How Russian intelligence uses Silk Road Rally for its operations in Europe

Russia’s top political and military leadership have leveraged international sports events to cover up intelligence operations. Events have been used as a cover, including sabotage in other countries and the murder of the Kremlin opponents, as a journalists investigation claims.

Since 2009, it has been the case for the annual Silk Road rally. At first, it was between Kazan and Ashgabat. But later, it grew, and in 2016 it was extended from Moscow to Beijing and then to Xi’an. 

As a joint investigation by The Insider, Bellingcat, Der Spiegel, and Le Monde shows, this rally is under the complete control of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU). It may be linked to both assassination attempts and sabotage in European countries. 

The award from the GRU

The head of the Silkway Rally (SWR) association is Bulat Yanborisov. It was he who received the Order of Alexander Nevsky from the hands of the Deputy Chief of the GRU, General Vladimir Alekseev. 

The peculiarity of this order is that it is a military award. Yanborisov was awarded it “for his services in strengthening Russia’s defense capabilities and for successfully solving special tasks.” So what kind of “special tasks” did Yanborisov perform when he received the military award?

The Silk Road Rally as a cover-up

At first glance, the Silk Road Rally appears to be a purely sporting event. Internal documents state Moscow’s “soft power” role it is supposed to fulfill, especially when it comes to promoting Russia in the Asian region. For example, to facilitate the Siberian Power 2 project to supply Russian gas to China (a cooperation between Gazprom and China’s CNPC).

Another area of soft power was the rapprochement of countries such as Russia, China, Iran, Qatar, Afghanistan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. The rally’s route at the end of 2022 was supposed to pass partly through these countries.

Not without the “Ukrainian issue”

The same internal SWR document only did with more detailed political goals of Russia, including the issue of Crimea. They tried to put pressure on Turkey through the Silk Road, including through the “Syrian component” in all matters of interest to Russia, including Azerbaijan, Armenia, Crimea and Syria. And there was also “offering the Taliban a roadmap to international legitimacy in exchange for recognizing Crimea as Russian territory.”

But more was needed for SWR. The journalists received another internal document dated November 12, 2021. It is classified as “Top Secret”. It is a report by Bulat Yanborisov to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. And it already indicates the possibility of creating new military and political alliances and increasing Russia’s military presence in Central Asia and the East. 

It also mentions the Russian military-industrial complex’s entry into new markets among those with whom “negotiations were held to support the Silkway platform.” These countries include China, Turkey, Qatar and the UAE.

Instead of racing – sabotage

Sources in SilkwayRally claim that they do not know what Yanborisov was doing in the company and whether he had anything to do with the organization of the race.

Instead, journalists have established his close ties to the GRU intelligence. In 2022 alone, he had more than 60 phone calls with General Alekseev. The contacts between them were particularly intense shortly before and in the first two months after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine (according to sources, Alekseev played the most active role in organizing the first phase of Russia’s war against Ukraine, which, however, ended up not at all as planned).

Links to attacks on Kremlin critics in Europe

Yanborisov communicated not only with Alekseev but also with at least 11 other GRU officers, three of whom were officers of military unit 29155. This is the same military unit whose officers were involved in the Novichok poisoning of former FSB agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England, as well as Yemelyan Gebrev in Bulgaria. They were also involved in the explosions of military warehouses in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.

Yanborisov often communicated with Rustam Dzhafarov from military unit 29155. During 2010-2013, he traveled to European countries under “Rustam Jamalov”. And he used a passport with a number that differed by only one digit from the passport number of “Ruslan Boshirov” (Anatoly Chepyga) and “Alexander Petrov” (Alexander Mishkin), who is suspected of poisoning the Skripals. In 2011, ‘Rustam Dzhamalov’ flew with ‘Ruslan Boshirov’ to a city in Central Europe, near which an ammunition depot exploded a few days later.

In 2021, Dzhafarov was already listed under his real name as an employee of the Silkway Rally Directorate.

Other contacts of Yanborisov include the former commander of the Russian special operations forces, Oleg Martyanov, and several associates of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Russian private military company Wagner, involved in the war in Ukraine, and the wars in Syria and Africa.

“Visa-free regime” and a safehouse for Russian intelligence

After the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russians were restricted in their ability to travel the world. But for the SilkwayRally “employees”, there were no problems with this. Yanborisov, for example, spends most of his time in Europe and Asia, returning to Russia only briefly. He owns an apartment in Paris. And journalists assume that it could have been used as a reporting office for the GRU.

The same goes for a mansion in Sozopol, Bulgaria, near Burgas. Denis Sergeev is suspected of poisoning Emelyan Gebrev in this town.

Yanborisov’s apartments and companies are no less valuable to the GRU than the infrastructure created for the rally. But while the latter is a pretext for residents to travel to Central Asia and China, the former allows the GRU to have a legal excuse to use real estate and money in Europe. Moreover, unlike GRU residents who work under diplomatic cover and are constantly monitored by local special services, Yanborisov and his son can travel around Europe without attracting too much attention.

In a commentary to journalists, Yanborisov denied any ties to the GRU. He allegedly received the order for helping to supply medical equipment to fight the coronavirus from China to Russia. However, he also stated that he had yet to communicate with General Alekseev since the beginning of the war against Ukraine. But his words are contradicted by the data from the phone calls.

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