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4 апреля 2023 года

April 4, 2023

"The Russian President is a war criminal"

Interview with the Federal Guard Service officer who worked with Putin and who fled Russia

Gleb Karakulov is a captain in the Federal Guard Service. Until mid-October 2022, he worked with Vladimir Putin as an engineer in the Presidential Communications Directorate of the FGS. His duties included provision of  secure communications for the President. In early October, he travelled to Astana, where the Head of State was to participate in three events: the VI Summit of the Conference on Engagement and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia, a meeting of the Council of the CIS Heads of State, and the Russia-Central Asia Summit. On 14 October, the last day of his business trip, Karakulov left his colleagues and flew to Istanbul with his wife and daughter.

The Dossier Center spent over ten hours in conversation with the officer about his decision to leave the FGS and Russia. Karakulov is the highest-ranking intelligence officer in Russia’s recent history to defect to the West. The Dossier Center checked Karakulov’s documents and verified their authenticity. Details from his story match information obtained from various databases and open sources.

The Dossier Center checked the documents of Gleb Karakulov. His work passport is listed as valid in the database of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The dates of the border crossing stamps coincide with the dates that the FGS officer named in the interview. The authenticity of the identity card of the Federal Guard Service officer, provided by Karakulov, was confirmed by an interlocutor close to the Russian special services. The records of the Federal Tax Service and the Pension Fund do not list any of Karakulov’s places of work. The source close to the Interior Ministry and not familiar with the details of Karakulov’s story suggested that it was an employee of special services or law enforcement agencies, as their data are removed from state databases. Nevertheless, Dosie managed to find an indication in the police archive database that Karakulov serves in the FGS.

The Dossier Center also checked Karakulov’s biography. He did indeed study at the A.F. Mozhaisky Military Space Academy and was registered in the academy’s dormitory. He also posted photos on social networks with his classmates. Karakulov has a wife and a daughter, according to the officer’s relatives’ social networks. Karakulov is covered by the military mortgage: in the extract for his apartment in Balashikha (Moscow region) it is stated that the loan was issued within the «savings and mortgage system of housing provision for servicemen».

Karakulov’s father is a former military man, according to his profile on «Odnoklassniki» and from the police archive data. The Dossier Center tried to contact Karakulov’s father and brother, but both blocked Dossier’s correspondent in all social networks and messengers. The Dossier Center» also obtained information from the information database of the Interior Ministry. The report says that a case was brought against Karakulov for desertion during mobilization (part 3 of Article 338 of the Criminal Code), he hid from the military investigation. The case was brought on October 26, the wanted case — on December 21, the initiator — criminal investigation of Main Department of Internal Affairs of Moscow. No measure of restraint was chosen against Karakulov. Karakulov’s wanted information is also contained in the publicly available database of the Ministry of Internal Affairs 

Escape

— When did you decide it was time to quit your job?

There were many indications that I was not ready to make deals with my conscience while doing my job. I was due to retire in less than two years. I planned to serve out my time, pay off my mortgage and that would be it; I wouldn’t renew my contract. But in February 2022 a criminal war broke out, and I could no longer make compromises with myself. I couldn’t remain in the service of this President. I consider him a war criminal. Even though I am not directly involved in the war, it is no longer possible for me to carry out his criminal orders or stay in his service.

— You are not in Russia. How did you leave Russia?

It all started on 24 February. Like many other Russian citizens, I hoped that there would be no escalation. In the morning of 24 February I must have spent  half an hour in a state of shock. Then, apparently as a result of all these worries, I developed some health issues. I spent three months on sick leave. I managed to calm down somewhat and started telling myself that it was none of my business. But, naturally, I had already realised that I had to try and somehow leave before my retirement.

Karakulov's Federal Guard Service ID. Source: Dossier Center

Unfortunately, my external service passport had expired, and I had to start the process of applying for a regular external passport. It took me three months plus holidays. As a result, my first business trip abroad began after a long break on 1 August and lasted a whole 19 days. I found myself right in the middle of these discussions, you know, [with people] even savouring every detail of what was happening in the war. I can’t describe how disgusting and unpleasant it was.

— So your colleagues in the FGS were discussing how things were going at the front?

Yes, and even taking pleasure in these discussions. I don’t know, I had this feeling of total disgust. I decided to quit. It’s hard to terminate a contract, but it can be done. Then came 21 September, the mobilisation. I understood that even if I left the service I would become a reserve officer and would be sent directly to the front after my discharge. I could not agree to be part of this criminal war. I returned [from my business trip] on 22 September. A few days later, I found out that I had been signed up for the next assignment. This time to Astana, Kazakhstan. It was a good opportunity.

