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‘You really are a terrorist’ How Russia’s FSB recruits former ISIS fighters — and tries to plant them in Ukrainian battalions

Source: Meduza

Story by Lilia Yapparova in collaboration with extremism and terrorism expert Vera Mironova.

For more than a year now, Russia’s intelligence services have been operating under wartime conditions; very little is known publicly about what they’ve been up to. Meduza special correspondent Lilia Yapparova and terrorism expert Vera Mironova have discovered that among other things, the country’s Federal Security Service (FSB) has been recruiting former Islamic State (or ISIS) fighters and trying to embed them in pro-Ukrainian Chechen units and Crimean Tatar battalions. Here’s how they do it.

Please note: This story was originally published in May 2023.

In January 2014, when Baurzhan Kultanov first joined the Islamic State, he wasn’t surprised by almost anything he encountered in Syria and Iraq’s occupied territories. While recounting his experiences there, he compared Raqqa, ISIS’s then-capital, to Istanbul, where he had met his recruiters, as well as to his hometown of Astrakhan, Russia.

“People live their lives there, just like anywhere,” Kultanov told Meduza. “The women sit at home, they go to the bazaar — just like in Russia. Except, in this case, there are drones constantly flying overhead and dropping bombs. And all the flags are black. And all of the men are armed.”

One other aspect of life reminded Kultanov of Russia as well: the local authorities’ constant surveillance of potential dissidents. “The caliphate’s security service is somewhat like the FSB. They would find dissidents and imprison or kill them,” the former fighter said. “I did a lot of talking myself, but I didn’t fear the consequences: I always had a weapon on my person and explosives on my belt.”

The aftermath of an airstrike in Raqqa. August 18, 2014.
Reuters / Scanpix / LETA
ISIS fighters march through Raqqa. January 14, 2014.
Militant Website / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Kultanov was placed in a jamaat with another Astrakhan native, Shamil Izmailov, who went by the name Abu Hanifa within ISIS. After six months on the front (Kultanov fought at various times against the Syrian opposition, against Kurdish militias, and against Al-Qaeda) and a wound in his temple, he realized that the ISIS propaganda videos he’d watched, which depicted local women crying and asking for help, had misled him. “I started to disappear, to skip [military operations],” Baurzhan said. “I went to help Muslims, but I ultimately realized that the chaos had been created by ISIS itself. And that I needed to get out of there.”

Baurzhan twice tried to escape from ISIS-held territory, but he was detained by caliphate police and the Amniyat, the group’s security and intelligence agency. “In November 2014, I paid $100 to a smuggler, and I finally made it to Turkey. From Syria, it seemed impossible; it felt like there was nowhere in the world where I would be able to start over with a fresh slate. But it turned out not to be so hard after all.”

Baurzhan Kultanov in Syria in 2014
Baurzhan Kultanov’s personal archive

Upon returning to Istanbul, Kultanov immediately requested political asylum at the UN, though he didn’t reveal to officials that he had worked for ISIS. When the authorities found out, Turkish police took him to a deportation detention center. “I didn’t understand Turkish very well, but I managed to make out that a criminal case had been opened against me in Russia. After all, I’d even posted photos from the ribats to VKontakte — the same photos that were added to the FSB’s body of evidence.”

One night — Kultanov remembers the exact date: June 18, 2015 — some people in civilian clothing whom Kultanov had never seen before came into his cell. “When I realized they were about to deport me, I slit my wrists,” he recalled. “They patched me up — and then beat me. In the airport, I ran away from them again, and they beat me again. To the point that the stitches in my wrists split open. So I spent the flight covered in my own blood.”

When he arrived in Moscow, Kultanov was met at the airport by riot police officers and FSB agents. “They took the Turkish handcuffs off me and put Russian ones on,” he told Meduza. “An agent named Maxim showed me a photo of myself sitting in a tank with a machine gun: ‘Recognize this?’”

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From there, Kultanov was flown to Astrakhan. Alexander Gushchin, an FSB captain who was overseeing the felony case against Kultanov, came to the airport to pick him up.

At the FSB’s Astrakhan office, Kultanov was met by “10 employees, if not more.” “Some were in balaclavas, while others were in uniform,” he told Meduza. “The ten of them stood over me and shouted, ‘Sign a confession! Or maybe you want a pipe stuck up your ass, and barbed wire shoved through it? Or you want electricity sent through you? Or you want to be taken into the forest and shot like a terrorist? And your kids sent to an orphanage?”

