MOSCOW President Dmitry Medvedev sacked Russia's most powerful intelligence chief Friday in a move that underscores strained ties with some of the military top brass over a Kremlin-backed reform of the armed forces.
The Kremlin said Medvedev had signed a decree to dismiss General Valentin Korabelnikov, who has directed Russia's military intelligence service since 1997.
The dismissal of the respected 63-year-old spymaster is one of Medvedev's highest-profile sackings since he replaced former KGB spy Vladimir Putin as president in May 2008.
No reason for the dismissal was given by the Kremlin, which said Alexander Shlyakhturov, Korabelnikov's deputy, would become head of the GRU military intelligence service.
Korabelnikov had criticized reforms which the Kremlin says aim to turn Russia's outdated army into a mobile fighting force. Under the reform, the number of generals will be slashed and the armed forces will be cut to one million from over 1.1 million.
"This is a blow, a blow at our Russian forces and the security of our nation," Viktor Ilyukhin, a deputy for the opposition Communist party who used to serve as deputy head of parliament's national security committee, said of the sacking.
"He was a born intelligence chief, a man who brilliantly knows the situation in the world and one of the best experts in the situation in Russia's army," Ilyukhin told Reuters.
The cost of insuring Russia's sovereign debt in the credit default swaps market was unchanged on the day, with the firing seen as not enough to significantly unsettle markets.
The GRU is Russia's biggest spy agency with agents spread across the globe. It also has thousands of special forces troops inside Russia, some of whom were deployed in Georgia last year.
The spy service, created in 1918 under revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky, is controlled by the military general staff and reports directly to the president.
Russian media, quoting Defense Ministry sources, said Korabelnikov had clashed with Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, appointed by Putin, over plans to disband or reorder special forces units under GRU command.
Speculation about Korabelnikov's imminent sacking had been swirling around Moscow for weeks after his unexplained absence from an annual collegium of Russia's military top brass on March 17, which was chaired by Medvedev.
Russian news agencies quoted a Defense Ministry spokesman as saying Korabelnikov had been dismissed because he was already three years over the maximum age ceiling of 60 for generals.
To remain in service after 60, the president must either sign a decree to extend their contract or sack them. Medvedev ordered he be decorated for his service to the state.
RIA news agency said Korabelnikov was Friday appointed advisor to the chief of Russia's general staff.
GRU has no website or spokespeople, unlike Russia's smaller Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the FSB domestic spy agency, both of which emerged from the KGB after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The public was given a rare chance to see parts of GRU's Moscow headquarters when Putin visited it in 2006 and was shown taking part in shooting practice.