This is a joint investigation by The Insider, Bellingcat, Der Spiegel and Le Monde
“It's good when the award finds its hero. By the Decree of the President of Russia on Silkway Rally LLC, for his services in strengthening the country's defense capability and for the successful solution of special tasks, he was awarded the Order of Alexander Nevsky, Bulat Akhatovich Yanborisov, ”Deputy Chief of the GRU, General Vladimir Alekseev, solemnly recited, dressed in full dress military uniform. The award ceremony took place at the office of Silkway Rally, which organizes an international rally on trucks and motorcycles. The head of the Silkway Rally Association, Bulat Yanborisov, proudly accepted the award and immediately washed the order in a glass of vodka in front of the general.
The Order of Alexander Nevsky is a military award that is awarded for personal courage and military merit, what could the head of the sports rally Bulat Yanborisov, who has Russian and Cypriot citizenship and spends half his time in France, have to do with them? And what about the deputy head of the Main Intelligence Directorate, and what “special tasks” did he talk about?
Special Purpose Rally
Silk Way is an annual rally that started in 2009 as a regional off-road race between Kazan and Ashgabat. By 2016, the rally was already running from Moscow to Beijing, and the following year it was extended to Xi'an, the starting point of the ancient Silk Road. The organizers attracted the highest names from the world of sports: its director was Vladimir Chagin, nicknamed the “King of Dakar” for a record number of victories in French rallies, and his deputy was Frédéric Lequien, well-known in the racing world and former head of the Rally Dakar franchise. The rally helped promote KAMAZ trucks, which was the main sponsor of the event, and strengthen relations with China, where most of the route passed.
The soft power goals of the Silkway Rally are clearly set out in a number of internal documents. One of them, titled "Silk Road Communication Platform" and dated December 9, 2021 according to its metadata, states that the project aims to "realize the potential of soft power and people's democracy through international cooperation." Among other things, the rallies were supposed to somehow (the document does not specify how) contribute to the Siberian Power 2 project (on cooperation between Gazprom and the Chinese CNPC for the supply of Russian gas to China) and even ensure political stability in Mongolia.
Another internal SWR document presents the company as a "universal platform for people's diplomacy" based on the idea of "Russian soft power" aimed at bringing countries such as Russia, China, Iran, Qatar, Afghanistan, Syria, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan closer together. The document also reveals plans to build "logistics terminals" in each of these countries, which will include not only storage facilities, but also a closed 5G communications network.
The document also reveals the rally's planned giant route (originally scheduled for late 2022) from Doha in Qatar through Central Asia and Turkey, and ending in Damascus in Syria.
The same internal document clearly outlines the geopolitical goals of the project for Russia:
- Strengthening Russia's position in the region through the role of a mediator in relations between Qatar, Iran and Turkey
- Impact on Saudi Arabia
- Influence on Turkey through the Syrian component of the rally on all issues of interest to Russia, including Azerbaijan, Armenia, Crimea and Syria.
- Offer the Taliban a roadmap to international legitimacy in exchange for recognition of Crimea as Russian territory.
Thus, the project is presented to its founders not just as a sporting event, but as a giant logistics infrastructure. But the organizers did not stop at these Napoleonic plans either, a project of a truly continental scale had already matured in their heads, as can be seen from the third document. The document is classified “Top Secret/Do Not Copy” and is a report by Bulat Yanborisov to Russian Defense Minister Shoigu dated November 12, 2021. In addition to various infrastructure and energy plans, it already considered military goals:
- Opportunities to create new military-political alliances
- Increased Russian military presence in Central Asia and the East in order to "prevent the destabilization of the region"
- Arms control in the region
- Opportunities to bring Russian military-industrial complex products to new markets with whom "negotiations were held to support the Silkway platform." This report lists, among others, the Crown Prince of Qatar, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Defense and Minister of Foreign Affairs of China, a representative of the Turkish Ministry of Defense, who is also described as the owner of the rights to the Formula 1 franchise in Turkey, and Sheikh Khalifa, Emir Abu Dhabi.
However, in the meantime, GRU rallies are far from establishing world domination and, perhaps, the only international success that race organizers could be proud of is the release of the cartoon Rally Road Racers on wide screens, which was voiced by such stars as Monty Python participant John Cleese and actor Jay Kay Simmons. The characters of the cartoon compete in a rally called Silk Road (officially, the cartoon is not associated with SWR, but there are simply no other rallies with any similar name).
But it was not for the cartoon that the deputy head of the GRU awarded Bulat Yanborisov with a military order. And indeed, as we were able to establish, Yanborisov also had other merits before the GRU.
