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Sunday, February 25, 2024

‘He’s a struggle legal’: Elite Putin safety officer defects

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LONDON — On October 14, a Russian engineer named Gleb Karakulov boarded a flight from Kazakhstan to Turkey along with his spouse and daughter. He switched off his telephone to close out the crescendo of pressing, enraged messages, mentioned goodbye to his life in Russia and tried to calm his fast-beating coronary heart.

However this was no peculiar Russian defector. Karakulov was an officer in President Vladimir Putin’s secretive elite private safety service — one of many few Russians to flee and go public who’ve rank, in addition to data of intimate particulars of Putin’s life and probably categorised info.

Karakulov, who was answerable for safe communications, mentioned ethical opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and his concern of dying there drove him to talk out, regardless of the dangers to himself and his household. He mentioned he hoped to encourage different Russians to talk out additionally.

“Our President has turn into a struggle legal,” he mentioned. “It’s time to finish this struggle and cease being silent.”

Karakulov’s account usually conforms with others that paint the Russian president as a as soon as charismatic however more and more remoted chief, who doesn’t use a cellular phone or the Web and insists on entry to Russian state tv wherever he goes. He additionally provided new particulars about how Putin’s paranoia seems to have deepened since his resolution to invade Ukraine in February 2022. Putin now prefers to keep away from airplanes and journey on a particular armored prepare, he mentioned, and he ordered a bunker on the Russian embassy in Kazakhstan outfitted with a safe communications line in October — the primary time Karakulov had ever fielded such a request.

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Together with info on Putin, Karakulov’s testimony gives an intimate view of 1 man’s resolution to defect — with out telling his personal mom, who he mentioned stays a robust Putin supporter. It raises essential questions on how deep the Russian public’s acceptance of the struggle runs, and the way Putin’s opponents within the West and past would possibly leverage any silent opposition.

Whereas not talking immediately about his case, an official with a safety background from a NATO nation mentioned a defection like Karakulov’s “has a really nice degree of curiosity.” He spoke on situation of anonymity to debate delicate political issues.

“That might be seen as a really critical blow to the president himself as a result of he’s extraordinarily eager on his safety, and his safety is compromised,” he mentioned. “That’s one thing that he could be very sad about — significantly if the compromise is to do with communications, upon which a terrific deal depends.”

PUTIN IS “SIMPLY AFRAID”

As an engineer in a area unit of the presidential communications division of the Federal Protecting Service, or FSO, Karakulov was answerable for organising safe communications for the Russian president and prime minister wherever they went. Whereas he was not a confidant of Putin’s, Karakulov spent years in his service, observing him from unusually shut quarters from 2009 by means of late 2022.

Karakulov, his spouse and his youngster have gone underground, and it was inconceivable to talk with them immediately resulting from safety constraints.

The File Heart, a London-based investigative group funded by Russian opposition determine Mikhail Khodorkovsky, interviewed Karakulov a number of occasions and shared video and transcripts of greater than six hours of these interviews with The Related Press, in addition to the Danish Broadcasting Company DR, Swedish Tv SVT, and the Norwegian Broadcasting Company NRK. The File Heart confirmed the authenticity of Karakulov’s passport and FSO work identification card, and cross-checked particulars of his biography in opposition to Russian authorities information, leaked private knowledge and social media postings.

The Related Press reviewed the supplies from the File Heart and independently confirmed Karakulov’s identification with three sources within the U.S. and Europe, who weren’t approved to talk publicly. AP additionally independently corroborated private particulars, together with Karakulov’s passport numbers, date and native land, two registered addresses, and the names and ages of members of the family, however was unable to confirm particulars of his defection.

AP additionally confirmed that Karakulov is listed as a wished man within the Russian Inside Ministry’s public database of legal suspects. The Inside Ministry initiated a legal investigation in opposition to Karakulov on October 26 for desertion throughout a time of navy mobilization, based on paperwork obtained by the File Heart and seen by the AP.

The FSO is without doubt one of the most secretive branches of Russia’s safety companies.

“Even once they give up, they by no means speak, however they know lots of particulars of the personal lifetime of the president and the prime minister,” mentioned Katya Hakim, a senior researcher on the File Heart.

The Kremlin didn’t instantly reply to requests for remark.

Karakulov moved as a part of an advance crew, usually with sufficient specialised communications gear to fill a KAMAZ truck. He mentioned he has taken greater than 180 journeys with the Russian president, and opposite to widespread hypothesis, Putin seems to be in higher form than most individuals his age. Putin has solely cancelled a couple of journeys resulting from sickness and has annual medical check-ups, he mentioned.

In contrast to the Prime Minister, Putin doesn’t require safe web entry on his journeys, Karakulov mentioned.

