Vladimir Osechkin says he was strolling towards his eating room desk, plates of spaghetti for his kids in his palms, when he noticed the crimson laser dancing throughout the wall.
He knew what was coming.
Slamming off the lights, he says he and his spouse pulled their kids to the bottom, hurrying out of sight and into a unique space of the condominium. Minutes later, Osechkin says, a would-be murderer fired, mistaking swiftly arrived cops for the Russian dissident.
For the subsequent half-hour, Osechkin instructed CNN, his spouse and youngsters lay on the ground. His spouse, nearest their kids, shielded them from extra bullets in the course of the September 12 assault.
“The last 10 years I do a lot of things to protect the human rights and other people. But in this moment, I understood that my mission to help other people created a very high risk to my family,” Osechkin instructed CNN from France, the place he’s lived since 2015 after he fled Russia and claimed asylum. He now has full-time police safety.
He’s turn out to be the champion of a rising variety of high-level Russian officers defecting to the West, emboldened and disgruntled by the Kremlin’s conflict in Ukraine. He says ex-generals and intelligence brokers are amongst their quantity.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has proven his willpower to hunt the Kremlin’s perceived enemies abroad. Osechkin has been arrested in absentia in Russia and is at present on the Russian authorities “wanted list.” France has supplied him sanctuary, however safety is way tougher to come back by.
Osechkin’s work as an investigative journalist and anti-corruption activist – which implies he has made it his enterprise to know the secrets and techniques of the Russian state – helps to a level. Twice, he tells CNN, tip-offs have overwhelmed the killers to his door.
“Vladimir, be careful,” a supply within the Chechen diaspora texted him in February. “There has already been an offer for an advance payment to eliminate you.”
Osechkin’s response is chillingly calm. “Good evening. Wow. And how much is offered for my gray head?”
Osechkin now lives beneath fixed armed guard, supplied by the French authorities, his deal with and routine are secret.
As an influential human rights activist and journalist, Osechkin has lengthy been a thorn within the facet of many highly effective Russians. After founding Gulagu.internet in 2011 – a collaborative human rights group focusing on corruption and torture in Russia – he has overseen a string of high-profile investigations accusing Russian establishments and ministries of crimes. One alleged the systematic rape of male prisoners in Russian prisons.
But it was Gulagu.internet’s work since Russian tanks rolled throughout the Ukrainian border in February that gave the group newfound worldwide relevance.
The jail investigation impressed one group of officers from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) – the successor to the Soviet Union’s KGB – to show whistleblower, pushed by what the officers mentioned was their “disgusted surprise” at Gulagu.internet’s findings, Osechkin mentioned. This led to #windofchange, a sequence of letters purportedly from FSB personnel shared with Osechkin’s group. Published on-line by Osechkin’s workforce, they detailed their dissent with Russia’s path and conflict in Ukraine.
Putin’s so-called “special military operation” wasn’t the one motion of Russians after February 24. It additionally sparked “a big wave” of Russian officers leaving their homeland, Osechkin mentioned, dwarfed solely by the flood of males fleeing the Kremlin’s “partial mobilization” order in September. Now, he instructed CNN, “It’s every day some people … ask [for] our help.”
Many are low-level troopers, however amongst them are far greater prizes: Osechkin says their quantity embody an ex-government minister and a former three-star Russian normal – CNN has confirmed the identities of an ex-FSB officer and Wagner mercenaries.
In January, Osechkin helped a former Wagner commander who fled Russia on foot into neighboring Norway to assert asylum. The ex-soldier was in worry for his life after refusing to resume his contract with the mercenary group.
“When the person is in the very high level, they understand very well how the machine of Putin’s regime worked and they have a very good understanding that if they open [up about it], it’s very high risk of the act of terrorism with Novichok or killers,” Osechkin instructed CNN. Novichok was the nerve agent utilized in a 2018 assault on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England. The UK authorities assessed that the Russian authorities “almost certainly” permitted the poisoning; Moscow denied involvement.
Implicit in such officers’ escape from Russia via Osechkin’s community is an settlement to offer him with details about Moscow’s interior workings. Some of that results in the palms of European intelligence businesses, with whom Osechkin has common contact, he mentioned.
One former senior FSB lieutenant who Osechkin helps in Europe, Emran Navruzbekov, mentioned he ready FSB directives on Russia’s espionage operations in Europe to supply Western intelligence businesses.
“Our FSB bosses asked their agents in Europe to find out about the ‘mercenaries’ who would go to Ukraine. Volunteers who go to fight for Ukraine they call terrorists. I kept such correspondence,” he instructed CNN.
Some of those who Osechkin helps carry info – even army secrets and techniques – that he admits is of restricted curiosity to his human rights group. But Western intelligence businesses have very totally different priorities.
Michel Yakovleff, an ex-French military normal and former deputy commander of NATO operations, who at CNN’s request reviewed a number of army recordsdata obtained by Osechkin, mentioned that whereas they could not maintain a lot significance for a army commander, “these are bits of intelligence. Even if they are individually moderately interesting, they build up a picture. And that is the interest of intelligence gathering.”
