The chief of Russia’s spy agency, blamed for the Salisbury Novichok attack and downing MH17, has died – weeks after he collapsed following a dressing down from Vladimir Putin.
General Colonel Igor Korobov had suffered a ‘serious and long illness’ and died on Wednesday, the Russian Defence Ministry said.
The 63-year-old was hailed as a ‘true son of Russia’ and had led the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces – also known as the GRU – for several years.
Col Korobov is believed to have spearheaded the botched assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia earlier this year while there have been claims the GRU was linked to the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.
Russian sources said Korobov was left physically shaking last month after being severely reprimanded by Vladimir Putin over the bungled poisoning.
Another meeting at the Russian defence ministry – responsible for the GRU – heard leaders furiously condemn the ‘morons’ behind operations in Britain. They were denounced for their ‘deep incompetence’ and ‘infinite carelessness’.
General Colonel Igor Korobov (pictured), the chief of Russia’s spy agency has died – weeks after he collapsed following a dressing down from Vladimir Putin
Russian sources said Korobov was left physically shaking last month after being severely reprimanded by Vladimir Putin (pictured on Wednesday) over the bungled poisoning
The 63-year-old reportedly emerged shaken and later collapsed at his home after his confrontation with the furious Russian president.
Korobov did not participate in a gala marking the centenary of the service in early November when Putin heaped praise on the GRU. Korobov’s first deputy Igor Kostyukov reportedly presided over the ceremony.
There have also been mysterious claims that one of Korobov’s two daughters – reportedly living in the West, in Sweden – had refused to return to Russia recently.
The United States and its allies have also accused the GRU of hacking the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and disrupting anti-doping efforts in world sports. Russian authorities have rejected the accusations, calling them part of a Western smear campaign.
The GRU is one of Moscow’s three spy agencies, along with the SVR foreign intelligence agency and the FSB security service.
It has an extensive spy network abroad and its highly trained ‘spetsnaz’ special forces have fought in various conflicts, including in Afghanistan and Chechnya.
The agency’s structure, staff number and finances are a state secret. Its emblem is a black bat flying above a globe.
‘The memory of a wonderful person, a true son of Russia, a patriot of the Fatherland Colonel General Korobov Igor Valentinovich will forever remain in our hearts. We express condolences to his family and friends,’ a Kremlin statement said.
Sources in Russia today said he is believed to have died of ‘cancer’ as they strongly denied he had been ‘killed’ as revenge for the humiliation heaped on the military spy agency over the British novichok poisonings.
Whispers surfaced recently that the powerful colonel-general – a career spy – was suffering from cancer. He is believed to have asked Putin to let him resign at the start of this year, but the Kremlin strongman demanded he remain in post until after the March presidential elections, it was claimed.
It was two weeks before this election – easily won by Putin – that the Skrpials were poisoned by GRU agents, according to British sources.
In the event, Korobov died in post, as had his predecessor Col-Gen Igor Sergun, 58, two years earlier.
One source in Moscow today furiously denied Western suspicions that Korobov might have been ‘killed’ because of the GRU humiliation over the nerve agent poisonings of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.
Korobov was reportedly blamed for the response to the deaths of Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia who were poisoned by the chemical agent novichok in Salisbury in March
Colonel Korobov was also said to have drawn flak from Russian government officials for his handling of the MH17 downing
‘Korobov asked the supreme commander (Putin) about resigning at the beginning of the year, and got a response with a strong wish he should cope longer, until the elections,’ said the source.
‘In May he looked unwell but he was still coping. Coping until the last moment, without going on his pension.
‘If you hear or read something about him being “killed because of the
Skripals” – spit or throw a punch in the face,’ said the source.
‘Korobov died after several years of fighting with cancer. And he died without giving up his job.’
Korobov served as the Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation having earlier had an illustrious career in the military.
A former Soviet air force pilot, Mr Korobov entered the world of espionage in 1980 after graduating from the defence ministry’s military academy in Moscow.
He then moved swiftly through the ranks of Russia’s spy agencies, rising to second-in-command of GRU before being appointed its head in January 2016.
Among his roles, Korobov became the agency’s chief of strategic intelligence, a job which entailed collecting information on military threats to Russia and handling Russian spies across the globe.
During his later career, Korobov was heavily involved in orchestrating the operations of GRU special forces officers in Syria.
The finger of blame was pointed squarely at the GRU following the poisoning of Mr Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March.
The botched assassination attempt led to the death of Dawn Sturgess, who, along with partner Charlie Rowley, fell ill after handling a container contaminated with the nerve agent in June.
Igor Sergun (left), the predecessor of Korobov (right), died in suspicious circumstances in January 2016
In September Theresa May revealed that two Russian nationals had been identified as suspects over the attack.
British spy agencies concluded the men, who travelled to the UK under the aliases of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, were GRU officers.
The Prime Minister described the agency as a ‘highly disciplined organisation with a well-established chain of command’.
Following a widely-dismissed television denial, in which the pair claimed they were simply tourists visiting the cathedral city, their ‘real’ identities were revealed weeks later.
Investigative website Bellingcat said it had established Boshirov’s true identity, reporting he was actually Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga, a highly decorated officer in the GRU.
Bellingcat later said Petrov’s real identity was Alexander Mishkin, a military doctor in the GRU.