Within days, Kultanov had signed a confession — and Alexander Pisarev, one of the FSB investigators working on his case, began treating him unexpectedly well.

“He showed me all of my offenses — ’participating in an unlawful armed formation,’ ‘recruiting,’ ‘mercenary activity’ — and said, ‘Well, that’s twenty years. But if you cooperate with us, we’ll make your prison term shorter than short,’” Kultanov recalled.

The case was examined in a special procedure, and Kultanov was sentenced to just four years and four months. On the day before his sentencing, Captain Gushchin first raised the prospect of him working with Russian intelligence. “We’ll give you a minimal sentence, and as soon as you’re released, we’ll make you into an agent,” Kultanov remembers him saying.

Kultanov’s certificate of release from prison
Baurzhan Kultanov’s personal archive

The collaboration began while Kultanov was still in prison, he told Meduza. “I scribbled my signature on some reports for Gushchin, perjuring myself. On the FSB’s orders, I went on TV and spoke,” he said. Often, the agents showed him photos of people he’d never seen before and instructed him to “recognize” them as militants.

“To be honest, I signed so many testimonies that I hardly remember the details,” Kultanov admitted.

Kultanov (under the pseudonym Abdulla) and Gushchin in a REN TV segment.
Baurzhan Kultanov’s personal archive

In 2018, not long before Kultanov was released from prison, Gushchin took him to an FSB building, sat him at a table, and presented him with an FSB cooperation agreement. “Read this — you’ll have to sign it,” Kultanov remembers him saying. “The leadership is interested in you. And I’ll be your resident — I’ll oversee your work. There are two copies: one for you and one for me.”

Among other things, the document included Kultanov’s new alias: Ruslan. “I signed it, but Gushchin kept both copies for himself, saying, ‘You’re in prison right now. Why don’t you leave that with me,’” Kultanov recalled.

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Baurzhan Kultanov was released in 2019, but the FSB allowed him to forego the period of administrative supervision that would usually be required in a case like his. Instead, Gushchin informed him that he would soon be sent on his first assignment — to Ukraine.

“How will I get there? What will I do there?” Kultanov recalled asking his new boss.

“We’ll organize everything. It’s important right now that we have agents there. We have something planned in Ukraine soon,” he responded.

‘You’ll be our eyes and ears’

In 2019, the FSB began preparing Kultanov for integration into “Chechen groups and Tatar battalions that want to fight with the Ukrainian Armed Forces,” he told Meduza. The agency wanted “the full information” about the units’ equipment and personnel.

The officers overseeing him “decided not to worry about” a cover story, he told Meduza. “‘We don’t need to make anything up: your history and your military experience speak for themselves,’” Kultanov recalled Alexander Gushchin saying. “After all, you really are a terrorist, a Muslim, an ex-con. Just tell them you don’t like Russia and the FSB and that you want to help. They’ll take you with open arms.”

One of Gushchin’s colleagues at the FSB’s Astrakhan branch, agent Vadim Stetsenko, began working with Kultanov to prepare him for his assignment. Having lived in Sevastopol before Russia’s annexation of Crimea and served in the Ukrainian Security Service’s counterintelligence department, Stetsenko likely knew Ukraine better than any of his colleagues. “And then he defected to the FSB,” Kultanov told Meduza.

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Kultanov had difficulty keeping track of the complex instructions he was given. “To be honest, I didn’t even learn all of this Ukrainian stuff. I mean, I’d never been there before. When you don’t know how day-to-day life works in a place, it’s difficult to remember things,” he said. “And Vadim advised me on everything from what SIM card to get to which district to live in. ‘I know Kyiv, I know Kharkiv. Live in such-and-such apartment — I have people there.’”

From his conversations with Stetsenko, Kultanov learned that the FSB was interested in a man named Isa Akayev, the commander of the Crimea Islamic volunteer battalion, which had been fighting against Russia since 2014 and consisted of Crimean Tatars, Chechens, and Kabardians.

