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Putin security service officer who defected describes president as ‘war criminal’

Russia's President Vladimir Putin. (Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS/Abaca Press/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

An officer with the Kremlin’s bodyguard agency who defected last year over his opposition to the Ukraine invasion provided intimate details about Russian President Vladimir Putin to a London-based investigative group, describing him as “paranoid” and calling him a “war criminal.”

The defector, Gleb Karakulov, was a captain in the Federal Protective Service (FSO) at the time of his defection in October. He told the Dossier Center group that he was able to defect on October 14 after a business trip to Kazakhstan on which his wife and daughter accompanied him. On the last day of the trip, the trio flew to Istanbul with no intention of ever returning to Russia.

The Dossier Center, which is funded by Russian opposition figure and Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, shared more than 10 hours of recordings and transcripts of several interviews it had conducted with Karakulov since his defection with media outlets and for the first time published details on April 4 revealing his comments.

“Our president has become a war criminal,” he said. “It’s time to end this war and stop being silent.”

Karakulov worked as an engineer in the department that provided secret communications for Putin and was responsible for setting up secure communications for the Russian president wherever he went. While he was not a confidant of Putin, Karakulov spent years in his service, observing him from 2009 through late 2022 on more than 180 trips abroad.

Karakulov said his main reason for leaving was the the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, launched in February 2022. He said that, after the invasion, he “simply could not be in the service of this president.”

In the interviews, he compared the Putin he observed in 2009 with the current president of Russia as “two different people,” comments that tally with what others have said.

“Now he is very closed. He has protected himself from the whole world with all sorts of barriers, the same quarantine, the lack of information. His perception of reality has been distorted,” he said.

One of the details he provided was that the Russian president does not use a mobile phone or the Internet.

“All the information he receives is only from people who are directly close. He lives in a kind of information vacuum,” said Karakulov.

He said that people who work in the same room with Putin still must endure a two-week quarantine, though he said he did not know whether Putin is seriously ill amid speculation from some observers that the Russian leader may be in deteriorating health.

Karakulov also offered new details about Putin’s paranoia, including that he prefers to avoid airplanes and travel on a special armored train. He said Putin ordered the construction of a bunker at the Russian Embassy in Kazakhstan outfitted with a secure communications line in October.

The Dossier Center said Karakulov is the highest-ranking intelligence official to defect since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It added that it had cross-referenced the details of his biography against Russian government records and other open sources to confirm his passport and FSO work identity card. The FSO is essentially the Russian equivalent to the U.S. Secret Service.

The Associated Press, one of the media outlets with which the Dossier Center shared its information about Karakulov, said it independently confirmed Karakulov’s identity with three sources in the United State and Europe, while also corroborating his personal details.

A desertion case has been opened against him in Russia, according to the news outlets that reported on the Dossier Center’s interviews with Karakulov.

The Kremlin did not respond to requests for comment, according to AP. The news agency said it could not speak directly to Karakulov because he and his family have gone into hiding for safety concerns.

A defection like Karakulov’s “has a very great level of interest,” said an official with a security background from a NATO country, who spoke to AP 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.