Igor Korobov, 62, had apparently not stepped down from the role he had held since 2016 but was absent from a ceremony in Moscow this month where Vladimir Putin and other senior officials celebrated the centenary of the GRU, with the Russian leader praising its skill and “unique abilities.”
Speculation about Mr Korobov’s future had been growing since an unconfirmed Russian media report that he had been summoned by Mr Putin after the Skripal affair and severely criticised for the operation which left the pair alive and the GRU a target of mockery in the Western media.
However, according to TASS news agency citing the defence ministry, Mr Korobov had been made a Hero of Russia – the country’s highest honour.
Mr Korobov’s death paves the way for Mr 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 region.
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.
The US included Mr Korobov on a March sanctions blacklist of people believed to have helped “undermine cyber security on behalf of the Russian government”.
Mr Korobov was a Soviet military veteran who served in the air force and, according to his official biography, began working for the GRU in 1985.
His death comes two years after that of his predecessor, Igor Sergun. Mr Sergun was both head of the GRU and deputy chief of the armed forces general staff.
The 59-year-old died unexpectedly in January 2016 reportedly following a trip to Syria. The Kremlin lauded him at the time as “a man of great courage and a true patriot”.
Additional reporting by agencies
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