Crimea battalion leader Isa Akayev. May 28, 2022.
Edgar Su / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA
The Crimea battalion during Friday prayers. May 27, 2022.
Edgar Su / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

In the spring of 2022, fighters from the Crimea battalion became some of the first to enter Motyzhyn, a village in the Kyiv region’s Bucha district, after it was liberated from Russia forces. There, they found the bodies of civilians who had been killed during the occupation. In March of that year, Akayev vowed to kill Russian soldiers “by all means permitted by Sharia.” “Just don’t forget to put seeds in your pockets so that sunflowers will grow [from your bodies],” he added.

The FSB didn’t begin searching for Akayev until then, though the agency had been “obsessed” with the “Crimean Tatar underground” ever since the annexation of Crimea, Andrey Soldatov, an expert on Russia’s intelligence services, told Meduza. “One FSB officer admitted to me that in 2014, when they were supposed to create an [FSB] branch [in Crimea], they just pulled out the archives and looked at what the KGB was prioritizing in 1974 or so. And someone had written, ‘Crack down on Crimean Tatar nationalism,’” Soldatov said. “So they started cracking down on it.”

A message from the author of this story, Lilia Yapparova:

To gain a better understanding of how Russia’s intelligence services work during wartime, terrorism expert Vera Mironova and I read a set of instructions that the FSB compiled for its spies in Ukraine; learned how the agency’s psychologists prepare “freelance” agents for assignments abroad (and who comes up with their cover stories); and looked at photos of people who Russia sought to eliminate abroad.

The Russian government has designated Meduza as an “undesirable organization,” making it a crime for Russians to support our work in any way. In order to continue doing investigative work like this, we need your help. Become a Meduza supporter today.

The FSB even compiled written instructions for how Kultanov was to penetrate the Crimea battalion. Kultanov still has a copy of the document, which includes handwritten notes from his supervisors.

The agency’s goal was to “get a line on Isa Akayev,” according to the instructions, of which Meduza has a copy. First, “Ruslan” was to “read some preliminary information about him on the Internet.” Then, “in the course of his contact with his Ukrainian friends,” Kultanov would “inquire about whether they have access” to the Crimea battalion commander and would ask them to “do some asking around about this asshole.” (Akayev did not respond to Meduza’s requests for comment.)

The FSB’s instructions for Kultanov to infiltrate the Crimea battalion
Baurzhan Kultanov’s personal archive

In the next stage, “Ruslan” was supposed to hint to his Ukrainian acquaintances that he had “‘brothers’ back in Astrakhan who were ready for difficult work” and to “find out how much volunteers who join the battalion are paid, what the procedure for them to travel to Ukraine is, [...] and in what conditions they’ll have to work.” If the “Ukrainian friends don’t know shit, then drop the topic,” the document said.

Stetsenko gave Kultanov another task as well. “We need to learn about the Turkish charity organization IHH, which sponsors terrorists in Ukraine and Syria. After all, that’s one way people get to Ukraine,” the supervisor said.

Officially, IHH carries out humanitarian projects in conflict zones, but in 2010, the organization was banned in Germany: according to the German authorities, the group was financing Hamas “under the guise of humanitarian aid.” “IHH really does work with Russian speakers in Turkey,” terrorism expert Vera Mironova told Meduza. The organization itself did not respond to Meduza’s questions.

Both supervisors — Gushchin and Stetsenko — were visibly enthusiastic about the prospect of Kultanov infiltrating Ukraine’s volunteer fighters, Kultanov recalled. The officers believed he might ultimately even manage to “get access to Ukraine’s intelligence services.”

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Gushchin, according to Kultanov, generally spoke openly about his goals for his new recruit: “It would be great if you could become a double or even triple agent! So that other intelligence agencies want to recruit you.”

Kultanov got a strong sense that his superiors were “preparing for something in Ukraine” even back then. “You’re our eyes and ears there,” he remembers them telling him. “But you’re not the only one.”

‘Nobody trusts anybody’

On November 29, 2022, terrorism expert Vera Mironova was contacted by a Caucasus Emirate fighter named Valid. He called her directly from a Russian prison.

Mironova knows a fair number of veterans from the Islamic underground movement, having done research in Chechnya, Dagestan, Syria, and Iraq (she was embedded with Iraqi special operations forces during several operations they carried out against ISIS). She currently consults the Ukrainian authorities on these issues.

Vera Mironova

 “Valid had fought since the second Chechen War. He’s been in prison for a long time, and he still has seven years to go,” Mironova told Meduza. “And suddenly he calls me from prison and says, ‘I want to go to the front through Wagner Group and then surrender to Ukraine. Is that something you could help me with?’”

