A former officer in President Vladimir Putin’s elite security unit has defected, labeling the Russian leader a paranoid “war criminal” who has lost his grip on reality.
Gleb Karakulov said he served as a captain and engineer in a field unit of the presidential communications department, the Federalnaya Sluzhba Okhrany (FSO) or Federal Protective Service, one of the most secretive branches of Russia’s security services.
In a wide-ranging interview published on Tuesday, he said the Russian president has become increasingly paranoid, preferring to avoid planes and traveling on a train that looks like a normal train but has been tailored to Putin’s needs.
Karakulov, the first official of his rank, and a deep knowledge of Putin’s life, to speak officially, told the Dossier Center, a London-based think tank funded by former Russian oligarch turned opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who fled. his homeland in October due to his objections to the war in Ukraine.
The group posted on its website a transcript of its interview in russianwhich NBC News has translated.
“I consider this man a war criminal,” Karakulov said of Putin. “It is time to end this war and it is time to stop being silent,” he added, before explaining that he was sharing his story in the hope that other Russians would speak up as well.
Putin had become “very closed,” shielding himself from the rest of the world and “his perception of reality is distorted,” he said, adding that his former boss lived in a “sort of information vacuum” because he doesn’t know how to use the Internet or a cell phone and receives information only from people who are directly near it.
He added that the Russian leader had become increasingly “paranoid” about his personal safety and used a train that cannot be easily tracked to get around.
Putin, Karakulov said, was still shielding himself from Covid and had people who worked with him quarantine and get frequent tests. He added that the 70-year-old man was in better health than most people his age.
NBC News was unable to independently verify his account. There was no immediate reaction from the Kremlin and NBC News requested comment from the office of spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Karakulov said he had served as an engineer in a field unit of the FSO’s presidential communications department since 2009, but the “criminal war” in Ukraine became a breaking point and he decided to flee, despite the risks to himself and his family.
He said he was afraid that if he quit his job he would be drafted to fight in Ukraine, so he ran away on the last day of a business trip to the Kazakhstani capital, Astana. He added that his wife and his daughter had joined him and flew to Turkey together with just three suitcases.
The Dossier Center shared a photo of Karakulov’s insignia showing his rank of captain with the FSO. He said that his documents had been verified and the authenticity of his plate had been confirmed by a source close to the Russian special services.
The group also shared the materials with the Associated Press, which said it had independently confirmed Karakulov’s identity with three sources in the United States and Europe who were not authorized to speak publicly. The AP said it had verified his personal details, but could not verify the details of his defection. The Dossier Center did not share with NBC News the materials that were provided to various other news outlets.
A spokesman for the group said they were no longer in contact with Karakulov for his own safety.
He is currently on the wanted list in the publicly available database of the Russian Interior Ministry, where the charges against him are not specified.
Abbas Gallyamov, a Russian political analyst and former Putin speechwriter, said that while Karakulov’s account could be damaging to Putin, the Kremlin would likely try to ignore or minimize it as much as possible.
“It is not just about the details of what Karakulov said,” Gallyamov said, “but (about) the fact that it shows that, even in structures as secretive and loyal to the president as FSO, there is a place for disloyalty.”
But some analysts say there are few signs of a deeper fissure in Russia’s elites, and Putin will not lose sleep over Karakulov’s comments.
“(The Kremlin) doesn’t care,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “For them, Karakulov is a traitor and nothing more.”
Karakulov, whose interview sheds a rare light on the doubts and hesitations of some people serving in the Russian system, said he could not share his disappointment with his parents because their minds had been shaped by years of watching Russian state television.
He said he never told them he was leaving.
He also denied that it was unpatriotic. “Patriotism is when you love your country,” he said. “In this case, our homeland needs to be saved. There is a crazy and terrible war going on.”