At Large

The Body on the Beach

Did a top Russian general and intelligence operative simply drown in a "swimming accident"?

By 9.17.10

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"Several days ago General Yuri Ivanov died while swimming," reported RIA Novosti, the official Russian news agency. Ivanov had disappeared on August 6, but it wasn't until ten days later that his badly decomposed body washed up on a Turkish beach at Hatay close to the border shared by Turkey and Syria. Ivanov supposedly had been visiting the new Russian naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartus.

The official announcement of the intelligence chief's death was not made public until a brief obituary appeared in the Russian army newspaper, Red Star, on August 28. The government version was that Ivanov drowned in a swimming accident at a resort near the Syrian port of Latakia, and that his body was carried by the current on to the Hatay beach. The entire event has been made more mysterious by the lack of further clarification from the Russian government.

A longtime military intelligence officer, Major General Yuri Ivanov was the second-in-command in Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravlenie(GRU), the Russian foreign military intelligence arm. He was, in effect, chief of operations for that service. It was Ivanov who was personally charged with the responsibility for the project overseeing the assassination of top Chechen operators abroad. During the coldest days of the Cold War such activities were known as mokrye dela (wet affairs).

In 2004 this highly sensitive activity resulted in the Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev being blown up in his SUV in Qatar. Two GRU agents were caught by the Qatari, who then allowed them to be extradited to Russia the following year supposedly to serve out their sentences. Not unexpectedly, they have since disappeared. The entire operation was denied by the Kremlin, and Maj. General Ivanov found himself on Putin's preferred list. There is no question that the 52-year-old Ivanov was on his way to even higher posts.

It was this status as a major intelligence personality that brought Yuri Ivanov the invitation to visit the new Russian/Syrian naval facility under construction at the port of Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea. The Russian Navy had returned in force to the Med in 2008, at which time Moscow announced the extension of its Black Sea Fleet area of operation for the first time since the end of the Cold War. The new facility at Tartus is the essential anchor of such an expanded responsibility. GRU would have a major role in running intelligence operations from that facility.

Naturally the Israelis see this new Russian incursion in the Eastern Mediterranean as detrimental to Israeli interests, both militarily and from an intelligence-gathering standpoint. The fact that Tartus is relatively close to the Turkish port of Ceyhan also has strategic significance in that the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline traverses Georgia, a continuing Russian target.

Some European press sources have speculated that the Israeli Mossad might have a strong motivation to kill Ivanov to prevent further development of the facility planned for Tartus. While that is a bit of a stretch, the Israelis may have some other more direct reason for wanting Ivanov out of the way. The Chechens had a clearer motive in revenge for the campaign led by Ivanov against their leadership, and have the Shia Islamic connections in Syria to assist them.

Other press reports suggest a possible connection with the murder also in August of a British analyst from GCHQ in Cheltenham, seconded to MI6. Nothing further has been divulged on this matter by the British, though considerable speculation exists regarding a possible connection with the poisoning in London of the Russian defector, former KGB and FSG officer Alexander Litvinenko.

Ivanov's high rank is the factor that tends to muddle the intelligence ramifications of his assassination. An additional confusing element is the common nature of his name. A "Yuri Ivanov" who was a deputy in the Duma charged Putin with being behind the deadly Beslan school hostage incident for which the Chechens were blamed. Initially some reports in the European press suggested that General Ivanov was actually the Deputy Ivanov and he was killed on Putin's order. It took a while before that mistaken identity was cleared up.

In the meantime, the insider crowd in Moscow has the heaviest bets on the Chechens. The second highest number of punters is convinced the operation had all the earmarks of Mossad. Intriguingly, a small but well-placed group of professional sources swear it was all an inside GRU vs. SVR (former KGB) conflict.

Still unanswered, however, is the fact that Ivanov would have had a security detail with him. Where were they? If the Chechens or Israelis had done the job, why would they go to the trouble of tossing their victim in the sea? His disappearance alone would have raised security attention. Why hasn't Russian officialdom made a greater effort to publish supporting facts relative to the supposed "swimming accident."

Interestingly, no one is talking about the possibility that Maj. Gen. Yuri Ivanov slipped away from his security detail, swam off into the sea heavily dosed with his own chosen tranquillizers, and simply committed suicide by becoming unconscious and drowning. It wouldn't be the first time a top intelligence official -- Russian, American, British -- "offed" themselves for personal reasons after a career in the black arts. Of course, he simply could have been drunk and drowned! 

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.