Valid and Mironova, who lives in the U.S., began a correspondence. Eventually, Valid told her that Wagner Group had rejected him — but that Russian intelligence had expressed interest in hiring him. “The FSB had their own plans for me,” he wrote to Mironova. “Dirty work: taking out whoever’s necessary, conducting reconnaissance. Ukraine was top of the agenda. [They would send me] as a lone agent. But they have a lot of lone agents out there.”

As far as Mironova knows, Valid has an impeccable reputation among former militants: “He’s from the old Caucasus Emirate, he’s an authoritative guy, and he has connections to everybody — even from prison, he was in touch with everyone non-stop.” The FSB had taken notice of this as well. “They know I know a lot of people. Including my own [Chechens] as well as people in Europe, Turkey, and Syria,” Valid told Mironova.

But the inmate declined the FSB’s offer, and Mironova doesn’t know what happened to him after that. He stopped responding to her.

Meduza has learned of one other case in which the FSB attempted to recruit a former Islamic militant fighter. A Dagestani man named Karim (name changed) said that he fought with ISIS, belonged to the same jamaat as Baurzhan Kultanov, and served time in prison for this upon returning to Russia.

In 2019, after Karim was released from prison, he was contacted by an FSB officer named Pyotr. Fearing persecution from the authorities, Karim did not feel that refusing to communicate with the agency was an option, and he met with the agent multiple times in cafes and city squares near Moscow’s Vernadsky Avenue metro station, “not far from [the FSB’s] office there.”

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Karim understood that his extremist background had made him into a “coveted target for recruitment” because he would be a valuable “snitch.” The agent asked him all kinds of questions about people from the Caucasus Emirate and from ISIS “sleeper cells,” but Karim refused to share any information. “I didn’t want to commit kufr. It would have been unacceptable to help an FSB agent against a person of faith,” he explained.

When Pyotr stopped asking questions and began demanding that Karim disclose what he knew, Karim “realized that it was time to get lost” and left the country. He’s currently in touch with diaspora members in various countries, and he says Russian intelligence recruitment is a constant topic of conversation among Muslims who left Russia for Ukraine. “For that reason, nobody trusts anybody,” he told Meduza.

According to Karim, the FSB has an ongoing interest in Russians who go to fight with the Ukrainian military. “They identify their full names, find out their routes, figure out who helped them along the way. Yesterday, a relative of mine who went to St. Petersburg for work was detained by local officers, who interrogated him about me, about where I am right now. They started pressuring him, rolling out a theory that ‘That Karim of yours is in the Donetsk area fighting with the Ukrainian military — we know all about it!’”

Some people with histories of extremist activity do indeed end up on the front in Ukraine, Vera Mironova told Meduza, and Ukrainian intelligence services have tapped her to help them assess the situation. “Of course there have been FSB agents who have penetrated Ukrainian territory. Ukraine has managed to ban some of them. It’s even happened that people with Syrian backgrounds have crossed the border by unknown means and said they ‘want to fight for the Ukrainian military.’ Who would argue that’s not a spy?” she said.

Mironova also knows of an incident in which a person “tried to use every trick in the book to get ahold of the list of [members of] one of the international battalions.” “My contacts in the [Ukrainian] intelligence services said it outright: ‘Another agent is trying to weasel in,’” she said. “Another guy raised suspicions because he was constantly hopping from unit to unit. Why do that, unless you’re trying to gather information?”

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A source close to the FSB confirmed to Meduza that the agency is constantly trying to plant undercover agents in Ukraine, but he said many of its attempts are unsuccessful. “In the last [mission] I heard about, the agents failed yet again,” he said. “Overall, there’s a big problem with the operatives. [After being dressed down by the agency’s leadership,] they just slink out of the meetings.”

In January 2023, Ukraine announced that more than 600 Russian spies and undercover agents had been discovered in the country. The country’s military described the fight against Russian infiltration as a “cancer that metastasizes and devours healthy cells.”

But the FSB continues to send agents — not just to Ukraine, but also to the U.S. border.

a brief digression

How Russia tries to send agents to the U.S. through Mexico

On March 8, 2023, a congressman from Texas named Pat Fallon demanded the U.S. Customs and Border Protection provide a public report on how thoroughly it vets Russians who try to enter the U.S. from Mexico.

