Elite Putin security officer Gleb Karakulov, who defected, says the Russian president is 'a war criminal' (2024)

On October 14, a Russian engineer named Gleb Karakulov boarded a flight from Kazakhstan to Turkey with his wife and daughter.

Key points:

  • Mr Karakulov was responsible for setting up secure communications for Mr Putin wherever he went
  • He said moral opposition to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and his fear of dying there drove him to speak out
  • Mr Putinprefers to avoid airplanes and travel on a special armoured train

He switched off his phone to shut out the crescendo of urgent, enraged messages, said goodbye to his life in Russia and tried to calm his fast-beating heart.

But this was no ordinary Russian defector. Mr Karakulov was an officer in President Vladimir Putin's secretive elite personal security service — one of the few Russiansto flee and go public who have rank, as well as knowledge of intimate details of Mr Putin's life and potentially classified information.

Mr Karakulov, who was responsible for secure communications, said moral opposition to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and his fear of dying there drove him to speak out, despite the risks to himself and his family.

He said he hoped to inspire other Russians to speak out also.

"Our president has become a war criminal," he said. "It is time to end this war and stop being silent."

Mr Karakulov's account generally conforms with others that paint the Russian president as a once charismatic but increasingly isolated leader, who doesn't use a mobile phone or the internet and insists on access to Russian state television wherever he goes.

He also offered new details about how Mr Putin's paranoia appears to have deepened since his decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022.

Mr Putin now prefers to avoid aeroplanes and travel on a special armoured train, he said, and he ordered a bunker at the Russian Embassy in Kazakhstan outfitted with a secure communications line in October — the first time Mr Karakulov had ever fielded such a request.

Elite Putin security officer Gleb Karakulov, who defected, says the Russian president is 'a war criminal' (1)

Along with information on Mr Putin, Mr Karakulov's testimony offers an intimate view of one man's decision to defect — without telling his own mother, who he said remains a strong Putin supporter.

It raises critical questions about how deep the Russian public's acceptance of the war runs, and how Mr Putin's opponents in the West and beyond might leverage any silent opposition.

While not speaking directly about his case, an official with a security background from a NATO country said a defection like Mr Karakulov's "has a very great level of interest". He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive political matters.

"That would be seen as a very serious blow to the president himself because he is extremely keen on his security, and his security is compromised," he said.

"That's something that he would be very unhappy about —particularly if the compromise is to do with communications, upon which a great deal relies."

Putin is 'simply afraid'

Elite Putin security officer Gleb Karakulov, who defected, says the Russian president is 'a war criminal' (2)

As an engineer in a field unit of the presidential communications department of the Federal Protective Service, or FSO, Mr Karakulov was responsible for setting up secure communications for the Russian president and prime minister wherever they went.

While he was not a confidant of Mr Putin, Mr Karakulov spent years in his service, observing him from unusually close quarters from 2009 through late 2022.

Mr Karakulov, his wife and his child have gone underground, and it was impossible to speak with them directly due to security constraints.

The Dossier Center, a London-based investigative group funded by Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky, interviewed Mr Karakulov multiple times and shared video and transcripts of more than six hours of those interviews with The Associated Press.

The Dossier Center confirmed the authenticity of Mr Karakulov’s passport and FSO work identity card, and cross-checked details of his biography against Russian government records, leaked personal data and social media postings.

Mr Karakulov is listed as a wanted man in the Russian Interior Ministry's public database of criminal suspects.

The Interior Ministry initiated a criminal investigation against Mr Karakulov on October26 for desertion during a time of military mobilisation, according to documents obtained by the Dossier Center and seen by the AP.

The FSO is one of the most secretive branches of Russia's security services.

"Even when they quit, they never talk, but they know a lot of details of the private life of the President and the Prime Minister," said Katya Hakim, a senior researcher at the Dossier Center.

The Kremlin did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Elite Putin security officer Gleb Karakulov, who defected, says the Russian president is 'a war criminal' (3)

Mr Karakulov moved as part of an advanced team, often with enough specialised communications equipment to fill a truck.

He said he hadtaken more than 180 trips with the Russian president, and contrary to widespread speculation, Mr Putin appearedto be in better shape than most people his age.

Unlike the prime minister, Mr Putin does not require secure internet access on his trips, Mr Karakulov said.

"In all my service, I have never seen him with a mobile phone," he said.

