General Igor Sergun, who as the head of the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU was under Western sanctions for actions in Ukraine, has died unexpectedly.
His death was announced by the Kremlin on January 4. No explanation was given, but Vladimir Putin expressed condolences to Sergun’s relatives over his “sudden death.”
Sergun, who had headed the GRU since 2011 and was also a deputy head of the Russian military General Staff, was 58 years old.
A week ago the general who led the invasion of Crimea, General Alexander Shushukin, also died unexpectedly, officially of a heart attack. Shushukin commanded the military operation of the Russian Federation during the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but before that he had been in charge of operations in South Ossetia.
The military intelligence service, widely known by the acronym GRU, is believed to be Russia’s largest foreign intelligence operation. The GRU came into existence in 1918, and unlike the KGB secret police during the Soviet-era, did not dissolve or change its name following the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Ukraine has alleged that soldiers connected with the GRU have taken part in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where government forces and Russia-backed separatists have been fighting since April 2014.
The GRU — formally subordinate to the Russian Armed Forces’ General Staff — is widely believed to have played a central role in the stealth operation to take control of Ukraine’s Crimea region in early 2014, when masked, camouflaged, armed soldiers appeared suddenly throughout the Black Sea peninsula.
Sergun’s position at the helm of GRU explains his presence on the sanctions lists imposed in 2014 by both the United States and the European Union, which specifically cited his oversight of “the activity of GRU officers in eastern Ukraine.”
Sergun was appointed to head the GRU in 2011. Previously, the career officer had been Russia’s military attache in Tirana, Albania.
The death of Igor Sergun comes amid an upsurge in Russian military activity abroad. Russia launched air strikes in Syria in September and is accused by the Kiev and the West of direct military support for separatists in a conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 9,000 people.