— What happened in Astana? How did you plan your escape?

We flew out to make preparations on 6 October. My wife stayed back in Moscow for a few more days and flew with our daughter to Astana on 8 October.  We had tried to fit our entire life into three suitcases.

— It’s your business trip; you fly out with your FGS colleagues. A few days later, your spouse joins you, with no questions asked by any of your colleagues? I assume that spouses of the FGS officers do not usually accompany them on trips.

It’s not like she stayed right there, in the same hotel. We only met once before travelling to the airport together. She came to pick up my suitcase because I’d imagined that if I left carrying a suitcase during lunchtime, in the middle of the day, when all our employees were coming in for lunch, it could attract attention. It took her literally 2-3 minutes, but she was very nervous. At that moment, I was hanging around with our daughter near the hotel so as not to draw attention.

— Finally, you decided it was time to escape. What happened?

There was no clear feeling that it would be a particular hour on a particular day. Everything was in a state of flux, and I kept thinking, ‘Right, not today; it won’t work today either.’ So, I kept postponing it for about two or three days until many factors aligned. The most important one was that 14 October was the last day of the trip. Our group of the FGS officers was due to fly back to Moscow on the morning of 15 October. It was not possible to put it off any longer.

Another factor: we have external service  passports [for work purposes]. They handed them out to us in Astana because we had to [prove our identities] in the course of work. I remember my shock when on the morning of 14 October, our group leader’s assistant told us to hand them in. That is, before that, I had had my external passport with me for a week. We were still in the middle of our assignment, and they were already telling us to hand them in. I’m sitting there with my headphones on, monitoring the equipment or looking things up on YouTube. Some colleagues were handing theirs in, and I was pretending not have heard it until the very end. I mean, even if someone had said to me, ‘Well, where’s your passport?’, I would have said, ‘I don’t know, at the hotel maybe’. I had also agreed with colleagues that I would go souvenir shopping after work. That is, I was playing for time so that they would not start looking for me.

— How did you leave?

My wife, our daughter and I set off for the airport at about three o’clock. The guys who were off duty soon decided to go shopping. They kept texting me, asking where I was. I responded that I had also wanted to go [shopping], but developed bad stomach cramps after lunch.

— At this point you are on your way to the airport.

Yes. The whole centre was cordoned off because of the summits. I was also worried about potential traffic jams. But there was no congestion on the road to the airport. Then comes the usual check-in for the Istanbul flight and bag drop-off. I thought they might ask me some questions about my service passport at the airport, as it differs a bit from the regular one; a different colour. No-one asked anything. From then on, it was only the matter of my own nerves.

Vladimir Putin in Astana. Source: kremlin.ru

The flight was delayed by about an hour. We took off at 5 p.m. By that time they had already started looking for me. I’d probably texted that I would not go souvenir shopping around 5 pm. I would go to work instead. At about 5.15 p.m., that is, 10-15 minutes before departure, I simply turned my phone off.

— Let’s be clear. An active FGS officer leaves his place of work. He is gone for several hours. At that moment, he is going through border control. And no one freaks out, no one goes off looking for you with guns and dogs, no one tries to force your plane to land. Your colleagues’ calm reaction is staggering!

I did have to confuse them a bit. They must have been furious.

— You fly for a few more hours, your plane lands, and you turn your phone on. Are you  bombarded with messages, calling you a scum bag and a traitor?

There wasn’t exactly a flurry of messages. There were about five messages. There had been many messages at the point when I turned my phone off. Exchanges of the type, ‘Where is he?’ ‘Maybe, he went over there?’ ‘Maybe, he’s already here?’ Let’s go and check his room’. ‘There is no-one there.’ I don’t count such messages. But there were two or three messages of the ‘You, scum bag!’ type. Plus, the Operations Department officer had tried to make contact with me.

— What do you mean by ‘the Operations Department officer had tried to make contact’?

He thought I would answer him,  he had tried to make contact, to text me, like.

— ‘Hi, how are you doing?’

‘This is Mr.N, get in touch asap.’ Stuff like that.

— How soon do you think your colleagues cottoned on [to what had happened]?

I can only guess. If I flew out at 5:30 p.m., it must have dawned on them by 6 p.m. But it was only a realisation, and they would have had to trace the whole chain [of events during the escape]. The officer from the Operations Department texted me around 8 p.m. Astana time.

— That is, had the boarding been delayed for another half an hour or an hour, you would probably have been apprehended at the airport .