“We have a very porous border,” said Fallon. The United States Northern Command had already warned of an increase in the activity of GRU officers in Mexico, he noted, and since the fall of 2022, more than 21,000 Russians had tried to enter the country from the south. “Most illegals don’t carry any documents,” he added. “What’s the likelihood that the records check our officers run will reveal the person’s real identity?”

The U.S.-Mexico border. May 12, 2023.
Patrick T. Fallon / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Since February 2022, about 50 Russians have been arrested on suspicion of working for the FSB at the U.S.-Mexico border, terrorism expert Vera Mironova told Meduza, citing contacts she has in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

These suspects have shown up at various border crossing points and have all told roughly the same story. “Most of them say, ‘I’m an activist, or an NGO worker, or a journalist. I went to protests, and now they’re persecuting me. Let me in,’” Mironova said. “They’ve caught 50. Can you imagine how many they haven’t caught?”

Members of the Putin administration were discussing plans for similar infiltration operations in early 2020, Meduza learned from a Russian public figure who regularly communicates with the authorities.

“I went to the presidential administration then for a meeting with [Domestic Policy Department deputy head Timur] Prokopenko,” the source said. “He spoke about his and Kiriyenko’s initiative to create several decent-looking NGOs and then to declare them ‘foreign agents’ in order to embed them in the West as a spy network. They asked me to put together a team for one such NGO. It was mentioned that there were certain areas where I was ‘excessively loyal [to the Russian authorities].’ ‘That’s a minus, of course, but we’ll clean it up,’ [they said].”

Meduza was unable to find information about the creation of NGOs that fit the source’s description. Our sources inside the Putin administration hadn’t heard of this initiative: “It may have been some personal idea that Prokopenko had.”

According to Vera Mironova, some Russians have turned themselves in to American border authorities, saying, “We were sent here by the FSB to spy on dissidents and journalists, but we don’t want to. We want to surrender. We urgently need political asylum or the FSB will wring our necks.” (Meduza was unable to independently confirm this information.)

Mironova told Meduza that two Russian-speaking men told the U.S. authorities that they had been recruited by the FSB, and one said that it occurred while he was serving a prison sentence. The suspected agents told border control officers (a Department of Homeland Security employee shared the contents of the interviews with Mironova, according to her) that their names were Alexander Davydov and Ivan Cherkashin and that they worked for media outlets called and One of the men even gave the name of his purported FSB supervisor as Anton Sergeyevich (Meduza has been unable to determine who this could be).

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Meduza was able to find only one article with Alexander Davydov’s byline on the news aggregator an interview with a “government contract expert” titled “How to promote your business by participating in state contracts” that was published in 2019. The site’s editor-in-chief, Igor Kuznetsov, asked Meduza’s correspondent to direct her questions to the outlet’s founder, Maria Fil. Fil did not respond.

It’s possible that the two men had not been contacted by the FSB and told this story in an attempt to get asylum, Mironova said. “Politically, it’s a very good case: ‘They tried to recruit me, but I didn’t give in.’”

Some volunteers who help Russian-speaking migrants get into the U.S. from Mexico have also raised the suspicions of U.S. officials, Mironova told Meduza, citing the Department of Homeland Security. “They believe these groups were created by Russian intelligence,” she said.

The website of the organization Bridge to the U.S.

The volunteer group Bridge to the U.S., for example, offered assistance to migrants from “countries in the post-Soviet space,” advertising that it “helps people enter America legally” and “works directly” with the U.S. Border Service. The organization’s lawyers charged between $2,000 and $3,000 for their assistance. In December 2022, the group’s founders were arrested by the Mexican authorities and found to have a “black bag” containing over $500,000 in cash. Meduza called the number listed on the organization’s site but was unable to reach anyone for comment.

No matter what happens, never say we sent you’

In 2021, the FSB changed its plans for Baurzhan Kultanov. “You won’t go to Ukraine directly, you’ll go through Turkey,” Kultanov recalled his supervisor, Alexander Gushchin, saying.

In the fall of that year, Kultanov was given a set of documents to support his cover identity: a foreign and domestic passport, a birth certificate, an insurance policy, and a driver’s license, all under his new name, Muhammad Abdullayevich Usmanov.