One ex-Russian normal introduced with him army paperwork together with an architectural plan of a constructing, in response to Osechkin, with a legend detailing the that means of the symbols, itemizing utilities and building dates.
The normal, in search of to win European favor, hoped Western authorities would see their worth, Osechkin mentioned. Intelligence sources have confirmed the possible authenticity of the paperwork to CNN however raised questions over their utility and exclusivity.
For Yakovleff, paperwork aren’t the one forex defectors maintain.
“The real questions are, where were you in the hierarchy? How trusted were you? Who were the trusted people around you? What kind of access did you have to what?” he mentioned.
“We’re not interested in that file. We’re interested in your degree of access. And quite often it’s the things that you know, but [which] you don’t know [that you know] that are marketable” to intelligence companies, Yakovleff added.
Alongside the army paperwork, the ex-Russian normal ferried info on corruption inside the army and secret recordings displaying how the FSB pulls the strings even inside army items, Osechkin mentioned.
Another defector, 32-year-old Maria Dmitrieva, escaped with purported secrets and techniques from inside the FSB’s ranks. She instructed CNN that she had labored for a month as a physician for the FSB. In preparation for her defection, she says she secretly recorded conversations with sufferers, whose signs generally hid state secrets and techniques.
One operative with the notorious GRU – or Russian army intelligence – was affected by malaria after an unpublicized mission in Africa, she mentioned. Other conversations revealed Chechen officers being given judicial impunity, she alleged, or officers discussing the collapse within the Russian military.
CNN has been unable to confirm this independently.
Dmitrieva, who’s in search of asylum within the south of France, abandoning her household and her boyfriend who she says works for Russian intelligence, is not sure whether or not the knowledge she supplied to authorities will probably be sufficient to ensure her everlasting asylum.
“You need good reasons to defect,” Yakovleff mentioned. “It’s not all of a sudden, [that] ‘it dawned upon me that democracy is better than tyranny, and therefore here I am.’”
“That’s one of the first questions [intelligence agencies] are going to have. ‘Why is this person defecting now?’” he added.
Ex-FSB officer Navruzbekov claimed that desperation over Russia’s probabilities in Ukraine was driving a lot of his colleagues to search for an escape.
“Now in the FSB it’s every man for himself, everyone wants to escape from Russia. Every second FSB officer wants to run away,” he instructed CNN.
“They already understand that Russia will never win this war, they will just go out of their way to find some solution,” he mentioned.
For Dmitrieva too, the conflict in Ukraine was the set off. She mentioned that she hopes to encourage others contained in the system to undermine Putin’s regime.
“I am not afraid of anyone except the Almighty. Because it is important for me that by my action I can set an example for my compatriots, fellow security officials, enforcers,” she mentioned.
She left behind greater than her household in Moscow. Dmitrieva says her place afforded her distinctive privileges, together with a luxurious automobile with state quantity plates and an workplace with views of the protection ministry. She says she has no regrets about leaving.
“What inspires me the most is that I am sure that I am taking the correct actions to stop what’s happening so that less people will die,” Dmitrieva mentioned.
“Putin and his retinue and everyone who approves of this war – these people are murderers. Why are [you] bothering this country that has been fine for 30 years?”
Osechkin mentioned that the Ukrainian heritage and household ties of many Russian officers performed a key position of their defection, prompting them to affix a years-long exodus of journalists and human rights defenders from Russia.
“There is no truth in this war,” he mentioned. “It’s the war of the one man who wants to save his power, his control over Russia and who wants to enter it in the international history and books in schools.”
As a results of his work aiding within the escape of whistleblowers from Russia, Osechkin has turn out to be one thing of a beacon for defectors, who know that he has the contacts with Western authorities and public profile to make sure the simplest remedy of the secrets and techniques they smuggle out.
Wary of makes an attempt by Moscow to infiltrate his group and discredit his work, his colleagues confirm the identification of all those who they assist, Osechkin mentioned.
Even so, one man posing as a defector embarrassed Gulagu.internet, his obvious motives – to not really defect – solely revealed after Osechkin had streamed 4 interviews with him on the group’s YouTube channel. In a video interview with one other blogger, the imposter criticized Osechkin’s stage of care towards him as soon as he was in Europe. Osechkin admits this could make it tougher for actual whistleblowers to belief him.
Osechkin argues that the “real secret agents of the Russian Federation” don’t want his assist to enter Europe.
European allies have taken an more and more aggressive stance towards Russian spying after a string of Russian assaults, together with the 2014 occupation of Crimea and components of japanese Ukraine, the Skripal poisoning within the UK and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February.
Last yr, 600 Russians had been expelled from European international locations, 400 of whom had been spies, in response to the British intelligence companies. Many had been working as diplomats.
Osechkin additionally feels that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a turning level for the Russian chief, undoing many years of Russian stability beneath his energy.
“He has a lot of enemies in his system because they worked with him [for] more than 20 years for the stability and for the money and for a beautiful life for the next generations. And now, in this year, Putin annulled this perspective of their life,” he mentioned.
Correction: A earlier model of this story misstated by which yr 600 Russians had been expelled from European international locations.