saying an FSB-SVR merger was imminent:
This will lead to better coordination in the fight against terrorist acts. At this time, the interaction between the SVR and the FSB is quite weak. Meanwhile, the situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other regions where terrorists are in a strong position requires that this coordination be improved, including in the exchange of information.
I haven't seen much more on this since (if any siloviki watchers out there have, I'd love to hear about it), but the changes at the GRU suggest that a siloviki-wide reorganization could be in the cards.
-- Brian Whitmore