“In all my service, I’ve by no means seen him with a cell phone,” he mentioned. “All the knowledge he receives is barely from folks near him. That’s, he lives in a type of info vacuum.”

Karakulov’s work introduced him to luxurious lodges for summits, seashore resorts in Cuba, yachts — and aboard a particular armored prepare outfitted for the Russian president.

Putin’s prepare appears to be like like some other, painted gray with a pink stripe to mix in with different railway carriages in Russia. Putin didn’t like the truth that airplanes could be tracked, preferring the stealth of a nondescript prepare automotive, Karakulov mentioned.

“I perceive that he’s merely afraid,” he mentioned.

Putin started to make use of the prepare repeatedly within the run-up to the Feb. 2022 invasion, Karakulov mentioned. Even final yr, Putin continued to insist on strict anti-Covid measures, and FSO workers took shifts in two-week quarantine so there would at all times be a pool of individuals cleared to journey with Putin on the prepare, he mentioned.

Putin has arrange an identical workplaces in a number of areas, with matching particulars right down to the desk and wall hangings, and official experiences generally say he’s one place when he’s really in one other, based on Karakulov and prior reporting by a Russian media outlet. When Putin was in Sochi, safety officers would intentionally faux he was leaving, bringing in a aircraft and sending off a motorcade, when he was actually staying, Karakulov mentioned.

“The blokes would speak about this, actually laughing,” he mentioned. “I feel that that is an try and confuse, first, intelligence, and second, in order that there are not any assassination makes an attempt.”

FACES OF WARRIORS

Karakulov’s defection was a shocking flip for a household steeped in patriotic navy custom.

Born in Dagestan, Karakulov was raised to be prepared for struggle, believing it was his sacred responsibility to defend his homeland. After graduating from a navy academy, he discovered his means into the FSO.

“To be near the president — it sounded fairly cool,” he mentioned.

Karakulov’s father is a former navy man, who has labored as knowledgeable photographer, amongst different jobs. He’s engaged on a challenge he calls “Faces of Warriors,” a sequence of stylish, hagiographic portraits of Russian troopers and veterans.

Karakulov’s brother is a neighborhood authorities official, information present, and served as the purpose particular person for a regional, government-backed challenge dedicated to “civic patriotism” and honoring “Heroes of the Fatherland.”

Karakulov’s job launched him to a world past his household. At the same time as his father and brother marched in patriotic navy parades, his personal doubts deepened. He’s horrified to assume that he may also be rallying across the letter Z in help of the struggle in Ukraine if his job hadn’t taught him to see by means of the lies of Russian state tv.

“Because of my work within the FSO, I’ve seen how info is distorted,” he mentioned.

He additionally started to query the conspicuous spending of Russia’s prime leaders. He mentioned he noticed officers convene massive delegations at luxurious resorts that value extra every evening than his month-to-month wage. They’d all attend a short assembly after which hang around for every week, he mentioned.

“If that is from the price range, then the query is, ‘Is it not an excessive amount of to spend this type of cash on one particular person?’” he mentioned. “If it’s not from the price range, then it’s whole corruption.”

Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine was a breaking level, he mentioned. He advised his spouse he wished out. He didn’t need their younger daughter brainwashed in pre-school, the place kids have been doing patriotic salutes and being advised about bombs.

“This isn’t the long run I would love for my youngster,” he mentioned.

With Russia’s September mobilization drive, Karakulov realized that if he give up his job, he was prone to be drafted right into a struggle he didn’t wish to combat. However even when he stayed, he might get despatched to the entrance.

He discovered that a few of his colleagues had been dispatched to Ukraine and killed. He noticed pictures of FSO crews destroyed by Ukrainian rockets, with dozens doubtless {dead}.

He was outraged that nobody in Russia acknowledged these deaths.

“There’s no details about them,” Karakulov mentioned. “What have been they doing there? Why did they find yourself there? Why did they die there?”

The one conversations he had have been with colleagues who appeared to relish the struggle. He imagined others should share his views, however he had no solution to discover them.

“They merely can’t even open their mouths,” he mentioned.

Karakulov mentioned he couldn’t inform his mother and father about his disillusionment both, as a result of their minds had been molded by years of watching Russian state tv.

Because the struggle streamed in on the night information, his mother and father appeared to savor the view from the entrance. He discovered it insufferable and requested his mom to show off the TV. She refused.

He mentioned he tried to clarify to her that Ukraine is an unbiased nation, however she instantly lower him off. “What is that this?” she mentioned to him. “You wish to run away? Are you some type of overseas agent?”

He by no means advised them he was leaving.

