One of Putin’s bodyguards defects abroad — exclusive NV interview
Half a year ago, Gleb Karakulov was a captain in the Federal Protective Service (FSO) of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. He worked as an engineer providing secure communications for the Kremlin’s despot (Photo:dossier.center)
Half a year ago, Gleb Karakulov was a captain in the Federal Protective Service (FSO) of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. He worked as an engineer providing secure communications for the Kremlin’s despot.
In mid-October 2022, Karakulov fled from Kazakhstan while Putin was visiting the capital of Astana.
Karakulov is the most senior intelligence officer to have fled Russia and denounced the war since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine,. As a result, a criminal case has been brought against him in Russia for desertion.
Ilya Rozhdestvensky from the Russian project Dossier Center interviewed Karakulov in December 2022. Rozhdestvensky gave an interview to Radio NV about the details of Putin’s life he managed to learn.
NV: I want to ask you about Gleb Karakulov. How did you find him?
Rozhdestvensky: We found him when he escaped from Astana. On the last day of his trip with Vladimir Putin, he fled Kazakhstan, boarded a plane, and flew to Istanbul. He wanted to convey his opposition to the war to the widest possible audience — to the people of Russia, his colleagues in the FSO, and other military officers. So he wrote to various media outlets, trying to get his message out, to say that the war is a crime and what Vladimir Putin is doing is terrible.
The Dossier Center was connected with Mr. Karakulov by human rights activists from the Avtozak LIVE project, for which we are very grateful. Then we helped him with this interview to convey his position.
NV: The Dossier Center staff reportedly spent 10 hours with him. I understand that your conversation was part of this. What impression did he make on you?
Rozhdestvensky: We spent quite a lot of time with him, speaking several times in November and December 2022 for a total of over 10 hours. We must admit that during this time we rather liked him. And as a human being, I probably even sympathize with him.
He said that his motivation partly stemmed from having a small child, a daughter who is now three or four years old. And he does not want her to grow up in a country at war, where children are turned into zombies. As a young father myself, his concern for his child resonated with me.
Of course, we did not take his words completely on faith. We checked absolutely everything he said. We checked every detail of his story, checked his documents, and verified his biographical details using various databases, social networks, and a variety of other sources. And before publishing all this, we conducted a full fact check. I've been doing this for several weeks. Now we are sure that what he said is true and that he is speaking sincerely.
NV: He talks about how his colleagues from the Federal Security Service feel about the war. There are several rather vivid quotes of them discussing the details of what is happening in Ukraine. Why didn't he come to the same conclusion as his colleagues that this was just “not his business?”
Rozhdestvensky: He talks about this at the beginning of the interview. On February 24, he sat utterly dumbfounded and in shock. He did not expect that there would be a full-scale invasion. It was a turning point for him. At that moment, he had already decided for himself that everything was over with this work.
In addition, he says that he served for 13 years in the FSO, one of the most insular Russian special services, perhaps even more closed than the notorious FSB. During his service, he saw many things that made him doubt official state positions. He saw things that made him realize that the state was doing something wrong.
He saw the referendum in Crimea in 2014. He believes that its results were fictitious. The population of Crimea was not going to vote that way, and they were not rushing to become part of Russia, as it was drawn up on paper. He saw corruption by the Russian state, with incredible amounts of money spent on officials' private lives, including Vladimir Putin. In principle, he was already ready for the fact that this work had to be gradually ended.
He thought he would see himself through until retirement. Military members don’t have to wait very long before retirement in Russia. He had, as he says, only two years left. And he is almost my age. He is now 34 and will soon be 35.
In any case, February 24 last year was a turning point for him, and he decided that he needed to end his service then and there. He then tried to convince his wife that the time had come. Finally, they came to an understanding of what their plan of action would be. Then the government declared mobilization, so he would have gone to the front if he had just quit. And so he came to this escape.
Maybe he is now in a little more danger than if he had just remained as an officer of the FSO, if he had continued to perform his official duties.
On the other hand, he says in this interview, his lower-ranking colleagues, who are from the regional divisions rather than the central office of the FSO, have been sent to war to run secret communications for the generals and command staff of the Russian army.
On one of his last trips to Russia, he says his colleagues showed him photographs of destroyed special communications systems and their destroyed crews. His FSO colleagues have died in this war. So there is probably not a zero probability that he could have been in their place at some point.
NV: At the same time, we see that the security men around Karakulov idolize Putin, call him the boss, repeat propaganda clichés, and talk about how happy they are about what is happening. Where does the security forces' loyalty to Putin come from?
Rozhdestvensky: The Russian state has been working for many years to increase loyalty among the ordinary population, ordinary citizens, and especially among those in power structures like law enforcement agencies and military structures. And the FSO is a military structure.
There are a few points here. On the one hand, propaganda has been working for years. Free media have been banned in Russia for years, leaving only state-controlled publications — mainly federal television – as the only source of information.
On the other hand, these structures are quite selective. In this situation, it’s a rather negative sort of selection. Selected military personnel are ready to carry out orders and obey the authorities, who are themselves subordinate to Vladimir Putin. They do not question the orders of these authorities, and do whatever they are told.
But there is another crucial point. It seems to me that when the people of the FSO — which has dealt exclusively with Putin for over 20 years — communicate with each other, they cannot afford much frankness.
Thus it was with Mr. Karakulov. Despite the fact that he was so sure of his opposition to the war that he risked his life and those of his family members and abandoned everything they had in Moscow to run away to nowhere, he never mentioned that he was against the war to any of his colleagues. He could not afford such frankness.
