Clearly it’s “Russian spies in the news” week. After revelations that a British MP’s Russian aide may be (but almost certainly isn’t) a Russian spy, we now hear that one of Russia’s top spies was found dead a couple of weeks ago, washed up on a Turkish beach.
Major-General Yuri Ivanov was Deputy Head of the GRU (Russian military intelligence), and had been visiting Syria, to inspect the construction of the Tartus Russian Naval base – the only Russian military base outside of the Former Soviet Union. From there, it’s not clear what happened to him; the next sighting was when he washed up on a beach in the province of Hatay in Turkey on 16 August.
His death was tersely announced in the Red Star Newspaper this week, and Kremlin officials have announced simply that he died in a tragic swimming accident while on holiday.
But, as always when an intelligence officer dies, people are questioning whether his death was really an accident, or whether he was murdered. Russian news sites like Svobodnaya Pressa have noted that high ranking Generals and intelligence officers are usually accompanied by bodyguards – which raises the question of where they were at the time, and where they might be now. Svobodnaya Pressa also went on to point out that the Kremlin generally (and probably quite sensibly) doesn’t usually announce when its spies have been murdered – when another senior spy was murdered in 1992, it took an investigation by fellow officers to prove that he had, indeed, been murdered.
Speculation about who had the motive to kill Ivanov seems so far to be focusing on Israel’s Mossad agency, because Israel is known to be concerned about the development of a technologically advanced Russian listening base in the area that will be able to spy on its communications and military movements. But I have to ask – how does killing one General help Israel’s ambitions in this area? Something so small (in the grand scheme of things) as one Generals’ murder certainly wouldn’t warn off the Russian state, who are investing heavily in the base.
Other speculation notes that Ivanov was the head of the GRU’s operations in Chechnya,. He was thought to have ordered the assassination of Chechen seperatists outside of Russia, including two men in Qatar in 2004. Revenge could be a plausible motive but, again, questions need to be asked – most importantly, do demoralised and disorganised Chechen separatists have the resources and ability (let alone the urgent desire) to carry out an assassination like this?
No-one has yet looked into Ivanov’s business dealings, and whether he was tainted at all by corruption. His position, combined with the construction of a massive military base, would have offered many opportunities for graft – he could well have upset someone, either by taking a bribe, or perhaps even refusing to take one.
What do you think? Was Ivanov’s death really a tragic accident, or is it likely that there is more to it?