I didn’t want to think about it at the time. My wife was very upset. I remember well the incident in Belarus with a plane that was forced to land. On 23 May 2021, the Belarus Security Service forced the Ryanair flight FR4978 from Athens to Vilnius, to land in Minsk;  the opposition activist Roman Protasevich who was on that flight, was detained after landing × . Still, I tried to reassure myself that I was a rank-and-file engineer. Why force the plane to land because of me?

— But you are not just any engineer; you are an FGS officer. Obviously, in terms of Russian law, you were committing a criminal offense.

 True.

— How could one reassure oneself in such a situation?

I simply knew that it would have been an even bigger crime if I had stayed on in my job. Not under the Russian law, but a crime in human terms.

— When did you tell your wife that you’d decided to quit?

I must have told her right then, on 24 February.

— Did she seriously believe that you were ready to leave?

I don’t think so. I can’t answer for her, but she must have been in a state of disbelief. I mean, how come, we have just had some work done on our flat, [a new] kitchen, our car, and so on and so forth? Her whole family live in Russia, and she was supposed to give it all up, somehow? I think she simply wasn’t ready to take that in.

But a month or so later, she did. She also watches the news. She realised that no good could come of it, ever. That at the very least, it was her duty to do something for the sake of our child’s future, if anything. I asked her if she was ready [to flee]. I wouldn’t do it alone. In August, when I was away on a business trip, she was able to spend some time on her own, in peace. We don’t get much time to spend on our own. She must have understood it then. She said, ‘That’s it, I’m ready, come on, let’s not beat about the bush.’

— How did the rest of your family feel about it? Did anyone else know what you were planning?

My relatives didn’t know [about it]. I was already in Istanbul, when they found out [about it] on 8 or 9 November, when their homes were searched. They must have realised only then what was going on.

— A lot of time had passed since February. Over that period you would have had ample opportunity to talk to your parents and tell them about your decision. But you had not. Why not?

Because they watch TV, however odd this may sound. When my mother visited me in the summer, the TV was on in the evening. There was this savouring, a live broadcasts from the war, giving an impression of being there. You could sit on your couch and feel like you were in the trenches. A TV discussion began, a live broadcast. I asked her to change the channel because it was unbearable; I heard plenty of these discussions at my workplace. Did I really have to listen to them at home?! My mother replied, ‘Why not? It’s okay, leave it on.’ That was the beginning of incremental attempts to test the waters, to see if it was possible to discuss anything [with her], including our plans. It didn’t work. One day I tried to explain [to her] that this was in fact an independent country, what were we doing there? For whose sake? I remember I didn’t even get to finish my sentence: there was an immediate [repost], ‘What is this, then? Are you planning to run away? Are you some sort of foreign agents?’. I do not remember what she said exactly. But it was, like, ‘If you do something, I won’t be able to bear the shame of it, I shall kill myself.’ I decided not to bother.

— Did you have that conversation with your parents in the end?

No.

— So they didn’t understand why their home was searched?

I’m sure they know I’m living in another country, they must have been told one side of the story only.

— But you have not discussed it with them?

No. I  don’t even know if I ever bring myself to do it.

— Do you understand the FGS reaction to your departure? Why aren’t they still chasing after you with ‘Novichok’?

They are not running after me with ‘Novichok’ yet, but they have already gone to see my relatives, and I think that the reason for this sluggish interest in me is that they think: ‘There are plenty more of such engineers, one more, one less, who cares!’

— You say, ‘one more, one less’, as if there is a daily occurence of the FGS officers leaving Russia.

No, not in that sense. There has not been anything like this previously, even at the level of rumours.

— So, that was an extraordinary event for the FGS, after all. Aren’t you afraid that another Chepiga and another Mishkin would come after you?

Those tourists? What can I say? Given that our relatives have had a visit [from them] on 8 or 9 November, I feel a growing anxiety inside me. Yes, I’m worried, but what’s the point of such worries?

— Do you have a plan? What will you do next?

Everything is in a state of flux. My ultimate goal is for my child not to experiense the horror of war. For the state, that interferes in the upbringing of our children in every possible way, not to affect her. I want my daughter to grow up in a peaceful environment, to become a decent human being. Everything I do, I do for her sake. It is my main goal.

Vladimir Putin and the FGS

— How did you get into the Federal Guard Service?

I studied at the Mozhaisky Military Space Academy from 2004-2009. I graduated in 2009. Just as [Defense Minister Anatoly] Serdyukov initiated his reforms. There were layoffs, and yet there we were,  new graduates, where do we go? Many cadets, even though they were assigned to a unit, did not have a position, drew a reduced salary, and our prospects were, generally speaking,  quite vague.  So we tried to find an alternative. Somehow, through some acquaintances, I got the opportunity [to join the FGS].

