The GRU leadership oversees the Silk Way Rally, an international off-road racing project, using its infrastructure to deploy its residents and establish political contacts, as evidenced by the documents obtained by our investigators. Call logs suggest that the official director of the rally was in constant contact with officers from Military Unit 29155, which was involved in the bombing of military depots and poisonings with chemical weapons.
A special ops rally
In the service of saboteurs
A visa-free regime for the GRU
A joint investigation by The Insider, Bellingcat, Der Spiegel, and Le Monde
“It's good when the reward finds its hero. By the presidential decree on the Silk Way Rally LLC, Bulat Yanborisov is awarded the Order of Alexander Nevsky for services in strengthening the country’s defense capability and for successful implementation of special tasks,” recited the deputy head of GRU, General Vladimir Alexeev, dressed in ceremonial military uniform. The ceremony took place at the office of Silk Way Rally, a company that organizes international truck and motorcycle rallies. Bulat Yanborisov, head of the Silk Way Rally Association, proudly accepted the award and dipped the order in a glass of vodka in front of the general.
Considering that the Order of Alexander Nevsky is a military award given for personal bravery and military merit, what could Bulat Yanborisov, who has Russian and Cypriot citizenship and lives in France half of the time, have done to deserve it? Where does the deputy chief of Russia’s main intelligence agency come in? What “special tasks” was he referring to?
A special ops rally
The Silk Way is an annual off-road race that was established in 2009 as a regional event, with contenders covering the distance from Kazan, Russia, to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. By 2016, the rally had already run from Moscow to Beijing, and the following year it was extended to Xi'an, the starting point of the ancient Silk Road. The organizers managed to engage high-ranking sportsmen, putting Vladimir Chagin, who is nicknamed “King of Dakar” for the record number of victories in the French rally, in the director's chair and appointing Frederic Lequien, racing celebrity and former head of the Rally Dakar franchise, as his deputy. 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 Silk Way Rally's “soft-power” objectives are clearly stated in its internal documents. One of them, entitled “The Silk Way Communication Platform” and dated, according to its metadata, December 9, 2021, states that the project aims to “realize the potential of soft power and people's diplomacy in international cooperation”. Among other things, the rally was supposed to somehow contribute (in an unspecified way) to the Siberian Power 2 project (a collaboration between Gazprom and the Chinese CNPC to supply 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 “Russia’s soft power”, aimed at bringing together such countries as Russia, China, Iran, Qatar, Afghanistan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. This document also reports on plans to build “logistics terminals” in each of these countries that will include not only storage facilities but also a secure 5G communications network.
The document also reveals a giant rally route (originally scheduled for late 2022) that would span from Doha in Qatar through Central Asian countries and Turkey and end in Damascus in Syria.
The same internal document clearly states the project’s geopolitical objectives in Russia’s interests:
- Strengthening Russia's regional position by facilitating the relations between Qatar, Iran, and Turkey
- Influencing Saudi Arabia
- Influencing Turkey through the Syrian component of the rally on all issues of interest to Russia, including Azerbaijan, Armenia, Crimea, and Syria.
- Offering the Taliban a roadmap to international legitimacy in exchange for recognition of Crimea as Russian territory.
Therefore, the project founders no longer limited its purpose to a sporting event but saw it as a sprawling logistical infrastructure. Moreover, the organizers went even further in their ambitions, conceiving a project of a truly continental scale, as can be seen in the third document. The document is classified (“Top Secret/Do Not Copy”) and annotated as a report by Bulat Yanborisov to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, dated November 12, 2021. In addition to various infrastructure and energy plans, the report already addressed military objectives:
- Opportunities for the creation of new political and military alliances
- Increasing Russia's military presence in Central Asia and the East “to prevent destabilization in the region”
- Arms control in the region
- Opportunities for introducing products of the Russian military industry to the new markets that have pledged to support the Silk Way platform during negotiations. Among others, the report lists the Crown Prince of Qatar, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Defense Minister, and the Foreign Minister of China, a representative of the Turkish Defense Ministry, who is also described as the owner of the F1 franchise rights in Turkey, as well as Sheikh Khalifa, the ruler of Abu Dhabi.
For now, however, the GRU rallies are far from establishing world domination. Perhaps, the only international success the race organizers could be proud of is the theatrical release of the animated feature film Rally Road Racers, voiced by such stars as Monty Python member John Cleese and the actor J. K. Simmons. Its characters compete in a rally called Silk Road (officially, the film is not associated with the SWR, but there’s no other rally with a similar name).
However, it was not for the cartoon that the deputy head of the GRU awarded Bulat Yanborisov a military order. And indeed, as we were able to ascertain, Yanborisov had also done the GRU favors of a different kind.