I think that even if some of his colleagues do not support this war, they cannot allow anyone to talk about it. At best, they will simply be fired and deprived of all possible material benefits. Worse, they will be put before a tribunal, a court-martial, and more. There are now many laws in Russia that allow you to lock up a person for a very long time.
Therefore, he says that the mood in the FSO is gung-ho, jingoistic, and z-patriotic. But we must make some allowance for the fact that people cannot be frank with their colleagues in this organization.
NV: Russia has already launched an app called Moy Donos (My Denunciation) for completely anonymous denunciations. Why did I talk about the security forces, that even in the smoking room, they do not discuss any oppositional thoughts? We heard very different things from that private conversation between music producer Iosif Prigozhin and Azeri-Russian businessman Farhad Akhmedov. Can we imagine that in their kitchens, these FSO officers are actually telling the whole truth?
Rozhdestvensky: Perhaps, but it is impossible to guess what percentage of intelligence officers can do this, or which of them are ready for more decisive action like leaving the country, speaking out after their escape, or making an attempt on Putin. And that is if there even are such people, or if there are those murmuring amongst themselves that the war is a crime and should never have happened.
NV: At some point, you discuss the most burning topic with Mr. Karakulov: rumors about Putin's fatal illnesses. What does he say about this?
Rozhdestvensky: Karakulov tells us many things which we had known only by indirect evidence, or based only on anonymous sources, or which we did not know.
For example, he confirms that Vladimir Putin has palaces and he has a relationship with Alina Kabaeva. I won’t spoil the rest, so your listeners can watch the interview on our YouTube channel.
There are a lot of rumors about Vladimir Putin’s health — that he is terminally ill, that he has back problems, and that doctors constantly trail him. Karakulov offers only indirect evidence on the state of Putin’s health, but it is nonetheless very important.
Karakulov worked in an FSO field unit. He worked on providing special communications for the president during travel. For 13 years, Karakulov took more than 180 of these trips with the FSO. In 13 years, one or two of these trips have been altered by Putin being ill. Perhaps they ran back-to-back.
Accordingly, we can assume that Vladimir Putin is actually as healthy as a horse. Because if a person falls ill just once or twice in 13 years, then we can only be envious of his health.
In addition, Karakulov tells us that Vladimir Putin regularly undergoes medical examinations. About once a year, he goes to the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow. There, he undergoes a full examination. The conclusion from this is very simple: his health appears to be better than that of most people his age, and there appears to be no basis to believe he will soon leave us for natural reasons.
NV: Karakulov confirmed that he had never seen Putin with a mobile phone, that he does not use the Internet, and that everything is brought to him in folders. Access to three or four Russian television channels is mandatory anywhere he is hosted. From this, we can also draw the rather unsurprising conclusion that he lives in a fantasy land and believes what is broadcast by Russian propaganda. He gets confirmation from what he sees on Russian television, which he never goes anywhere without.
Rozhdestvensky: Yes. He focuses on analytical notes and reports that intelligence officers — perhaps Karakulov’s own colleagues – bring him. And, yes, he may not be the only viewer of several Russian federal TV channels, but he is the most important one.
According to Karakulov, Putin lives in an information vacuum. He has been in constant quarantine for more than three years. People sit in isolation for several weeks for a 10-minute appointment with him. He constantly moves between his residences as discreetly as possible using an armored train.
His entourage was never large, but it has become even narrower. There are fewer and fewer people in his orbit. He is guided by the words of literally a few of his closest adviser friends and what is sent to him by the special services, which, of course, want to look as good as possible in his words. And then, after reading these reports from the special services, he listens to speeches on Russian federal television channels, which are also dictated by what Russian officials broadcast from above to national television.
Yes, he is in an information vacuum. He lives in his own world.
NV: Karakulov has a message for his colleagues, calling upon them to share information. There have been several people from various elements of Russian authority that have spoken out. What do you think we will be able to see in the next year from the security forces?
Rozhdestvensky: To be an editor at Channel One like Marina Ovsyannikova or a banker and oppose the war is significantly easier. Being just anyone and speaking out against the war, even working for the Russian state before, is much easier and safer than being a Russian security official and speaking out against the war.
The Russian state has a very special approach to law enforcement officers, especially to employees of military departments and special services. They are perceived as traitors. They can be hunted down worldwide with ice axes, and in modern times with vials of Novichok poison. And then they smear whole British cities with Novichok poison.
This is the reason why the interview is coming out only now, even though it took place at the end of last year. All these months, we waited for him to be able to hide, to hide his family, so as not to become the subject of tragic news.
Thus, one should not expect much from Russian law enforcement agencies. I assume that there is some — likely a tiny — percentage of them who oppose Russian aggression in Ukraine. But we shouldn’t expect them to start fleeing or giving interviews en masse and urging their colleagues to follow them in opposing Putin.
Karakulov is not only calling upon people to “speak up and complete my story.” He is saying, “Go to Putin and stop this war.” I partly see this as him suggesting that they take a forceful approach to solving this issue and kill the president. You could see it that way.
But overall, it seems that we can hardly expect other Russian special services and law enforcement agency employees to behave the same way as Karakulov. For them, the threshold to exit from this story and the price of this escape is very high. They could simply be killed, and in a rather cruel and harsh way. Revenge would be taken not only on them, but also on their relatives. It is unlikely that many of them are ready for such sacrifices. But let's hope for the best.
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