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Russia, we have a defector!
Plus, a #YachtWatch confirmation
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ALEX’S WEEKLY RANT
Russian intelligence officers are dedicated, I’ll give them that.
Recently, I ranted about a number of Russian deep-cover “illegals” who had gone off the radar, including a Greek woman who owned a knitting shop in Athens. Their disappearance was possibly precipitated by the arrest of two of their colleagues, a married couple living in Slovenia posing as Argentinians. It was recently discovered that the “Greek” woman (actually a Russian illegal) was married to another Russian illegal, living as a Brazilian in Brazil. While these two real Russians were married to each other, their fake personas carried on separate romantic lives. Both were apparently involved in long-term relationships as their fake selves. And now they have fled, likely back to Russia.
Needless to say, they have left a trail of devastation in their wake. “She is really scared of this situation and hurt by all the pain of having an abrupt cut-off in a relationship that was perfect in her eyes,” a friend of the girlfriend of the fake Brazilian told The Guardian.
It certainly shows dedication to the mission. But it also shows a touch of indoctrination. I mean, this isn’t the same as living in alias for a few months. This is living as a different person for years and years, but sneaking off for a romantic rendezvous every now and then with your actual spouse. I wonder if they get upset if they call each other the wrong name? In fact, which named do they call each other? Probably best to stick with a generic endearment, like “Dear.” I also wonder how that relationship will fare now that they are forced to live together in Russia, without the thrill of the super secret mission between them.
Anyway, my point here is: the dedication and indoctrination run deep.
So, when someone defects, it’s kind of a big deal. Not just because of the risk they took, but because they were able to see through the bullshit. Particularly since (as we discuss in my Foreign Influence Operations course) so much of Russia’s information operations are aimed at an internal audience to help Vladimir Putin stay in power.
Gleb Karakulov is a big deal
Gleb Karakulov saw through the bullshit and defected. And lucky for us (less lucky for Putin), he was a captain in the Federal Guard Service, the group that provides protection for Russia’s highest-ranked individuals. Among Karakulov’s duties was arranging secure communications for Putin himself. Last October, he joined the Russian president and his entourage for a work trip to Astana, Kazakhstan. Unbeknownst to his colleagues, Karakulov’s wife and daughter also went to Astana. The three of them then fled to Turkey.
In an interview with the Dossier Center, Karakulov explained how he could not support Putin’s war in Ukraine. Despite being set to retire in less that two years, Karakulov said, “I was not ready to make deals with my conscience while doing my job.” He added, “I consider him [Putin] 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.”
Karakulov told the Dossier Center he knew on February 24, 2022, the day of Putin’s invasion, that he had to quit, and that quitting would require defecting, otherwise he would likely end up mobilized and sent to the front. He confided in his wife, but no one else. His family and colleagues, he said, relished the violence against Ukraine that was shown on TV. “There was this savoring,” he said, about people watching live broadcasts from the trenches. He realized no one, not even his mother, could be trusted.
The information bubble
Interestingly, Karakulov credited his work with the FGS for his ability to see through the media manipulation and propaganda in Russia. “I have seen how information is distorted” he said. “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.”
He went on to explain how a trip to Crimea in 2014 “fundamentally changed [his] perception.” That March, a (rigged) referendum had shown 97% of voters in Crimea voted to make Crimea part of Russia.
“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.”
Putin, on the other hand, seems to have his eyes wide shut. “He has shut himself off from the world with all kinds of barriers, the quarantine, the information vacuum,” Karakulov said. “His take on reality has become distorted.”
That’s interesting, but give me the gossip!
Karakulov provides some fascinating insights into the rarefied air around Putin.
While it is no surprise that someone tests Putin’s food, I did not know the group responsible for that is called the Biological Safety Center, which is part of the Federal Guard Service.
Katerina Tikhonova, one of Putin’s adult daughters, is protected by an FGS officer, according to Karakulov. She also vacations at the same time and in the same residence as her daddy. A fun fact about Tikhonova we already knew but is always fun to repeat: similar to her stepmom, Alina Kabayeva—whom I wrote about here and who is three years Tikhonova’s junior—Tikhonova was an acrobatic gymnast. She and her partner once came in fifth place in the world championship of this non-Olympic sport. You can see a video of her doing her sport here. Another fun random fact: Putin’s other adult daughter, Maria Vorontsova, is an expert in dwarfism.
Putin has three identical offices, one each in St. Petersburg, Sochi, and Novo-Ogaryovo. “There were times when I knew he was in Sochi,” Karakulov said. “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.’…This is a ruse to confuse foreign intelligence, in the first place, and secondly, to prevent any attempts on his life.”
A #YachtWatch confirmation!
In May of last year, Italian authorities detained the yacht Scheherazade, which is believed to belong to Putin himself. Karakulov, who helped install special communications on presidential planes, helicopters, yachts, and trains, said of Scheherazade: “I have no doubts…that it is his yacht.” He said he based his conclusion on the crew list that Alexey Navalny’s team managed to get, which lists several members of the Presidential Protective Service.
One of the things that helped push Karakulov to his wit’s end was witnessing exorbitant spending by higher ups, including stays at five-star hotels and “private programs” allowing VIP officials to make a brief public appearance but then essentially enjoy a lavish vacation with public funds. “[I]t’s outright corruption,” he said.
This guy gets it
The interview with Karkulov ends with a message from him to Russian citizens. I am putting his entire response here, because I think he touches on so many important points.
“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.”
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THE WEEK’S LINKS
A roundup of stories you should be reading
(Note: I reserve the right to rant in depth about any of these at a future date)
AMERICA LOSING ITS MIND
US INTELLIGENCE LEAKS
Leaker of US secret documents worked on military base, friend says (The Washington Post)
HOW THE ULTRA-WEALTHY SCREW THE REST OF US
YOUR FEEL-GOOD STORY OF THE WEEK
Alex Finley is a former officer of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, where she served in West Africa and Europe. She writes and teaches about terrorism, disinformation / covert influence, and oligarch yachts. Her writing has appeared in Slate, Reductress, Funny or Die, POLITICO, The Center for Public Integrity, and other publications. She has spoken to the BBC, MSNBC, CNN, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, France24, and numerous other media outlets. She was also invited once to speak at Harvard, which she now tells everyone within the first ten seconds of meeting them. She is the author of the Victor Caro series, satirical novels about the CIA. Before joining the CIA, Alex was a journalist, covering Capitol Hill, the Pentagon, and the Department of Energy. She reported on issues related to national security, intelligence, and homeland security. Did she mention she was invited to speak at Harvard?