I liked that option. The Federal Guard Service! The Presidential Communications Directorate! It sounded good, don’t you think? Plus an opportunity to be part of that process, at least indirectly, to be around the President… I don’t know, would you call this a romantic notion? I agreed, with pleasure, yes, it was cool. Plus, it was in Moscow.

— How does one normally join the FGS?

There is the FGS Academy in Orel. Most of my colleagues graduated from the Academy, but some, 20%-30%, came from the Defense Ministry. While a few others transferred from the civil service.

The FGS Academy in Orel. Source: academ.msk.rsnet.ru

— How strict is the selection process for admission?

They examine your CV and conduct an interview. There’s also an aptitude test and all sorts of logic tasks. It’s a long process.

— How long did your tests last?

I went to Moscow for the first time in January 2009. By the time I graduated, I knew I’d got in. It was June. That is, it took six months.

— What did you do in the FGS? What was your typical day like?

I’m an engineer in the Presidential Communications Directorate. We encrypt communications of the top state officials — the President and the Prime Minister. I am part of the unit that we call the ‘field unit’, which enables communications for the President and the Prime Minister during their business trips, that is, throughout Russia and abroad. Astana was my 183d or 184th business trip.

We have encryption and channelling equipment. For the telephone to work, you need a lot of additional equipment. For want of a better explanation, the equipment required for the shortest business trip would probably fill precisely half a KAMAZ truck, and if there is a large volume of tasks to do on a trip, you would need a whole KAMAZ for all the equipment required.

— Besides communications, what does the FGS consist of, and what other units are there?

There is a vast number of departments of every kind. Absolutely all aspects of the President’s work as the highest government official, are the responsibility of the FGS. There are matters of physical safety and security, and the organisation of all events involving top officials. Everyone knows that there are chefs who cook for the President and the Prime Minister. All food is inspected, and there is a special service running these tests — the Biological Safety Centre.

There are even firefighters: engineers and firefighters travel with us on business trips to study the relevant technical documentation and check all facilities for compliance with engineering, technical, and fire regulations. Some units are responsible for the information technology component — video conferencing, Internet access, and workplace support. The only thing is that Putin’s situation is a bit different: he does not use the Internet. But the unit exists because he does use video conferences. They were in particular demand in 2020, with the onset of Covid.

— So, it is a state within a state?

A seriously autonomous organisation, yes.

— Which unit within the FGS is considered the most prestigious?

In my view, communication is the backbone of command and control. But the Presidential Security Service is more important because they are in direct contact with the President and the Prime Minister.

Reception in honor of military graduates, 2017. Fourth on the left is FGS director Dmitry Kochnev, fifth on the left is First Deputy Director of the FGS Oleg Klimentiev. Source: kremlin.ru

— Vladimir Putin, have you seen him? How much does his television image differ from what he is like in real life?

I first saw him during my first business trip,  in Kazan in October 2009. I’ve never had a chance to talk to him. That is, I can be there, see and observe everything that’s going on, but I don’t have the opportunity to come up and talk to him. The President’s work schedule is extremely tight and he is always surrounded by security personnel, many people, so, no, it would be problematic to walk up to him and, say, ask him, ‘How are you?’

Putin works a lot; you can see it during his business trips. He does not go to bed until 2 or 3 in the morning Moscow time. When he was in Kamchatka, he had a meeting in the middle of the night simply because it was daytime in Moscow, and it was convenient for him.

— It is common for employees to discuss their bosses. Does this happen in the FGS? Do the FGS officers discuss the President?

They call him the Boss, worship him in every way and only ever talk of him in those terms.

— Where does Vladimir Putin get his information from? How much vacuum is he in? Does he use the Internet?

He doesn’t use a mobile phone. I mean, in all my years of service, I haven’t seen him once with a mobile phone. During business trips, if we accompany the Prime Minister, there is usually another person who travels with us, who is in charge of the Internet — a digital office, a laptop, and access to the network. With Putin, he is not needed. What’s the point of the Internet? I’ll print it out for you. Just kidding! But no, he doesn’t use the Internet or a mobile phone. He only receives information from his closest circle, which means that he lives in an information vacuum.

— It is commonly believed that the President relies on the secret services’ intelligence reports. Are they his source of information?

Yes, they are.

— Does the President watch TV?

The President insists on having Russian television in every venue he stays in.

— Is Putin really in lockdown all the time?

Yes, he is. We still have a self-isolating President. We have to observe a strict quarantine for two weeks before any event, even those lasting 15 to 20 minutes. There is a pool of employees who have been cleared – who underwent this two-week quarantine. They are [considered] ‘clean’ and can work in the same room as Putin.