Kultanov’s cover documents under the name Muhammad Usmanov
Baurzhan Kultanov’s personal archive

Shortly after, he was assigned to a new supervisor, this time someone from the agency’s central apparatus in Moscow. Vladislav Alekseyevich, as the man introduced himself to Kultanov, was noticeably more knowledgeable than his past FSB bosses; he alluded to the fact that he “worked in Syria,” for example, and “mentioned various jamaats.”

“He seemed to me like a counterintelligence officer,” Kultanov said, recalling their first meeting. “He said, basically, ‘I want to send you to Turkey, where the Russian immigrants are, especially because you know the country and you’re a Turkic language speaker yourself.’ He had me take a polygraph. And told me to wait.”

From that day until April 2023, Kultanov was in constant contact with Vladislav Alekseyevich. The two met regularly in Moscow.

In the spring of 2022, Kultanov was invited to an FSB safe house in Astrakhan. He was met there by a group of FSB employees who had flown in from Moscow: his supervisor, Vladislav Voronin; Voronin’s boss (Kultanov doesn’t remember him introducing himself); and two women who worked as psychologists for the agency.

The psychologists’ role was to prepare Kultanov for stressful situations he might encounter while on his mission. They acted out an interrogation at the Turkish customs office, even role-playing the situation of Turkish intelligence officers trying to get him to “break.” “No matter what happens, never tell them that we sent you,” Kultanov recalled the women saying.

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Next, the FSB agents tested Kultanov’s attentiveness. At one point, they asked him to leave the room for several minutes and then come back. “Which of these things were on the table before, and which weren’t? What was I wearing? What did I have in my hands?” they asked him.

Kultanov wasn’t able to answer a single one of their questions correctly; the FSB officers repeated the test 15 times before he finally passed it. “Train your memory,” he remembers them telling him. “Wherever you end up, we need good information.”

The preparation in the safe house lasted for three days. On the last day, Kultanov was given $5,000 (for the first two months of his assignment) and told to buy tickets to Istanbul. “Vladislav’s boss tried to encourage me,” he told Meduza. “Well done, we’re in this together, don’t worry! Just adapt, once you get there. And establish contacts with as many people as you can.”

A mosque in Istanbul’s Başakşehir district
Chively / Shutterstock
Istanbul’s Başakşehir district
Emrahh / Shutterstock
Baurzhan Kultanov in Istanbul
Baurzhan Kultanov’s personal archive

On March 25, 2022, Kultanov flew to Turkey. From that point on, he was in constant communication with Vladislav Voronin and with Igor Yatskevich from the FSB’s Astrakhan branch.

Kultanov was instructed to find out “who is preparing what [operations] against Russia,” and to gather any information related to Ukraine that he could. His tasks included learning “how to get through Turkey to the [Ukrainian] front, who’s sending people to volunteer battalions, and what local Ukrainians are saying,” he recalled. “And Vladislav asked me to make contact with volunteer rescue workers who went to Syria after the earthquake [in early 2023]. He needed that ‘route’ so that he could stick some of his people in Idlib.”

Kultanov sent Meduza copies of his messages with both supervisors as well as video recordings of his phone calls with them. (The videos show Kultanov’s face as well as numbers that the phone number ID service NumBuster identifies as those of Voronin and Yatskevich.)

Kutlanov’s communications with his supervisor Igor Yatskevich
Baurzhan Kultanov’s personal archive
Kultanov’s messages with FSB officer Vladislav Voronin
Baurzhan Kultanov’s personal archive

On February 28, 2023, for example, Kultanov sent Yatskevich a photograph of a new acquaintance he had made in Istanbul, someone he described to his supervisor as a member of an “exclusive club” that sent people and cargo to Ukraine:

“You must know him, [Igor]. He’s very well-known, from what I understood. He worked for [Chechen separatist and terrorist insurgent Shamil] Basayev, and he ran through the woods in his time. I’ve started running into him in Başakşehir, slowly but surely. They have a jamaat there. They have a lot of routes, and I’m gradually starting to do tasks for them. I sent a package to a Baghdad prison at their request, I bought some food for it. They can send stuff to Ukraine. Syria, too,” Kultanov wrote.

“That’s interesting,” Yatskevich responded.

“Also, the jamaat communicates exclusively over some iPhone program. They told me to buy an iPhone, but how am I supposed to afford it?” Kultanov said.

“Show us some work, we already talked about money.”

