Friday, April 24, 2009

Who is purging the Russian military intelligence and why?

For several months already, rumors have abounded about the reported conflict between the head of the Russian military intelligence service (GRU), Valentin Korabelnikov, and President Medvedev. Today, the Russian media announced that Korabelnikov had been replaced by one of his deputies, Alexander Shliakhturov.

Of all the intelligence and security services of the former Soviet Union and Russia, the GRU was by far the most secretive. It was also one of the most influential ones, and it is not surprising that many strange events surrounding the GRU have taken place over the past years which were almost never reported (such as the streak of "accidental" deaths of quite a few top GRU officials in Moscow several years ago). This time again, there is little real info on what is going on, but rumors persistently point to what might be a major purge of the GRU and forces subordinated to it.

According to these rumors, the GRU itself might loose its virtual autonomy and become a department of the Ministry of Defense, while most of its cadre would be transferred to the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). Other rumors claim that several GRU Spetsnaz brigades will be disbanded (along with the 106 Airborne Division). If any of these rumors are true, then what is taking place in Russia is nothing short of a massive breakup, if not breakdown, of the most elite segment of the Russian armed forces.

All this is taking place in the midst of a much-needed (and much delayed!) reform of the Russian armed forces. Thus, these rumors might reflect not so much the real plans of the Kremlin as the worst fears of the top brass of the Ministry of Defense.

Still, for a purely pragmatic point of view, disbanding the GRU or re-subordinating as a department of the Ministry of Defense makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. True, the GRU was the least reformed of all the institutions and agencies of the former Soviet Union, and quite of few of its officers were found guilty of a wide range of criminal offences (corruption, racketeering, trafficking, murders, etc.). Furthermore, the GRU was probably a bloated institution in need of streamlining. So the basic principle of reforming the GRU is probably sound. However, what is taking place today appears to be far more than just a shake-up and clean-up operation.

The elimination of one or even two Spetsnaz Brigades, however, is rather bizarre. Frankly, I suspect that what is taking place is a massive reallocation of resources from the military special forces to the special forces of the Ministry of the Internal Affairs. Keep in mind that the term "Spetsnaz" simply means "special purpose" and does not, in itself, denote any one structure. In the former Soviet Union, both the military and the KGB had special purpose units, but by and large it was the Spetsnaz forces of the GRU which made the word "Spetsnaz" famous. In the years of total anarchy under the presidency of Boris Eltsin, many more units, departments and forces declared themselves to be "Spetsnaz". I would not be surprised to learn that some construction battalion in the Ural Mountains also claims the "Spetsnaz" status and the fancy badge which comes along (or so they would believe)....

Anyway, along the *real* special forces of the GRU and the KGB, a number of new special purpose units were formed, including in various police departments, the forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and even in the prison system. Since Putin and, later, Medvedev came to power the Russian media has been filled with not-so-subtle quasi-propaganda reports about the "heroic" "Spetsnaz" of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). A large number of fancy (and costly!) schools and training camps have now been opened for these forces. The fact that the performance of the MVD units in, for example, Chechnya was less than stellar did not have any negative consequences for their funding. Even more puzzling is that the one type of unit which performed rather well in Chechnya (the rapid reaction "SOBR" forces) were simply disbanded.

So a rather strange dynamic began to take place in the last decades: When real, tough, fighting was called for the Kremlin sent in the Spetsnaz GRU, the KGB special purpose forces "Alpha" and "Vympel", Paratroopers from the Airborne Forces, Marines from Navy and even Border Guard (many of which were at least as good as any other Spetsnaz forces) units were typically sent in. Then, once the mean and ugly fighting was over, all sorts of police forces were sent in to clear and control the terrain taken by the military. They manned checkpoints, seized suspected insurgents, interrogated prisoners, etc. They were also almost universally disliked by the military who had done the real fighting.

Simply put - Spetsnaz operators are not cops. These two cultures are fundamentally different and deeply antagonistic and what is taking place today in Russia might well be an attempt by the Russian cops to finally get rid of those whom they have always perceived as their main competitors. Likewise, it is quite possible that the former KGB people around Medvedev are now using the reform of the Russian armed forces as a convenient pretext to finally crush the influence of the GRU once and for all.

If so, than this is a potential disaster for Russia. The fact is that if a military is reduced in size or substantially reorganized, its intelligence component must be *strengthened* and not weakened. Simply put, the need for a high quality military intelligence service is inversely proportional to the capabilities of the armed forces: the weaker these forces are, the stronger the military intelligence must be.

While the wars in Chechnya and in Georgia have shown that while the Russian military can prevail - brilliantly in the case of Georgia - there still a dire need to reform these forces before the existing cracks in organization, training, command and control, etc. become insurmountable. The Air Force, for example, is now in truly urgent need of new aircraft and the Ground Forces need a major upgrade of its aging command and control infrastructure.

If the Kremlin is serious about reforming the military then it simply cannot do that while allowing the GRU and the forces subordinated to the GRU to become the victim of a purge. Not only would that eliminate any chance for the creation of the planned "mobile forces" (which have been discussed since at least 20 years now), but it would even transform the much needed reform of the armed forces into a disaster at a time when Russia can least afford it.