— Do the staff have any idea as to why such a strict lockdown is still in place?

Everyone is a little perplexed as to why this is still going on. Because everyone has been forced to get vaccinated. Everyone undergoes health screenings, monitors their health, and takes regular tests. I know that all of the President’s aides take PCR tests several times a day. I have no idea why; he’s probably just worried about his health.

— Maybe Vladimir Putin is terminally ill, and this is why he’s afraid of catching Covid as well?

It was not something my colleagues discussed. If he has any health issues, they must be due to his age. Well, he probably does have them. But it is nothing too serious, I guess.

— This is the question that now obsesses about half of the world’s population. How is Vladimir Putin’s health?

I can tell you that I went on many business trips with him, and he went on many trips before 2020. After that he stayed in his bunker and maybe made just one, maximum, three business trips a year. Given the fact that there had been many business trips, only one or two were cancelled because of his health.

— One or two business trips over what period?

Over the entire time I worked there.

— Since 2009?

Yes, yes, correct.

— So, in 13 years, only a couple of business trips have been cancelled because of Putin’s health?

Yes, quite possible, in fact they [the two cancellations] happened back-to-back, one after the other. He is in better health than many other people his age. He has annual medical checkups. As for this year: we usually learn about the need to install communications at the Central Clinical Hospital (CCH) in advance. Normally his checkups take place in late summer or early autumn. This year, it was in April.

From 2020, Vladimir Putin participates in most events remotely. The photo shows the launch of the Year of the Educator and Mentor in Russia, 2023. Source: kremlin.ru

— Do Vladimir Putin’s relatives also have to quarantine before seeing him?

I can’t say for sure; I don’t know what they do.

— Does the FGS even know if Vladimir Putin has relatives? Have they seen anyone in person?

It is an open secret that he has children, whom he calls ‘these women’, for some reason. But unless I can verify information personally, I’m not ready to state it is definitely the case. Once we were on a business trip, doing our shift, and the telephonist told us that Yekaterina Putin’s youngest daughter Katerina Tikhonova × had an aide-de-camp and that she was on holiday at her residence in Sochi. Putin was there at the same time.

— I’ll just run through the entire list of Vladimir Putin’s known relatives. So, Katerina Tikhonova is protected by an FGS officer?

Yes. And she vacations at the same time and in the same residence as Putin.

— There is also the President’s second daughter, Maria Vorontsova.

I can confirm this about Katerina because I’ve verified it myself, but it’s probably the same arrangement for Maria.

— Vladimir Putin had an official spouse, Lyudmila Putin, until relatively recently. Did you meet her in your professional capacity?

No, I have never met her. There had been business trips when she was supposed to be present as the first lady. But I have never met her, and in any case, that was over nine years ago.

— Does the President have grandchildren?

I don’t know. My colleagues never discussed them.  They did discuss Alina Kabaeva, though. The fact that they cohabit. But it was still by way of rumour.

— Did your colleagues say anything about Putin and Alina Kabayeva’s children?

No, they did not discuss them. Well, to be more precise, rather they did discuss it, but it is still a rumour at this stage; it’s not something I can confirm with certainty, albeit indirectly.

— Svetlana Krivonogikh is also named in connection with Vladimir Putin. Allegedly they have a daughter.

Look, I haven’t heard [anything]. But given the fact that I encounter many facts from Alexei Navalny’s investigations during our business trips, I know that what he says is true.  Thus, I can conclude that it is also true about Krivonogikh.

— What details from the Navalny team’s investigations have you been able to verify personally?

The most sensational was Putin’s palace. Everyone over there tried to convince the media that it was an aparthotel businessman Arkady Rotenberg claimed to be the owner of Putin’s palace and insisted that they were building an aparthotel over there × . Naturally, I also wanted to understand [what was going on]. I approached a colleague. If I tend to travel to ‘yet to be rigged up’ residences, he regularly goes to Sochi and St. Petersburg. That is, he spends a lot of time there. If anyone knows anything, that is him, for sure. Especially, as he is in charge of radio communications and all the facilities to be visited; he surveys them and checks them out. I asked him, if there was such a palace. He said, ‘Well, yes, there is, in fact. I go there often to test the communications.’

— Alexei Navalny’s team have also identified one of Vladimir Putin’s yachts, the Scheherazade. Did you and your colleagues discuss this boat?

The stuff about the Scheherazade came out after the war had already started. Accordingly, I didn’t want to talk to anyone while everyone around was endlessly discussing the bloodshed, with some relish. I couldn’t speak to anyone, but I noted to myself that they had shown lists of the FGS employees. Several of the names seemed very familiar. The thing is that when I am on a business trip, I have to check the lists of our employees. So, in this case, I have no doubts, either, that it is his yacht.

