Nobody’s home ‘Meduza’ tracked down the Russian government’s special phone lines, and found that many top officials fob them off on subordinates and outsiders
Dozens of federal and regional state agencies in Russia — both civilian and military — buy government communications services from the Federal Protective Service (FSO). The telephone numbers assigned to specific officials and soldiers — whether it’s department heads, unit commanders, or whatever — are released publicly on the “Goszakupki” (State Purchases) website. Meduza managed to find more than 100 of these phone numbers.
The agreements published on the Goszakupki website are reached between the Office of Government Communications (UPrS) of the FSO’s Special Communications and Information Services and whatever state agency needs special communications services. With each contract, the client is issued either a range of numbers for the entire agency or a single number for a specific official. The contractor (that is, UPrS) agrees to provide “GSM mobile radiotelephone services in the 900/1800 MHz band for the operation of a government cellular network,” as well as a user terminal for this network (in other words, a special encrypted device).
In almost every contract from the past few years that Meduza could find on the Goszakupki website, the special communications numbers are listed in the annexes without any redaction (though the UPrS started hiding this information more thoroughly, as of last year). The only customer that thought to conceal their numbers by including a scanned piece of paper labeled “confedential” (sic) was the Moscow Mayor’s Administrative Department, but the subscribers’ surnames nevertheless remain visible: A. I. Chernyshev (Alexander Chernyshev, first deputy chief of staff), A. I. Gorbenko (Alexander Gorbenko, deputy mayor for regional security and information policy), and M. S. Liksutov (Maxim Liksutov, head of Moscow’s Transportation Department).
In recent reports documenting the contract’s execution, it so happens, these officials’ special communications numbers are listed without redaction. In every other contract Meduza located, with the exception of the agreements signed with the Attorney General’s Office, all the telephone numbers were published and available to the public — both the lines created for individual officials and the whole ranges of numbers allocated to entire agencies.
Additionally, Meduza managed to find the telephone numbers assigned to top officials at the following agencies:
- Federal Investigative Committee, including director Alexander Bastrykin
- Interior Ministry’s Communications and Information Protection Main Center, including ministry spokeswoman Irina Volk
- Regional divisions of the Interior Ministry, like the Sevastopol office
- Military unit commanders, including the head of the Dzerzhinsky Division
- Commanders of the National Guard’s Central District formations
- Central Elections Commission, including Commissioner Ella Pamfilova
- Justice Ministry
- Federal State Reserve Agency
- Regional Customs Administration of Radio-Electronic Security of Customs Infrastructure facilities
- Attorney General’s Office
- Regional administrations, like the head of Dagestan and Vladimir governor’s office
The numbers allocated by the FSO’s special communications service are apparently assigned to official positions, not specific individuals. For example, Central Election Commissioner Ella Pamfilova’s current number was logged on the app GetContact (which allows users to see how telephone numbers are saved on other users’ telephones) as “Sergey Mironov, Churov’s assistant” (Vladimir Churov served as central elections commissioner until March 2016, and apparently he had an aide handle his UPrS telephone number). Another example is the telephone number that belonged to Moscow Western Administrative District police chief Andrey Puchkov, who was fired in June 2019 (after his officers framed Meduza correspondent Ivan Golunov for drug possession). His number is archived on GetContact as “Fyodor Ivanov, Vnukovo,” and Meduza found a local police officer by the same name in Vnukovo.
Most of the telephone numbers the UPrS assigns to its clients share the same prefixes as ordinary numbers found on the “big three” telecoms (MTS, Beeline, and Megafon), though Internet Research Institute director Karen Kazaryan explained to Meduza that the numbers have nothing to do with Russia’s major cellular providers. The government owns the telephone numbers in question, Kazaryan says, and the Federal Communications Agency is responsible for assigning them. Some of the numbers (for example, the numbers for Interior Ministry regional directors) begin with the prefix 999, which belongs directly to the Federal Communications Agency. The physical infrastructure of this state communications network (the towers, cells, and other equipment) belongs to Rostelecom, says Kazaryan, and the user terminals issued to clients differ, depending on customers’ official positions. “In other words,” he says, “what they give Mr. Medvedev is quite different from what’s issued to some division commander.”
Meduza couldn’t determine exactly what “user terminals” (phones) the FSO’s communications department issues to its clients, but we located one telephone number identified by GetContact as “My Atlas.” The number likely belongs to a senior official at the Attorney General’s Office, who apparently recorded his state-issued telephone number in his personal address book. By “Atlas,” he could have meant a device called M-663C, which is manufactured by the “Atlas” Science and Technology Center. In 2013, Russia’s space agency ordered for its staff this modified version of a commercial phone with built-in “SMP-ATLAS/2” voice encryption. In 2018, the device also started finding its way to Russian Army officers with access to highly sensitive intelligence, according to the newspaper Izvestia. In June 2019, the National Guard’s Extra-Departmental Protection Directorate in the St. Petersburg region signed a contract with Megafon to buy 108 numbers capable of supporting “Atlas” telephones.
Each contract establishing one of these lines of special communications explicitly prohibits users from sharing their terminals with third parties. Meduza has learned, however, that several top state officials have handed these secure phones off to assistants or government outsiders. For example, the number assigned to the speaker of Dagestan’s government is registered on GetContact as “Pom Gamidova Sasha” (Sasha, Gamidov's aide, presumably referring to Abdusamad Gamidov, who formerly held this position, is now under investigation for large-scale fraud). Another number assigned to the commander of the National Guard’s Central District troops shows up on GetContact as “Zlata,” and it’s also one of the contact numbers for the VKontakte account of a 23-year-old woman living in Moscow.
A source familiar with the circulation of special communications devices in Russia told Meduza that the state’s clients don’t like using these telephones because they’re afraid they’ll be wiretapped by their own government. “You take office, and you’re issued all this official stuff: a certificate, keys, and also a special communications phone,” says Meduza’s source. “Everything is inventoried, and it all has to be handed back, the same way. Since this is government-issued equipment, you don't get any ‘special’ add-ons to your personal devices. You get either an office phone or a phone with a SIM card. These phones are stored at your work desk. Pencil pushers fear these things like the plague.”
Meduza’s source says fear is also what drives state officials to give away their special communications phones to civilians: “It’s easier for them to pay a fine when they’re moved to some other position [and have to sign back their equipment], than it is to get caught blabbing.”
At the time of this writing, Meduza was unable to contact anyone at several dozen special communications numbers that we randomly selected from a published list. Every number was disconnected — except the number assigned to Central Election Commissioner Ella Pamfilova. Her phone line rang, but no one answered.
After Meduza published this story, editor Alexey Kovalev appeared on the radio station Ekho Moskvy to discuss the investigation. Live on the air, the station’s hosts called Pamfilova’s listed number again, and this time she answered the phone.
“Ms. Pamfilova, good morning. This is Ekho Moskvy and my name is Alexander Plushev.”
“You’re just verifying the numbers made public by Meduza? Well, you’ve verified this one. Have a good day. Good bye.”
“It turns out that you’re the only one who actually uses them.”
“Well, now you can see that I use it.”
Translation by Kevin Rothrock