In October, a sequence of official conferences in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, gave Karakulov his likelihood to run away. He and his spouse packed their lives into three suitcases. He flew out Oct. 6 with the remainder of his crew. His spouse and daughter joined two days later, staying in a separate resort.

However every day, Karakulov discovered another excuse to not go.

On the final day of the delegation, Oct. 14., he realized he couldn’t postpone any longer. His spouse collected his suitcase from his resort room to keep away from elevating suspicion. He slipped away after lunch, telling colleagues that he was heading out to purchase souvenirs.

He climbed in a taxi along with his spouse and daughter and set off for the airport round 3 p.m.

“From then on, it was solely a matter of my very own nerves,” he mentioned.

He received by means of check-in and began getting messages from colleagues asking the place he was. The flight was delayed by an hour. He might really feel a distant fury constructing in opposition to him. By 5 p.m., he figured folks had began to search for him.

“You scumbag,” learn one message.

Fifteen minutes earlier than take-off, he switched off his telephone.

His spouse was very upset. They spent the 5 1/2-hour flight ready for one thing to go improper.

After they lastly cleared passport management in Turkey, Karakulov mentioned it was like a terrific stone had fallen from his soul.

He mentioned he is aware of many individuals will accuse him of being unpatriotic, however he disagrees.

“Patriotism is once you love your nation,” he mentioned. “On this case, our homeland must be saved, as a result of one thing loopy and horrible is occurring in our nation. We have to repair this.”

THE PRICE OF DISSENT

What the long run holds for Karakulov — and anybody who would possibly dare to comply with in his footsteps — is way from clear.

He was not the one one who wished out.

On September 27, days after Russia’s mobilization, an engineer at a regional FSO heart in Siberia named Mikhail Zhilin snuck by means of the forest throughout the border to Kazakhstan. Many Russians fled to Kazakhstan to keep away from the draft, however the authorities refused Zhilin’s request for asylum and despatched him again to Russia. On March 20, a Russian court docket sentenced him to 6 and a half years in a penal colony.

Abbas Gallyamov, a Russian political analyst now residing in Israel who was a speechwriter for Putin from 2000 — 2001 and once more from 2008 — 2010, mentioned he believes nearly all of Russia’s elites secretly oppose Putin’s struggle. He added that if the West had provided them an exit technique as an alternative of sanctions, extra might need left.

“They’re all shocked,” he mentioned. “From their perspective, there was no purpose to do that as a result of every little thing was okay…now rapidly, every little thing collapsed…We’re enemies of the world.”

Gallyamov, like Karakulov, is on the wished record of Russia’s Inside Ministry. He mentioned a defection like Karakulov’s is a selected blow as a result of the FSO is sort of a “royal elite” above different navy and safety constructions in Russia, charged with defending the state’s most valuable asset: Putin himself.

“They are going to be very indignant,” he mentioned. “There will probably be hysterics.”

Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow on the Carnegie Endowment for Worldwide Peace, mentioned Russian public opinion in regards to the struggle is split however there’s little house for public dissent, particularly for folks working inside the system.

“The rule is that the elite keep on with Putin,” she mentioned.

Those that do go away Russia usually pay a worth to maintain their conscience clear.

Boris Bondarev, a profession Russian diplomat in Geneva, give up in Might and denounced the struggle.

Talking from an undisclosed location in Switzerland, Bondarev advised the AP he’s residing as a political refugee on a authorities allowance, with safety constraints he’d relatively go away “intentionally ambiguous.” He can’t discover a job and has needed to transfer residences a number of occasions, for each monetary and security causes. He can’t journey freely — not even to satisfy a reporter for a cup of espresso on the town.

“I despatched my CVs to dozens of assume tanks within the U.S., within the U.Okay., in Europe, and most have been ignored,” he mentioned. “I received a couple of solutions that ‘sorry, however we have already got Russia specialists.’”

He mentioned there are many Russians who quietly oppose the struggle however don’t dare communicate out, for concern of shedding their livelihoods. A couple of colleagues who give up Russia’s International Ministry after he did contacted him for recommendation. They have been having hassle discovering work. One returned to Moscow as a result of he couldn’t make a residing outdoors of Russia, he mentioned.

Bondarev mentioned he generally has second ideas when he sees footage of individuals consuming out at good eating places in Moscow, residing the type of good life he can now not afford.

However then he remembers the worth: Brainwashing, propaganda, hypocrisy.

“I’d come to my workplace at 9 and go away at 6 p.m. and in between I must produce quite a few papers explaining why Ukraine attacked Russia,” he mentioned. “I don’t need it. No, no, I can’t complain right now…I reside very, very effectively.”

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Related Press reporters Lynn Berry and Aamer Madhani in Washington, Jamey Keaton in Geneva and Joanna Kozlowska in London contributed to this report.



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