By Melissa Bell, Saskya Vandoorne and Joseph Ataman, CNN
Vladimir Osechkin says he was walking toward his dining room table, plates of spaghetti for his children in his hands, when he spotted the red laser dancing across the wall.
He knew what was coming.
Slamming off the lights, he says he and his wife pulled their children to the ground, hurrying out of sight and into a different area of the apartment. Minutes later, Osechkin says, a would-be assassin fired, mistaking hastily arrived police officers for the Russian dissident.
For the next 30 minutes, Osechkin told CNN, his wife and children lay on the floor. His wife, nearest their children, shielded them from more bullets during the September 12 attack.
“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 told CNN from France, where he’s lived since 2015 after he fled Russia and claimed asylum. He now has full-time police protection.
He’s become the champion of a growing number of high-level Russian officials defecting to the West, emboldened and disgruntled by the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. He says ex-generals and intelligence agents are among their number.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown his determination to hunt the Kremlin’s perceived enemies overseas. Osechkin has been arrested in absentia in Russia and is currently on the Russian authorities “wanted list.” France has provided him sanctuary, but security is far harder to come by.
Osechkin’s work as an investigative journalist and anti-corruption activist — which means he has made it his business to know the secrets of the Russian state — helps to a degree. Twice, he tells CNN, tip-offs have beaten the killers to his door.
“Vladimir, be careful,” a source in 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 under constant armed guard, provided by the French authorities, his address and routine are secret.
Making powerful enemies
As an influential human rights activist and journalist, Osechkin has long been a thorn in the side of many powerful Russians. After founding Gulagu.net in 2011 — a collaborative human rights organization targeting corruption and torture in Russia — he has overseen a string of high-profile investigations accusing Russian institutions and ministries of crimes. One alleged the systematic rape of male prisoners in Russian prisons.
But it was Gulagu.net’s work since Russian tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border in February that gave the organization newfound international relevance.
The prison investigation inspired one group of officers from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) — the successor to the Soviet Union’s KGB — to turn whistleblower, driven by what the officers said was their “disgusted surprise” at Gulagu.net’s findings, Osechkin said. This led to #windofchange, a series of letters purportedly from FSB personnel shared with Osechkin’s organization. Published online by Osechkin’s team, they detailed their dissent with Russia’s direction and war in Ukraine.
Putin’s so-called “special military operation” wasn’t the only movement of Russians after February 24. It also sparked “a big wave” of Russian officials leaving their homeland, Osechkin said, dwarfed only by the flood of men fleeing the Kremlin’s “partial mobilization” order in September. Now, he told CNN, “It’s every day some people … ask [for] our help.”
Many are low-level soldiers, but among them are far bigger prizes: Osechkin says their number include an ex-government minister and a former three-star Russian general — 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 claim asylum. The ex-soldier was in fear for his life after refusing to renew 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 told CNN. Novichok was the nerve agent used in a 2018 attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England. The UK government assessed that the Russian government “almost certainly” approved the poisoning; Moscow denied involvement.
Implicit in such officials’ escape from Russia through Osechkin’s network is an agreement to provide him with information about Moscow’s inner workings. Some of that ends up in the hands of European intelligence agencies, with whom Osechkin has regular contact, he said.
One former senior FSB lieutenant who Osechkin is helping in Europe, Emran Navruzbekov, said he prepared FSB directives on Russia’s espionage operations in Europe to offer Western intelligence agencies.
“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 told CNN.
Some of those that Osechkin helps carry information — even military secrets — that he admits is of limited interest to his human rights organization. But Western intelligence agencies have very different priorities.
Michel Yakovleff, an ex-French army general and former deputy commander of NATO operations, who at CNN’s request reviewed several military files obtained by Osechkin, said that while they may not hold much importance for a military 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.”
Secrets on paper
One ex-Russian general brought with him military documents including an architectural plan of a building, according to Osechkin, with a legend detailing the meaning of the symbols, listing utilities and construction dates.
The general, seeking to win European favor, hoped Western authorities would see their value, Osechkin said. Intelligence sources have confirmed the likely authenticity of the documents to CNN but raised questions over their utility and exclusivity.
For Yakovleff, documents aren’t the only currency defectors hold.
“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 said.
“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 services, Yakovleff added.
Alongside the military documents, the ex-Russian general ferried information on corruption within the military and secret recordings showing how the FSB pulls the strings even within military units, Osechkin said.
Another defector, 32-year-old Maria Dmitrieva, escaped with purported secrets from within the FSB’s ranks. She told CNN that she had worked for a month as a doctor for the FSB. In preparation for her defection, she says she secretly recorded conversations with patients, whose symptoms sometimes hid state secrets.
One operative with the infamous GRU — or Russian military intelligence — was suffering from malaria after an unpublicized mission in Africa, she said. Other conversations revealed Chechen officials being given judicial impunity, she alleged, or officials discussing the collapse in the Russian army.
CNN has been unable to verify this independently.
Dmitrieva, who is seeking asylum in the south of France, leaving behind her family and her boyfriend who she says works for Russian intelligence, is unsure whether the information she provided to authorities will be enough to guarantee her permanent asylum.
A reason to flee
“You need good reasons to defect,” Yakovleff said. “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 chances in Ukraine was driving many of his colleagues to look 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 told CNN.
“They already understand that Russia will never win this war, they will just go out of their way to find some solution,” he said.
For Dmitrieva too, the war in Ukraine was the trigger. She said that she hopes to inspire others inside 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 said.
She left behind more than her family in Moscow. Dmitrieva says her position afforded her unique privileges, including a luxury car with state number plates and an office with views of the defense 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 said.
“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 said that the Ukrainian heritage and family ties of many Russian officials played a key role in their defection, prompting them to join a years-long exodus of journalists and human rights defenders from Russia.
“There is no truth in this war,” he said. “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 result of his work aiding in the escape of whistleblowers from Russia, Osechkin has become something of a beacon for defectors, who know that he has the contacts with Western authorities and public profile to ensure the most effective treatment of the secrets they smuggle out.
A cuckoo in the nest
Wary of attempts by Moscow to infiltrate his organization and discredit his work, his colleagues verify the identity of all those that they help, Osechkin said.
Even so, one man posing as a defector embarrassed Gulagu.net, his apparent motives — not to actually defect — only revealed after Osechkin had streamed four interviews with him on the organization’s YouTube channel. In a video interview with another blogger, the imposter criticized Osechkin’s level of care toward him once he was in Europe. Osechkin admits this can make it harder for real whistleblowers to trust him.
Osechkin argues that the “real secret agents of the Russian Federation” don’t need his help to enter Europe.
European allies have taken an increasingly aggressive stance against Russian spying after a string of Russian attacks, including the 2014 occupation of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine, the Skripal poisoning in the UK and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February.
Last year, 600 Russians were expelled from European countries, 400 of whom were spies, according to the British intelligence services. Many were working as diplomats.
Osechkin also feels that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a turning point for the Russian leader, undoing decades of Russian stability under his power.
“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 said.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated in which year 600 Russians were expelled from European countries.
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Additional reporting by Anna Shpakova.