In one correspondence, Yatskevich asked Kultanov, “Do you go to [Istanbul’s] Başakşehir district, where the immigrants from Russia live? I’ll send you an address and photo. Can you go and see if he’s there?”

The photo he sent showed a man in camouflage standing on a snowy slope, a portable radio antenna poking out from his breast pocket. “His name is Mailan, his apartment is on the first story. This is an old photo, taken about 10 years ago. He’s a Kazakh from Astrakhan. [Find out] what he’s doing and who he lives with. Be careful. You can also ask other Russians there,” Yatskevich wrote.

One of Kultanov’s supervisors tells him to look for Mailan
Baurzhan Kultanov’s personal archive

He also asked Kultanov to take photos during his assignment in Başakşehir, though not to photograph “everyone in a row,” but “just the people who have been to Syria or who went to Ukraine.”

Yatskevich didn’t explain why he was interested in Mailan, but Kultanov has his own theory. “They were just agency tasks — and they were purely monetary,” he told Meduza. “How did Vladislav put it? ‘We don’t work for nothing, we have to make money. We’re going to make money! And the [intelligence] that the higher-ups ask for — well, we’ll give them what they want to hear.’”

Among other things, Voronin was insistent that Kultanov find a buyer for “counterfeit dollars, forged documents, passports, and stamps” — and that he inquire “about cryptocurrency transfers.” “From what I understood, there was some stolen money, and they needed to find a card they could use to transfer it to Turkey, use it to buy crypto here, and send it to Russia,” Kultanov told Meduza. “Vladislav promised to give me a cut.”

The FSB officers Kultanov worked with tried to earn money in other ways, too, namely contract killings.

‘There are people we’ll need to get rid of’

FSB officer Vladislav Voronin entrusted Baurzhan Kultanov with contract killings on two occasions. “It was part of Vladislav’s business,” Kultanov told Meduza.

Voronin once put Kultanov in touch with an “Afghan man who wanted to order [a hit on] another Afghan man who lived in Istanbul.” “The client gave me a photo and an address and told me the person needed to be eliminated,” Kultanov said. “He didn’t say the name [of the victim], but it was someone important: he was in the [Afghan] government, and then [after the Taliban took over the country], he fled to Turkey.”

Voronin left Kultanov in charge of negotiating the price. “Say a million dollars — then we’ll divide it up,” Kultanov recounted his handler saying. “But when I named that price, the Afghan got flustered: ‘I don’t have that kind of money!’ So we didn’t agree on anything.”

Paimon Asil Khan
Paimon Asil Khan on VKontakte

Kultanov still has the Afghan phone number of the supposed client as well as his account on the Russian social media site VKontakte. The account owner, a man named Paimon, is one of the sons of former Afghan official Sakhib Khan Asil Khan, who has long lived alternatively in Russia and Afghanistan.

Sakhib Khan Asil Khan was born in Kabul in 1959, when Afghanistan was led by the reformer King Mohammad Zahir Shah and women were not required to wear chadors. In 1978, Sakhib Khan took part in the April Revolution, which initially brought a socialist government to power but ultimately contributed to the breakout of civil war and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

A pro-Soviet Afghan, Sakhib graduated from a police academy in Kabul before attending the Felix Dzerzhinsky Higher Police School in Kyiv. Upon returning to Afghanistan, he worked in the country’s Defense Ministry, the Interior Ministry’s political department, and the state security apparatus (analogous to the KGB). He finished his national security career in the war-torn Afghanistan of the 1980s as an assistant to the head of the army’s main political directorate.

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In April 1992, the ruling communist regime was toppled, launching a new phase of civil war, this time between various mujahideen groups. Sakhib Khan fled first to Uzbekistan, then to Ufa, and in 2000, he settled in the village of Tolbazy in Russia’s Republic of Bashkortostan. After obtaining Russian citizenship, he started a construction business and opened a shopping center called Asil Khan.

For the next 20 years — up until the Taliban’s takeover of his home country — Sakhib Khan regularly traveled back to Afghanistan, even founding the Bashkortostan Afghanistan Friendship Society. At the Russian diplomatic mission in Kabul, he met with “Afghans who were interested in developing relations with Russia.”

Watching his homeland (which was then occupied by U.S. troops) with “pain in his heart,” the former officer said repeatedly that “the Afghan people can’t imagine their future without the support of the great Russian people,” that Vladimir Putin is a “great blessing,” and that “the West constantly deceives.”