Both men had been awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation from Mr Putin, the investigators said.
The Bellingcat claims followed the president’s assertion that the men were civilians and had been discounted as members of his security network.
Mr Skripal was given refuge in the UK in 2010 after a ‘spy-swap’ which saw 10 Russian sleeper agents expelled from the United States.
Accused of acting as a double agent after leaving the GRU in 1999, he was serving a 13-year prison sentence for allegedly working for MI6. Russia has continuously denied attempting to kill him.
Despite his acclaim as an intelligence star, little is known about Korobov’s personal life other than that he is married with two daughters.
Igor Korobov: The scandals during his time as GRU chief
Colonel-General Igor Korobov took over as top dog at the GRU in January 2016 after the sudden death of his predecessor Igor Sergun.
In his two-years in charge, and up until his recent death, Korobov presided over one of the most turbulent periods for Russian intelligence since the end of the Cold War.
MH17 linked to GRU
The GRU was accused of downing the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014.
An open-source investigative team called Bellingcat has linked the plane crash with a GRU officer.
2016 US election
In July this year, US Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 GRU officers, accusing them of interfering in the 2016 US presidential election by hacking into the Clinton campaign.
Both Russia and Wikileaks have denied the accusations with Putin firmly denying it at a joint press conference with Trump
Two GRU agents were identified as having carried out the attempted assassination of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury earlier this year.
Their poisoning in March in the sleepy Wiltshire town drew international condemnation and caused widespread sanctions to be imposed on Russia.
GRU in Holland
Last month, it was revealed that GRU spies were thrown out of Holland in April after being caught trying to hack into the global chemical weapons watchdog OPCW, which was probing the Salisbury nerve agent attack.
Russian journalist Sergey Kanev, who has been close to revelations on the identities of the GRU agents sent to Britain and Holland said after the expose he believed it was the final straw for Korobov.
‘It is quite likely Korobov will be fired before the end of this year and that Leningrad (St Peterbsurg) born General Sergey Gizunov will take his post,’ Kanev said last month.
Mr Korobov was sanctioned by the United States in December 2016 over ‘efforts to undermine democracy’ by organising hacker attacks ahead of the presidential election that brought Donald Trump to power. Under his leadership, GRU has taken a major role in Russian cyberwarfare.
Michael Carpenter, a Russia adviser for Barack Obama’s administration, tweeted on Thursday: ‘His predecessor died in 2016 of a heart attack. Life expectancy for incumbents of this job is pretty low, but then so is the median life expectancy in Russia.’
Korobov’s predecessor Igor Sergun died suddenly back in January 2016 with many Russian news outlets saying the ‘circumstances surrounding his death were not clear’.
Two days after Sergun’s passing Russian tabloid newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda claimed he had died from a heart attack in Moscow.
But the theory was soon blasted by US based global intelligence company Stratfor who alleged he had died on New Years Day in Lebanon.
Two months later, Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar alleged Sergun was killed on a visit to Beirut in a ‘complicated secret mission’ carried out by unnamed Arab and Middle Eastern intelligence agencies.
However, the Kremlin stringently denied the allegations.
Korobov’s death paves the way for Putin to appoint a successor to head an agency that intelligence experts say has stepped up its covert missions as tension mounts between Russia and the West, which has imposed sanctions on Moscow over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.
Asked last month if there would be a shake-up at the defence ministry in the aftermath of the Skripal affair, the Kremlin said the low quality of the allegations levelled at GRU did not justify such changes.
However, his death is likely to spark major changes in the ‘Aquarium’, headquarters of the GRU.
Speculation in Moscow has focused on General Sergey Gizunov, one of several deputies, as a successor.
‘Gizunov is called the ‘eyes and ears’ of Vladimir Putin in military intelligence,’ said Kanev.
But today it emerged that a more likely candidate is hardliner Vice-Admiral Igor Kostyukov, 57, another deputy to Korobov, a man who has forecast a new east-west war in Asia.
He now ‘seems to be the favourite to take Korobov’s post’, said Kanev.
‘He was “rezident2 (GRU station chief) in Italy and is now overseeing the war in Syria.’
His bow-tie wearing son Oleg has worked as a diplomat in Italy, he said.
‘He is a playful character and very thirsty for Italian wines,’ he said of the son.
The other source who denied that Korobov had been bumped off in response to the Skripal scandal said: ‘Kostyukov is already dealing with everything.
‘He is in good standing in spite of all the Skripals. His work is being appreciated’.
A further theory is that Putin might appoint an outsider – perhaps from the rival SVR or FSB spy agencies – to restore credibility to the GRU.
Korobov and the two deputies tipped for his post all faced Western sanctions.
It was Kostyukov who was most prominent in Korobov’s absence at the 100th anniversary of the GRU earlier this month when Putin praised the ‘professionalism, courage and determination’ of the spy agency.
In April Kostyukov warned that a ‘regional war’ could break out on the Korean Peninsula at any time.
He blasted US president Donald Trump and his ‘new doctrines’ aimed at ‘unilateral advantages without taking the interests of the region’s other countries into consideration’.
He warned: ‘The United States’ policy prioritising military superiority over Russia and China are having a determining influence on the development of the military-political situation in the region.’