A senior Russian security officer who defected last year has given rare insight into the paranoid lifestyle of Vladimir Putin, confirming details of a secret train network, identical offices in different cities, a strict personal quarantine and escalating security protocols.
Gleb Karakulov, who served as a captain in the Federal Protection Service (FSO), a powerful body tasked with protecting Russia’s highest-ranking officials, said the measures were designed to mask the whereabouts of the Russian president, whom he described as “pathologically afraid for his life”.
The 36-year-old said the train was used because it “cannot be tracked on any information resources. It’s done for stealth purposes.”
The Russian investigative outlet Proekt reported previously on the existence of the train and of a secret railway network including parallel lines and stations near Putin’s residences in Novo-Ogaryovo in the Moscow region, and near his Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
The Guardian has reviewed an interview with Karakulov by the Dossier Centre, a political information outfit founded by the exiled Russian billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and confirmed the credentials of the senior Russian communications engineer, who traveled with Putin extensively and helped transmit some of his most secret messages.
Karakulov was a member of the “field team” of the Presidential Communications Directorate that encrypts the messages of top Russian officials and it is estimated he had traveled on more than 180 trips with top officials. He appears to be the highest-ranking intelligence official to defect since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
In the interview, Karakulov called Putin a “war criminal” and told his fellow officers they should come forward with information being hidden from the Russian public.
“Our president has lost touch with the world,” he said. “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.”
Karakulov described a virtual state within a state that included firefighters, food testers and other engineers who traveled with Putin on his trips abroad, providing a rare first-hand insight into the levels of paranoia and sheltered lifestyle of the Russian president. “They call him the Boss, worship him in every way and only ever talk of him in those terms,” he said.
Karakulov also described setting up secret communications for Putin on planes, helicopters, lavish yachts and even in a bomb shelter at the Russian embassy in Kazakhstan during an October 2022 visit when Karakulov ultimately fled to Turkey and from there to an undisclosed country in the west.
He confirmed that Putin relies heavily for information on reports provided by his security services. Putin did not use a mobile phone or the internet, Karakulov said, and did not even bring an internet specialist with him on foreign trips. “He only receives information from his closest circle, which means that he lives in an information vacuum,” he said.
Putin is still in quarantine and requires all staff working in the same room as him to also undergo a two-week quarantine, severely limiting the number of people who have personal contact with him.
Karakulov said Putin used identical offices in St Petersburg, Sochi and Novo-Ogaryovo, and that the secret services used fake motorcades and decoy planes to pretend he was leaving. “This is a use to confuse foreign intelligence, in the first place, and secondly, to prevent any attempts on his life,” he said.
He said Putin’s behavior and lifestyle had changed significantly since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, when the president retreated from most travel and public appearances.
“He has shut himself off from the world,” Karakulov said. “His take on reality has become distorted.”
The interview did not provide information on what messages Karakulov had encrypted for Putin or other top officials, or more information on Putin’s preparations for the war or strategy.
Karakulov described his risky escape to the west during Putin’s visit to Kazakhstan. During the trip, his wife and daughter secretly flew to Astana. They postponed the defection several times until nearly the end of the trip, when Karakulov told his fellow officers he was feeling unwell and then fled with his family to the airport. The Dossier Center said Karakulov’s current whereabouts were unknown. The Guardian confirmed that Karakulov was listed as a wanted man in the Russian interior ministry’s public database of criminal suspects.
He claimed he had opposed the war on Ukraine since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, but had waited to persuade his wife to flee together as a family. He said he still didn’t speak with his parents, who were supporters of the war.
While the strict quarantine regime has fueled rumors that Putin may be seriously ill and worried about complications from the coronavirus, Karakulov said he had seen no indications that Putin was in poor health.