— You say that you have installed Special Comms at non-stationary facilities. What kind of facilities are they?

Planes, helicopters, yachts — we call them ‘boats’, as well as a special train.

— What is a special train?

It’s a train for the President. It first appeared in our schedule at some point in 2014 or 2015. It looks like an ordinary train, i.e., same as all the other Russian Railways trains – grey with a red stripe.

— Why does the President use it?

Because it is less conspicuous. Planes show up on certain services/networks. Whereas a train, how many of these grey trains are there? Most importantly, they cannot be  tracked on any information resource. It’s done for stealth purposes.

— Does Putin often travel by this train?

In 2014-2015, we just started working on it and equipping it. In terms of using it regularly, that probably began somewhere between August and September 2021. It turns out that our employees had been quarantined for this special train. Since the beginning of the war, the guys said  they would simply travel in the ‘Valdai direction’ for about 40 days to 45 days Valdai is the name of the presidential residence in the Novgorod Region × . There may not be a train departure on your particular watch, but people are always ready [for it].

The President also has a telephone booth we take on every foreign trip. It is a place from which you can conduct talks with guaranteed confidentiality. The booth is, of course, bulky. It is a cube about 2.5 meters high. Inside there is a workstation and a telephone, which one can use to talk without fear of  these conversations being overheard or read by foreign intelligence.

— What are the boats on which you installed certain communications? How big are these boats?

These are well-furnished two- or three-deck yachts. Lavishly decorated. But we should also bear in mind that some of them are definitely on the Presidential Administration’s balance sheet. That is, not all of them are 100% privately owned, but I have seen many of them during my term in office, especially at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum; there were about twenty [of them].

— It is believed that Vladimir Putin has ‘bunkers’. That’s what they call his residences. Have you ever been in a real bunker, i.e., a bomb shelter? Have you set up communications there?

Before, we didn’t rig up any bomb shelters. But this time, when we were on the [Russian] Embassy in Kazakhstan’s premises, while in the past we used to install communications at the Ambassador’s office or the intercom room, in October we installed another line — in a bomb shelter. It is a kind of paranoia. You are on another state’s soil. The state is the summit’s convener, providing all the security. The Embassy’s territory itself is also guarded.

— In other words, Vladimir Putin is afraid that there could be an attempt on his life during a trip abroad and he will have to shelter in a bunker and contact someone from there?

What else is a bomb shelter for? I take it that, yes, he’s simply afraid.

— Vladimir Putin has quite a few official and unofficial residences. Which one does he use most often?

The most frequently visited one is Valdai. There are two noteworthy details. His offices, whether in St. Petersburg, Sochi, or Novo-Ogaryovo, are all the same; that is, everything there is identical. There were times when I knew he was in Sochi. The TV is on in the background; the news is on, and they show him conducting a meeting in Novo-Ogaryovo. So, I ask a colleague in Sochi, ‘Has he left already?’ ‘No, he says, ‘he’s still here.’

The guys used to joke that when Putin was in Sochi, they would deliberately pretend that he was leaving. They would bring a plane, a motorcade would set off. While in actual fact, he would stay in Sochi. I mean, the guys would talk about it, almost laughing. This is a ruse to confuse foreign intelligence, in the first place, and secondly, to prevent any attempts on his life.

— Have you ever heard from your colleagues that someone tried to assassinate Vladimir Putin?

No, but that doesn’t stop him from being afraid. Why else would he need such a smoke screen?

War

— Looking back at February events, when do you think you first guessed or knew with some certainty that that was it? There would be war.

There was nothing in his actions, no patterns, in terms of Putin’s own actions. But judging by what was happening in the media, I already clearly understood that something was going to happen. Still, I did not think that there would be a full-scale war.

— You have been observing Vladimir Putin for quite a long time. As far as you are concerned, was the man you saw in 2009 and the man who announced the start of the war one and the same person? Or had he changed, somehow?

These are two different people, in terms of behavior. When the former Head of the FSB became Prime Minister and, later,  President, he was energetic and active. He was, of course, just as active until 2020; judging by his many business trips. Now he has shut himself off from the world with all kinds of barriers, the quarantine, the information vacuum. His take on reality has become distorted. A sane person in the twenty-first century, who looks objectively at everything happening in the world, let alone who can predict developments, at least in the medium term, would not have allowed this war to happen.

— Your colleagues expound a rather jingoistic attitude. They support the President and this war. Did they ever explain to you in conversation why they thought the war necessary?

