Former security guard’s defection opens a window on Putin’s Ukraine war

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Russian President Vladimir Putin gets his information from intelligence reports and does not use a handheld device for communications, according to a former Federal Guard Service engineer who recently defected from Russia.

Gleb Karakulov told a Russian dissident group that he left the president’s secret service because of his opposition to the war in Ukraine, which Mr. Putin launched in February 2022.

“The Russian president is a war criminal,” Mr. Karakulov said in an interview with the Dossier Center, a group affiliated with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled opponent of Mr. Putin.

It could not be learned where Mr. Karakulov is now located or which foreign government has given him refuge. A U.S. official with access to intelligence declined to comment on the defector, and the Dossier Center did not respond to a request for information about Mr. Karakulov.

A Russian official in his position would almost certainly have access to valuable insider intelligence on the methods Russian leaders use to communicate, as well as Mr. Putin’s personal security.

The defector worked until mid-October as a captain in the presidential communications directorate of the guard service. His work involved setting up and encrypting communications links used by Mr. Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.

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Mr. Karakulov fled the guard service during a trip to Astana, Kazakhstan, with his wife and daughter. The family flew by commercial airliner to Istanbul.

Dossier Center analysts spent 10 hours in conversation with Mr. Karakulov and posted an hourlong interview with him on the center’s website. Most of the interview focused on the defector’s disenchantment with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and his escape from the service.

Mr. Karakulov also provided insights into how Mr. Putin keeps in touch with aides and allies and his travel and security, as well as his personal life.

Russian intelligence, which is believed to have poisoned defector Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and attempted to kill former Russian military intelligence agent Sergei Skripal 12 years later, has a history of going after those who leave the fold for the West.

Mr. Karakulov said he is concerned about his personal security and fears similar retaliation by Russian intelligence.

“They are not running after me with Novichok yet,” he said, “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?’”

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Novichok is the nerve agent used in the attempted assassination of the Skripals and in a separate assassination attempt against imprisoned Russian political opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Sensitive details

Mr. Karakulov also disclosed sensitive details of the Federal Guard Service methods used to protect Mr. Putin, including technicians for his video conferences, special chefs who cook his food and inspectors who run a center in charge of food safety.

Mr. Putin also uses “bomb shelters” — underground bunkers at his residences and at Russian embassies — on his travels beyond the Kremlin’s walls.

“It is a kind of paranoia,” Mr. Karakulov said. “What else is a bomb shelter for? I take it that, yes, he’s simply afraid.”

All of Mr. Putin’s offices are outfitted with identical furniture and equipment, and he favors the one at Valdai, about 250 miles northeast of Moscow. Other presidential offices near Moscow are in Novo-Ogaryovo, and in St. Petersburg and Sochi.

Mr. Putin is known to mask his travel by sending off an official-looking motorcade and aircraft.

“This is a ruse to confuse foreign intelligence, in the first place, and secondly, to prevent any attempts on his life,” Mr. Karakulov said.

Mr. Karakulov said his work involved installing secure communications in jets, helicopters, yachts and a special train Mr. Putin uses for covert travel.

“It’s a train for the president,” he said. “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 — gray with a red stripe. … It’s done for stealth purposes.”

Train travel is less conspicuous because foreign spy services track aircraft easily, he said, and Mr. Putin has increased train travel since the start of the Ukraine war.

Mr. Putin employs a secure telephone booth for communications to avoid electronic interception of his talks.

The Russian leader is always surrounded by security personnel and is known by guards as “The Boss,” he said.

Mr. Putin has an assistant who travels with him and oversees internet monitoring, a laptop computer and access to communications networks, he said. The Russian leader, it turns out, is something of a technophobe.

“[Putin] 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,” Mr. Karakulov said. Most of his information on the war and the outside world is supplied in secret intelligence reports.

Mr. Putin watches Russian television and requires access to Moscow TV channels whenever he travels. To avoid infection, all guards and officials who interact with Mr. Putin must undergo a strict two-week period of quarantine.

Russian presidential guards, the defector revealed, operate their own firefighter service.

“Absolutely all aspects of the president’s work as the highest government official are the responsibility of the FGS,” he said, using the acronym for the guard service.

The private Putin

Addressing Western reports that Mr. Putin is terminally ill and has an exaggerated fear of diseases such as COVID-19, Mr. Karakulov said Mr. Putin, 70, appears to be in good health except for problems related to his age, he said.

Mr. Putin has two daughters who also are protected by the FGS and live in the same residence as the Russian leader, who is said to be cohabiting with longtime mistress Alina Kabaeva, Mr. Karakulov said. Mr. Putin also has a daughter from his relationship with another mistress, Svetlana Krivonogikh, he said.

The Russian leader also has lavish residences, one of which Mr. Karakulov described as a “palace,” in St. Petersburg and Sochi.

Mr. Putin owns a 459-foot yacht named Scheherazade, Mr. Karakulov said, confirming reports of the residences and yacht first disclosed by Mr. Navalny.

The president uses about 20 yachts, some of which are owned privately and others that are owned by Mr. Putin’s presidential office, he said.

“These are well-furnished two- or three-deck yachts. Lavishly decorated,” Mr. Karakulov said.

The defector said Mr. Putin appears to be a different man from the one he knew in 2009 and the war in Ukraine has brought even more personality changes.

“These are two different people,” he said. “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 21st 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 [Ukraine] war to happen.”

Mr. Putin, he said, has lost touch with the world and is living in an information cocoon.

Mr. Karakulov ended the interview by urging his fellow FSG officers to reveal more internal information about Russia’s leader.

“Come forward, support me [with more evidence]. You will help our citizens to learn the truth,” he said. “Invasion of the territory of a sovereign state is simply beyond comprehension.”

Mr. Karakulov said he expected his defection to bring accusations that he is unpatriotic, but he argued that the charge was misplaced.

“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,” he said.

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