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Igor Korobov GRU
Igor Korobov, late spymaster (Credit: Russia Defense Ministry).

Perhaps it was true, as Russian Defense Ministry said,  that Russian spymaster Igor Korobov  died “after a lengthy and grave illness.” Korobov, 63, had served as chief of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate GRU for since 2016. When last seen in public he displayed the fit figure of a career military man. It would be equally accurate to say that Korobov departed this world after short and error-prone run as Vladimir Putin’s spymaster.

Korobov was healthy enough to visit Washington last January when he and the directors of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) made an unprecedented trip to Washington.

The visit of Korobov and Co. unsettled some U.S. intelligence officials. There’s nothing wrong with intelligence chiefs meeting. Indeed, it is usually a sign of a peaceful relations between two countries. But former intelligence officials questioned rolling out the red carpet for all of Russia’s spymasters at the same time just a year after the CIA, NSA and the Director of National Intelligence had concluded that Koborov and others had conspired to influence the U.S. election. It was a big wink to Putin.

“I can’t recall any time in the last 15 years” that all three Russian agency chiefs were in the U.S. capital at the same time, Steven Hall, a former CIA station chief in Moscow, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “It’s highly unusual.”

The subject of the meeting was said to be “counterterrorism.”

Before long, Koborov was no longer welcome in Washington and no longer in favor in Moscow.

Sloppy Tradecraft

Two months after Koborov  left Washington,the U.S. Treasury Department added Korobov’s name to a sanctions lists in December 2016 for his “efforts to undermine democracy” by organizing hacker attacks.

That same month,  Korobov’s men botched the assassination of Sergei Skripal, the renegade intelligence officer living in Salisbury England. Two GRU officers put a nerve agent on the door of Skripal’s house. Skripal survived. Britain’s intelligence service, MI6, examined surveillance photographs and released photos of perpetrators.  Social media investigators  and moles inside the Russian bureaucracy did the rest.

in a series of well-documented scoops from The Insider, an independent Russian investigative site, and Bellingcat, the two suspects were exposed as GRU officers, Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga. Passporte information showed the men’s address was GRU headquarters. 

Alexander Mishkin
Three faces of Alexander Mishkin (Credit: bellingcat/Russia Insider)

In July special prosecutor Robert Mueller  indicted 12 GRU officers for “large-scale cyber operations to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”  The indictment showed that U.S. intelligence, probably the NSA, had obtained detailed knowledge of the inner workings of two GRU cyberwar sections, Units 26165 and 74455.

Another botched operation showed the GRU’s tradecraft was careless. In October Dutch intelligence revealed they disrupted a GRU squad attempting to hack the headquarters of the Organization for the the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Hague. Apparently, the men tried and failed to steal information about the OPCW investigation into the Skripal attack.

Putin was not pleased by the Skripal affair. Perhaps, coincidentally, Korobov’s time was not long on this earth. From reliable independent Russian news site Meduza,

“Korobov reportedly started feeling unwell after a severe reprimand from President Putin in mid-September, following the exposure of an bungled GRU operation to assassinate Sergey Skripal in Salisbury, England.

The spymaster’s epitaph: “He never recovered from a severe reprimand.”

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