I will answer, of course, but these are not my words, and it sounds horrible. The ratio is about fifty-fifty. Half of the FGS think we should have blitzed the Maidan in Kyiv with missiles back in 2014. While others say, ‘Why, what else should we have done [about Ukraine now]?’ Honestly, I’d hoped there would be people who, at least in private conversations, would say something like, ‘Guys, this is war; people are dying.’ I hoped I would hear such phrases. Unfortunately, I do not hear such words and they are almost 100% for Putin.

— You served in the FGS from 2009 to 2022. That’s a large enough part of your life, clearly, a significant period. Do you have any regrets? Do you regret ever joining?

Thanks to my work in the FGS, I have seen how information is distorted. Even my spouse says that if it weren’t for me… I would come home and tell her that, oh my God, what nonsense, it’s not like that at all [like they show it on TV]! I don’t want to think about it, but if I hadn’t been an officer in the FGS, I’m horrified to admit that I might have been a Z-patriot or whatever they’re called. Because I’d be watching TV. Sometime around 2014 I saw everything that fundamentally changed my perception.

I flew to Crimea in March 2014. I had a chance to talk to people who live there. The referendum had already been held there, and I had the opportunity to ask people if they supported the annexation. Was it really 97%? But there wasn’t this general enthusiasm, with people being 100% in favour. If you vote for [it], especially with a 97% result, you shouldn’t have any doubts, but they were fifty-fifty. One half were… like, OK, it seems like a good idea to join [Russia]. While the other half had serious doubts. That’s when I had my first alarm bells ringing. So I’m grateful to my work: it opened my eyes.

What I do I regret is that I’d never shown any interest in politics. Because many aspects of our lives are directly linked to political engagement. Even a playground – you have to lobby your MP [to get it built].

— What other alarm bells were there, besides Crimea?

There were a lot of alarm bells. When you go on business trips, you can witness all the preparations. When I saw the vast sums of money being spent so that one man could stay in his office, I had a lot of questions in my head. I may not have thought about it before, but after 2014, they started snowballing. Is this the only thing we can spend money on? I mean, that’s a huge number of people. How much does it cost to cart them around, to accommodate them? These are vast sums of money [to spend] on five-star hotels, on delegations 200-strong.

Business trips also include a private programme. An official flies in and spends some time in an office for the sake of a half-hour picture for TV. Later they broadcast it as a two-minute clip, maybe even shorter. After which he goes off to some spot in the mountains: a guesthouse, a riverside, i.e., which is his private programme. He flies in, he makes an appearance, and then it’s over.

A recent case in point. Mikhail Mishustin was in Gorno-Altaisk. He spent about an hour and a half at an event. All along I was in the mountains, setting up a link for the Prime Minister at the Altay Village guest house. When we were there, a stay in the cheapest cottage cost around 120-130 thousand rubles a day. The most expensive cost around 300,000 rubles a day. We had a large delegation, with all the cottages booked for seven days.

This raises even more questions. You would not have been able to afford that vacation on your own. If you spent taxpayers’ money on it, isn’t it too much to spend on one person, I ask? And if it wasn’t taxpayers’ money, then it’s outright corruption. These were the kind of alarm bells that were getting louder. Starting with 2014, I began to see it more clearly, but I continued to put up with it. After 24 February, I can’t do it any more.

— How do you explain the fact that you were the only FGS officer to hear these alarm bells?

Look, there are certain advantages to serving in the FGS. It’s not a big salary, but it’s stable. Take me, for example, I was earning around 80,000 rubles. Then there were bonuses. I got somewhere between 100 and 110 thousand rubles altogether. This is not much for Moscow, of course, but on the whole, it is fine. Can it compensate for your permanent absence from your child? That is another question. But you can go on a business trip anywhere in the world, places you could never afford on your 80-100 thousand, especially if you are earning less.

So why do they keep supporting it? You know, I can’t even begin to understand.

— Yet your colleagues see the equivalent of their whole salary being blown on entertainment, not even in one hour, but in one minute, if not a second. Doesn’t that make them feel uncomfortable?

I wonder why it does not. Probably, because they are part of it. Just imagine: a Kempinski hotel or some other excellent hotel where you would never stay in your other life. With top class full board catering.  There must be something alluring about it, to be able to go places you would never go otherwise. I, too, had to make a deal with my conscience, to turn a blind eye; it was as though it had nothing to do with me, and then okay, I could manage another two years to retirement. Colleagues also had reasons of their own — pensions, a child who needs to be clothed and fed.

Karakulov on the Ministry of Internal Affairs Wanted Persons Database. Source: mvd.ru.