In the service of saboteurs
Sources at the Silk Way Rally claim that they were unaware of Yanborisov's activities at the company or whether he had anything to do with organizing rallies. And this is understandable since he appears to have had more important tasks.
In 2022 alone, Yanborisov had at least 60 phone conversations with General Alexeev, according to the billing records we analyzed. General Alexeev called and texted Yanborisov at three different phone numbers and also communicated with his adult son, Amir Yanborisov, who is also involved in the SWR project and who, according to the metadata, also prepared reports to Sergei Shoigu.
Contacts between Yanborisov Sr. and General Alexeev were particularly frequent shortly before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine and in its first two months. (According to our sources, Alexeev played the most active role in organizing the first phase of the invasion, which ended, however, not at all as it had been planned).
GRU General Vladimir Alexeev and Bulat Yanborisov
Apart from Alexeev, Yanborisov communicated with at least 11 more GRU officers, three of whom were officers of Military Unit 29155 complicit in the novichok poisonings of the Skripals and Emilian Gebrev and the bombing of military depots in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. Following The Insider and Bellingcat’s investigations, the military unit was disbanded, but some of the officers continued to work for the GRU, participating in subversive activities in Ukraine.
One of Yanborisov's frequent interlocutors was Rustam Dzhafarov (born 1972), who served in Military Unit 29155 and traveled to European countries in 2010-2013 under the name Rustam Dzhamalov. “Dzhamalov”’s passport number differed from those of the Skripal poisoners “Ruslan Boshirov” (real name Anatoly Chepiga) and “Alexander Petrov” (Alexander Mishkin) by a single digit. In 2011, “Rustam Dzhamalov” flew with “Ruslan Boshirov” to a Central European city near which a munitions depot exploded a few days later (this incident is still under investigation by The Insider and Bellingcat).
The information available in open sources suggests that in 2021, Dzhafarov was listed as an employee of the Silk Way Rally Directorate under his real name. Before that, the GRU agent served in the Presidential Administration as a Presidential Envoy to the Far Eastern District of Russia (as we found, many of MU 29155 officers whose work abroad became impossible exposure in The Insider and Bellingcat’s investigations were appointed presidential envoys to various Russian regions).
Yanborisov's other contacts include Oleg Martyanov, the former commander of the Russian Special Operations Forces (SSO) and an expert in relations with private military companies. Some of Yanborisov's contacts were also connected with PMCs, such as Valery Chekalov, an associate of the Wagner PMC chief Evgeny Prigozhin
Yanborisov was also in touch with at least two associates of Yevgeny Prigozhin, including Valery Chekalov, the pro-forma owner of Prigozhin's multiple companies.
A visa-free regime for the GRU
Organized with the active participation of the GRU and specifically General Alexeev, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine drastically limited traveling opportunities for the majority of Russians: canceled tourist visas, suspended air travel, and rejected residence permit applications. But Alexeev's subordinates seem to have no problems at all. After February 2022, Bulat Yanborisov continued to travel extensively throughout Europe and Asia, only briefly returning to Russia. In Paris, Yanborisov owns an apartment in Rue Prony, in an affluent neighborhood:
Given Yanborisov’s regular contacts with the team of assassins from Military Unit 29155, this apartment may have been used as a GRU safe house (at any rate, the flight data shows that group members regularly visited Paris).
In Bulgaria, Yanborisov also has a luxurious mansion in Sozopol (not far from Burgas). The phone data of Denis Sergeev (also known as Sergei Fedotov), the head of the GRU group that poisoned Emilian Gebrev with novichok, places him near Sozopol before the poisoning.
Yanborisov's house in Bulgaria
Yanborisov's apartments and companies are no less valuable assets for the GRU than the infrastructure built for the rallies. Yet while the latter serves as a pretext for agents to travel to Central Asia and China, the former provides the GRU with a legal pretext for using real estate and money in Europe. Moreover, unlike GRU resident spies working under diplomatic cover and under the constant supervision of local special services, Yanborisov and his son can travel around Europe without attracting undue attention.
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 denied any ties to the GRU. According to him, the order he received from General Alexeev was in recognition of his help in delivering anti-COVID-19 medical equipment to the Russian Defense Ministry. He also explained that he’d only communicated with Rustam Dzhafarov because he was a relative (his cousin’s husband). However, even though he denied communicating with Alekseev or any other MoD representatives since the beginning of the so-called “special military operation”, his billing data suggests otherwise. He also said he couldn't recall communicating with any of the eleven GRU officers listed by The Insider, although his phone metadata attests to the contrary. Yanborisov also said he’d only first heard about the cartoon from The Insider’s correspondent.