In the service of saboteurs
Sources in SilkwayRally claim that they do not know what Yanborisov was doing in the company and whether he had anything to do with organizing races. And this is understandable, since he, apparently, had more responsible tasks.
In 2022 alone, Yanborisov spoke on the phone with General Alekseev more than 60 times, according to the billings we analyzed. Alekseev called and wrote to Yanborisov on three different phone numbers, and also spoke with Yanborisov's adult son, Amir Yanborisov, who is also included in the SWR project and who, according to metadata, prepared reports for Sergei Shoigu.
Contacts between Yanborisov Sr. and General Alekseev were especially intense shortly before and in the first two months after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine (and according to our sources, Alekseev played the most active role in organizing the first phase of the invasion, which ended, however, not at all like her planned).
Yanborisov communicated not only with Alekseev, but at least 11 other GRU officers, three of whom were officers of military unit 29155, who participated in the poisoning of the Skripals and Emelyan Gebrev with Novichok and in the explosions of military warehouses in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. After investigations by The Insider and Bellingcat, the military unit was disbanded, but some of the officers continued to work for the GRU and participated in sabotage activities in Ukraine.
One of Yanborisov's frequent interlocutors was Rustam Jafarov (born in 1972), who served in military unit 29155 and traveled around European countries in 2010-2013 with a passport in the name of Rustam Jamalov. “Dzhamalov” used a passport with a number that differed only by one digit from the passport number of the Skripal poisoners “Ruslan Boshirov” (Anatoly Chepiga) and “Alexander Petrov” (Alexander Mishkin). In 2011, Rustam Jamalov flew with Ruslan Boshirov to one of the cities in Central Europe, near which an ammunition depot exploded a few days later (this incident is still being investigated by The Insider and Bellingcat).
As can be seen from open sources, Jafarov, under his real name, was listed in 2021 as an employee of the Silkway Rally Directorate. Prior to this, the GRU saboteur was listed in the Office of the Presidential Administration as a representative of the President in the Far Eastern District of Russia (as we were able to establish, many of the 29155 officers, whose work abroad became impossible after they appeared in The Insider’s investigations, became presidential representatives in various Russian regions and Bellingcat).
Other contacts of Yanborisov include Oleg Martyanov, a former commander of the Russian Special Operations Forces (SOF) and a specialist in working with private military companies. Some other contacts of Yanborisov were also connected with the PMC, for example, Valery Chekalov, an associate of Prigozhin
Yanborisov was also in contact with at least two of Yevgeny Prigozhin's associates, including Valery Chekalov, who is credited with many of Prigozhin's companies.
For the GRU visa-free regime
A full-scale invasion of Ukraine, organized with the active participation of the GRU and specifically General Alekseev, sharply limited the ability of Russians to travel around the world - the abolition of tourist visas, the closure of air traffic, the non-renewal of residence permits. But not for Alekseev's wards, who had no problems. Bulat Yanborisov continued to travel extensively in Europe and Asia after February 2022, returning only briefly to Russia. In Paris, Yanborisov owns an apartment on Prony Street, in a wealthy area:
Considering Yanborisov's constant contacts with a team of assassins from military unit 29155, this apartment could be used as a safe house for the GRU (in any case, it is clear from the flights that members of the group appeared in Paris regularly).
In Bulgaria, Yanborisov also has a luxurious mansion in Sozopol (near Burgas). According to the details of the phone of Denis Sergeev (aka Sergei Fedotov), the head of the GRU group who killed Emelyan Gebrev as a "newcomer", it is clear that before the poisoning he was not far from Sozopol.
Yanborisov's apartments and companies are no less valuable asset for the GRU than the infrastructure created for the rally. But if the latter serves as a pretext for residents to travel to Central Asian countries and China, the former allows the GRU to have a legal pretext for using real estate and money in Europe. Moreover, unlike the residents of the GRU, who work under diplomatic cover and are under the constant supervision of local special services, Yanborisov and his son can travel around Europe without attracting too much attention to themselves.
In a conversation with The Insider, Bulat Yanborisov admitted that the SWR was conceived not only as a sporting event, but also as a platform for "people's diplomacy", but said that he had no relations with the GRU, and received an order from General Alekseev for his help in delivering for the Ministry of Defense to Russia from China medical equipment to combat coronavirus. He also explained that he communicated with Rustam Jafarov only because he was his relative (cousin's husband). At the same time, he stated that after the start of the so-called SVO, he did not communicate with either Alekseev or other representatives of the Ministry of Defense, although telephone details show the opposite. He also stated that he does not remember communicating with any of the 11 GRU officers listed by The Insider, although this is also denied by the metadata of his telephone connections. About the released cartoon Yanborisov, according to him, learned from the correspondent of The Insider.