This has more to do with their working in the FGS. But why support [the war]? I clearly see that they support [it]. I can’t tell you [why]. The war has impacted the FGS directly. Secret service officers are involved in combat operations. While on a business trip to Veliky Novgorod I talked to the guys from the local special communications and information centre. They mentioned mobile communication units being dispatched to Ukraine from the special communication and information centres located in the Central Region. They also showed pictures of some units/systems that were completely destroyed —five such comms units/systems, consisting of three vehicles each. With a crew, I can only assume, of five to six people. Judging by the pictures they showed there were no survivors.

I learnt about the mobilisation in Veliky Novgorod on 21 September, whereas that conversation took place a couple of days before. [I remember] the dazed look of the man telling us all this [about the FGS officers killed in the war]. And then, a couple of hours later, the mood changed completely to ‘now we shall teach them a lesson!’

— Was it the same person?

No, it’ wasn’t the same [man], but the mood was exactly that.

— Is there anything you would like to say to your fellow FGS officers?

Yes, I would like to address Russian officers, including the FGS officers. You have information that is not broadcast on television. I have only seen a tiny part of it. Come forward, support me [with more evidence]. You will help our citizens to learn the truth. I am sure that you had questions about the Commander-in-Chief’s actions before, but the oath forced you not to ask [them] and to smoothly execute his orders. However, what is happening now is beyond the pale, it defies reason. You mustn’t follow criminal orders and serve this war criminal, Vladimir Putin. And I consider him a war criminal.

Invasion of the territory of a sovereign state is simply beyond comprehension. Multiple rocket launchers are being used, residential buildings and critical infrastructure are being hit. How many nameless victims of this war are there, how many of them are children? How many more such victims are required before you stop putting up with it? What is happening now in Ukraine, all this destruction, this war of aggression, terrorism, and genocide of the Ukrainian people (there is no other word for it) — all this is a criminal offense. Our President has become a war criminal.

You have to stop following these criminal orders. The FGS officers are around the President all the time. You can just go in and indicate that this is a crime. It is up to you to stop this madness very quickly. I wish you would do that because it would save many lives.

They will probably accuse me of being unpatriotic. Patriotism is about loving your country. In this instance we need to save our country. There is a crazy and terrible war going on. It must be stopped as soon as possible.

I would also like to address the citizens of Russia. I hope that what I have just said has only confirmed the misrepresentation of information in our country. We are all kept in the dark, told only the convenient truths,  convenient for one person. For years we have been indoctrinated with indiscriminate choice of information sources and conformism. It was one of the reasons that led to this war.

Our President and Prime Minister are ordinary civil servants. They are our employees, and we pay their salaries out of our taxes. The point of their service is to improve our lives. So, answer this question: has your life improved over the past 10 years? And over the past 8-9 months? I don’t think so. This shows that something is going wrong. This means that the country’s leadership are not doing their job properly.

It takes years for children’s playgrounds to be built and roads to be repaired. While repressive laws go through three readings and are adopted by the State Duma in one day, just to enable the government to hold you at bay, so that you would be afraid to ask questions and speak out. MPs who adopt these laws are there to represent your interests. Are you sure you have elected them?

Our President has lost touch with the world. He has been living in an information cocoon for the past couple of years, spending most of his time in his residences, which the media very fittingly call bunkers. He is pathologically afraid for his life. He surrounds himself with an impenetrable barrier of quarantines and an information vacuum. He only values his own life and the lives of his family and friends. The lives of your family and friends are of no interest to him. By tearing men from their families and sending them to be slaughtered in sovereign Ukraine, he shows he does not care in the least about what is happening to our country and Ukraine, about the fact that he brings trouble, destruction, and death to the brotherly people of Ukraine and to us.

This is also destroying our country’s economy. It is not his children but our children who will have to live poorer lives. Many children will grow up without a father, but it doesn’t bother him at all. They bring him information in folders with beautiful pictures of the wonderful future we shall have. Well, I’m sure it will be so. Without Putin, when the war is over, it will be so.

I cannot believe that our citizens support this war. I’m sure they don’t. If it is the case with you, why are you silent? State it as loudly as you can, directly to the Kremlin, personally to Putin. The Constitution guarantees the right to peaceful assembly, rallies, and marches. Even if Putin stays in one of  his many bunkers, he would definitely be told that the people are against the war.

This criminal war should never have been started and should be ended as soon as possible. Life is the highest value. We have forgotten it in this country. People are considered cannon fodder.

This will continue to be the case as long as we remain silent. This war has to end and it is time to break the silence.

Ilia Rozhdestvenskii

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