Colonel-General Igor Sergun, Russia's head of military intelligence, was reportedly killed during a secret mission in Beirut in January.
On March 3, the Lebanese daily newspaper al-Akhbar reported that Sergun -- who had served as the Director of GRU, or the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, since 2011 -- had been killed while taking part in a classified military operation, according to The Jerusalem Post. The newspaper cited an anonymous diplomatic source in London, who said several Arab and Middle Eastern intelligence agencies were involved in the mission as well.
On Jan. 4, the Kremlin released an official statement on Sergun’s death, saying he had died of a heart attack in Moscow. However, the new report by al-Akhbar contradicts this claim. The Lebanese newspaper’s confidential source also implicated Turkey in Sergun’s assassination. According to the source, Russia then confronted Turkey, leading to tense relations between the two countries.
Sergun’s death came just three weeks after he traveled to Syria to ask President Bashar al-Assad to step down on the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin. A senior European intelligence official told the Financial Times that the mission's goal was to unseat Assad but keep his Alawite majority sect in control of Syria, while also negotiating a peace deal with moderate rebels, The Independent reports. The Russian government, however, denied such a mission ever took place.
Along with his involvement in the Syrian conflict, Sergun also played a key role in the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014, after which he was placed on the European Union's sanctions list for being “responsible for the activity of GRU officers in eastern Ukraine."
Sergun took over as GRU chief in 2011 after his predecessor Alexander Shlyakhturov reached retirement age, according to Voice of America. Shlyakhturov had held the position for only two years. The GRU has been around since 1918 and retained its name and status as an organization despite the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, unlike other departments such as the KGB secret police.