"All the information he receives is only from people close to him. That is, he lives in a kind of information vacuum."

Mr Karakulov's work brought him to luxury hotels for summits, beach resorts in Cuba, yachts — and aboard a special armoured train outfitted for the Russian president.

Mr Putin's train looks like any other, painted grey with a red stripe to blend in with other railway carriages in Russia.

Mr Putin didn't like the fact that planes could be tracked, preferring the stealth of a nondescript train car, Mr Karakulov said.

"I understand that he's simply afraid," he said.

Mr Putin has set up identical offices in multiple locations, with matching details down to the desk and wall hangings, and official reports sometimes say he's in one place when he is actually in another, according to Mr Karakulov and prior reporting by a Russian media outlet.

When Mr Putin was in Sochi, security officials would deliberately pretend he was leaving, bringing in a plane and sending off a motorcade, when he was in fact staying, Mr Karakulov said.

"The guys would talk about this, really laughing," he said.

"I think that this is an attempt to confuse, first, intelligence, and second, so that there are no assassination attempts."

Something crazy and terrible is happening

Born in Dagestan, Mr Karakulov was raised to be ready for war, believing it was his sacred duty to defend his homeland.

After graduating from a military academy, he found his way into the FSO.

"To be close to the President — it sounded pretty cool," he said.

Mr Karakulov's job introduced him to a world beyond his family.

Even as his father and brother marched in patriotic military parades, his own doubts deepened.

"Thanks to my work in the FSO, I have seen how information is distorted," he said.

He also began to question the conspicuous spending of Russia's top leaders.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine was a breaking point, he said. He told his wife he wanted out.

He didn't want their young daughter brainwashed in preschool, where children were doing patriotic salutes and being told about bombs.

With Russia's mobilisation drive in September, Mr Karakulov realised that if he quit his job, he was likely to be drafted into a war he didn't want to fight. But even if he stayed, he could get sent to the front.

He learned that some of his colleagues had been dispatched to Ukraine and killed. He saw photos of FSO crews destroyed by Ukrainian rockets, with dozens likely dead.

He was outraged that no-one in Russia acknowledged those deaths.

Elite Putin security officer Gleb Karakulov, who defected, says the Russian president is 'a war criminal' (4)

In October, a series of official meetings in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, gave Mr Karakulov his chance to run away.

He and his wife packed their lives into three suitcases. He flew out on October 6 with the rest of his team. His wife and daughter joined two days later, staying in a separate hotel.

On the last day of the delegation, his wife collected his suitcase from his hotel room to avoid raising suspicion. He slipped away after lunch, telling colleagues that he was heading out to buy souvenirs.

He climbed in a taxi with his wife and daughter and set off for the airport.

He got through check-in and started getting messages from colleagues asking where he was.

The flight was delayed by an hour. He could feel a distant fury building against him.

"You scumbag," read one message.

When they finally cleared passport control in Türkiye, Mr Karakulov said it was like a great stone had fallen from his soul.

He said he knows many people will accuse him of being unpatriotic, but he disagrees.

"Patriotism is when you love your country," he said.

"In this case, our homeland needs to be saved, because something crazy and terrible is happening in our country. We need to fix this."

The price of dissent

What the future holds for Mr Karakulov — and anyone who might dare to follow in his footsteps — is far from clear.

He was not the only one who wanted out.

On September27, days after Russia's mobilisation, an engineer at a regional FSO centre in Siberia named Mikhail Zhilin snuck through the forest across the border to Kazakhstan.

Many Russians fled to Kazakhstan to avoid the draft, but the authorities refused Mr Zhilin's request for asylum and sent him back to Russia.

On March 20, a Russian court sentenced him to six-and-a-half years in a penal colony.

Abbas Gallyamov, a Russian political analyst now living in Israel who was a speechwriter for Mr Putin from 2000 to 2001 and again from 2008 to 2010, said he believedthe majority of Russia's elites secretly opposed the war.

Elite Putin security officer Gleb Karakulov, who defected, says the Russian president is 'a war criminal' (5)

He added that if the West had offered them an exit strategy instead of sanctions, more might have left.

"They are all shocked," he said. "From their point of view, there was no reason to do this because everything was okay … now all of a sudden, everything collapsed. We're enemies of the world."

Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Russian public opinion about the war wasdivided but there was little space for public dissent, especially for people working within the system.