Meduza was unable to get in touch with Sakhib Khan. His son, Paimon, was indignant when Meduza’s correspondent asked him about Kultanov’s allegations: “Excuse me? What are you talking about? Kill who for Afghanistan?” (“For Afghanistan” was Sakhib’s own phrase; Meduza didn’t suggest this in our questions.) “The only time I come in contact with the FSB is when I land at the airport and they ask me who I am and where I went,” he added.

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Nevertheless, Andrey Soldatov, an expert on Russia’s intelligence services, told Meduza that many members of Moscow’s Afghan diaspora do in fact have ties to the FSB. “They were supervised by the Moscow branch as part of counterterrorism operations, and the FSB officers were supposed to provide them with documents, solve any routine problems they faced (like getting someone’s son into university), and in exchange, they would use their connections with the international diaspora.”

FSB agents may have pulled strings for people’s sons in the past, but carry out an assassination attempt for a former security officer’s son Kultanov did not. After hearing that the operation would cost him a million dollars, according to Kultanov, Paimon stopped contacting him.

Another time, Kultanov told Meduza, Voronin instructed him to find and kill a “Karachay named Ubaidulla.” “Vladislav sent a photo of him and said, ‘Run a search [for his address] — they’re offering big bucks for him,’” he recalled.

Kultanov provided Meduza with a copy of the messages between him and Voronin, which confirm that the officer did send him a photo of a young, curly-haired man in a beanie. A pink drink can be seen on the table in front of Ubaidulla and a machine gun hangs across his chest. However, Voronin was unable to determine even the district of Istanbul where Ubaidulla lived.

FSB officer Vladislav Voronin discussing Ubaidulla with Kultanov
Baurzhan Kultanov’s personal archive

“Who the hell knows, he’s like a ghost,” wrote Voronin. “[We need to] at least find some leads about him. Credible ones. A warrant was put out for him by the local [Turkish] Interior Ministry branch. At least find out whether he’s actually on the wanted list or not.”

Kultanov’s account of the FSB’s attempted contract killings in Turkey is consistent with other publicly available information on the topic. For example, two former FSB officers have told the investigative project Dossier that the agency often uses freelance workers for these assignments. Turkish law enforcement agencies have reported multiple times that FSB agents have been involved in murders.

“Also, Gushchin, when he and I met in his car in Astrakhan, told me: ‘You can do it, you know — after Syria! You’ll be a killer!’” Kultanov recalled his first FSB handler telling him. “‘There are people who will have to be [done away with]. You earn money and you help the motherland.’”

According to Kultanov, he never completed a contract killing for the FSB.

* * *

On April 25, 2023, Kultanov was arrested and taken to an immigration jail in the Turkish city of Niğde. The day before, he wrote to Meduza’s correspondent, “It’s like I’m living on pins and needles. My visa expired a long time ago, my residence permit wasn’t approved — I’m illegal here. I contacted the police and even the security services. This time, I told them everything. I requested asylum. They definitely didn’t forget about me: a spy came to turn himself in!”

Kultanov’s supervisors at the FSB were either unwilling or unable to help him obtain legal status in Turkey. On February 16, 2023, Kultanov requested asylum with the country’s migration service as well: explaining that the FSB “threatened” him into becoming a “spy,” Baurzhan asked the authorities “not to extradite or deport” him, or he would be “killed in prison.”

Kultanov’s statement to the Turkish Migration Service.
Baurzhan Kultanov’s personal archive

Kultanov told Meduza’s correspondent that after he crossed the border into Turkey, he stopped working for the FSB, and that he only pretended to be gathering information when he messaged them. Meduza is unable to confirm this information.

Meduza’s correspondent last spoke to the former ISIS fighter on May 10, when he called her from prison.

“I only have a few minutes left on this payphone,” he said. Laughter, either from prison guards or from Kultanov’s cellmates, was audible in the background. “I’m in Niğde. The guards say it’s impossible to call here from outside. They’re not providing a translator, but every day they come and ask, ‘Do you want to be deported or not?’ I tell them I don’t.”

Then the call cut off.

The FSB, the Ukrainian Security Service, and Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov had not responded to Meduza’s requests for comment by the time of this story’s publication.

Story by Lilia Yapparova in collaboration with extremism and terrorism expert Vera Mironova

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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