"The rule is that the elite stick to Putin," she said.


Elite Putin security officer Gleb Karakulov, who defected, says the Russian president is 'a war criminal' (2024)


Where is Gleb Karakulov now? ›

He was responsible for establishing secure communications for the Russian president and prime minister. On 14 October 2022, Karakulov flew with his wife and daughter to Turkey. He is in hiding with his family, and is one of the highest-ranking Russians to defect over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Who are Vladimir Putin's bodyguards? ›

The three most prominent members of this clique — Viktor Zolotov, Oleg Klimentiev, and Alexei Dyumin — can be seen flanking Putin on an official trip to Helsinki in a 1999 television report.

What agency protects the Russian president? ›

The Presidential Security Service (SBP) (Russian: Служба безопасности президента России) is a federal government agency concerned with the tasks related to the protection of the President of Russia and the Prime Minister of Russia with their respective families and residences.

Who is the head of the Russian Security Council? ›

Vladimir PutinChairman of the Security Council (as president of Russia, ex officio)
Dmitry MedvedevDeputy Chairman of the Security Council
Sergei ShoiguSecretary of the Security Council
Mikhail MishustinChairman of the Government
9 more rows

Has Gleb ever been in the finale? ›

For season 27, Savchenko was paired with comedian Nikki Glaser. They were the first couple to be eliminated from the competition, finishing in 13th place. For season 28, Savchenko was paired with country music singer Lauren Alaina. They reached the finals and finished in 4th place.

Has Gleb ever won the Mirrorball? ›

LOS ANGELES -- "Dancing with the Stars" dance professional Gleb Savchenko has appeared on 11 seasons of the show, yet he still hasn't brought home the Len Goodman Mirrorball Trophy.

How much do president bodyguards make? ›

How much does a President Bodyguard make? As of May 28, 2024, the average annual pay for a President Bodyguard in the United States is $186,961 a year. Just in case you need a simple salary calculator, that works out to be approximately $89.89 an hour. This is the equivalent of $3,595/week or $15,580/month.

Does Vladimir have a wife? ›

What is Putin's car? ›

The Russian presidential state car is the official state car of the President of Russia. The current presidential state car is an Aurus Senat limousine, which replaced a Mercedes-Benz S 600 Guard Pullman.

What is the KGB called now? ›

The failed coup d'état and the collapse of the USSR heralded the end of the KGB on 3 December 1991. The KGB's modern day successors are the FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) and the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service).

Who protects the Kremlin? ›

The Kremlin Regiment (Russian: Кремлёвский полк, romanized: Kremlyovskiy polk), also called the Presidential Regiment (Russian: Президентский полк, romanized: Prezidentskiy polk), is a unique military regiment and part of the Russian Federal Protective Service with the status of a special unit.

Who controls the Russian army? ›

'Rosguard'), is the national gendarmerie and internal military force of the Russian Federation. It is an independent agency that reports directly to the President of Russia, currently Vladimir Putin, under his powers as Commander in Chief of the Russian Armed Forces and Chairman of the Russian Security Council.

What is the head of the KGB called? ›

The chairman of the KGB was the head of the Soviet KGB. He was assisted by one or two first deputy chairmen, and four to six deputy chairmen.

Who is the head of the Russian Secret Service? ›

Sergey Naryshkin

Who are the permanent members of the United Nations? ›

Five permanent members: China, France, Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and ten non-permanent members elected for two-year terms by the General Assembly (with end of term year):

Is Gleb from Dancing with the Stars in a relationship? ›

The 40-year-old 'Dancing with the Stars' professional has confirmed he is single again after the pair parted ways last month.

What happened to Gleb Savchenko? ›

Savchenko was previously married to Elena Samodanova, with whom he shares two daughters, between 2006 and 2020. Following their split, he moved on with Elena Belle and they were together for three years. Savchenko and Belle, 39, split in April.

Are Gleb and Elena still married? ›

Prior to this relationship, Gleb was married to Elena Samodanova, before the two ended their 14-year marriage in 2020. Together, they share children Olivia and Zlata.

Does Gleb Savchenko have kids? ›

Elena and Gleb are parents to daughters, Olivia, 11, and Zlata, four. "I have facilitated visits when [Savchenko] is in Los Angeles and has the time to see our children as his schedule allows. I will continue to do so," she stated in the court documents, seen by People.

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