‘You really are a terrorist’ How Russia’s FSB recruits former ISIS fighters — and tries to plant them in Ukrainian battalions

In January 2014, when Baurzhan Kultanov first joined the Islamic State, he wasn’t surprised by almost anything he encountered in Syria and Iraq’s occupied territories. While recounting his experiences there, he compared Raqqa, ISIS’s then-capital, to Istanbul, where he had met his recruiters, as well as to his hometown of Astrakhan, Russia.

“People live their lives there, just like anywhere,” Kultanov told Meduza. “The women sit at home, they go to the bazaar — just like in Russia. Except, in this case, there are drones constantly flying overhead and dropping bombs. And all the flags are black. And all of the men are armed.”

One other aspect of life reminded Kultanov of Russia as well: the local authorities’ constant surveillance of potential dissidents. “The caliphate’s security service is somewhat like the FSB. They would find dissidents and imprison or kill them,” the former fighter said. “I did a lot of talking myself, but I didn’t fear the consequences: I always had a weapon on my person and explosives on my belt.”

Kultanov was placed in a jamaat with another Astrakhan native, Shamil Izmailov, who went by the name Abu Hanifa within ISIS. After six months on the front (Kultanov fought at various times against the Syrian opposition, against Kurdish militias, and against Al-Qaeda) and a wound in his temple, he realized that the ISIS propaganda videos he’d watched, which depicted local women crying and asking for help, had misled him. “I started to disappear, to skip [military operations],” Baurzhan said. “I went to help Muslims, but I ultimately realized that the chaos had been created by ISIS itself. And that I needed to get out of there.”

Baurzhan twice tried to escape from ISIS-held territory, but he was detained by caliphate police and the Amniyat, the group’s security and intelligence agency. “In November 2014, I paid $100 to a smuggler, and I finally made it to Turkey. From Syria, it seemed impossible; it felt like there was nowhere in the world where I would be able to start over with a fresh slate. But it turned out not to be so hard after all.”

Upon returning to Istanbul, Kultanov immediately requested political asylum at the UN, though he didn’t reveal to officials that he had worked for ISIS. When the authorities found out, Turkish police took him to a deportation detention center. “I didn’t understand Turkish very well, but I managed to make out that a criminal case had been opened against me in Russia. After all, I’d even posted photos from the ribats to VKontakte — the same photos that were added to the FSB’s body of evidence.”

One night — Kultanov remembers the exact date: June 18, 2015 — some people in civilian clothing whom Kultanov had never seen before came into his cell. “When I realized they were about to deport me, I slit my wrists,” he recalled. “They patched me up — and then beat me. In the airport, I ran away from them again, and they beat me again. To the point that the stitches in my wrists split open. So I spent the flight covered in my own blood.”

When he arrived in Moscow, Kultanov was met at the airport by riot police officers and FSB agents. “They took the Turkish handcuffs off me and put Russian ones on,” he told Meduza. “An agent named Maxim showed me a photo of myself sitting in a tank with a machine gun: ‘Recognize this?’”

From there, Kultanov was flown to Astrakhan. Alexander Gushchin, an FSB captain who was overseeing the felony case against Kultanov, came to the airport to pick him up.

At the FSB’s Astrakhan office, Kultanov was met by “10 employees, if not more.” “Some were in balaclavas, while others were in uniform,” he told Meduza. “The ten of them stood over me and shouted, ‘Sign a confession! Or maybe you want a pipe stuck up your ass, and barbed wire shoved through it? Or you want electricity sent through you? Or you want to be taken into the forest and shot like a terrorist? And your kids sent to an orphanage?”

Within days, Kultanov had signed a confession — and Alexander Pisarev, one of the FSB investigators working on his case, began treating him unexpectedly well.

“He showed me all of my offenses — ’participating in an unlawful armed formation,’ ‘recruiting,’ ‘mercenary activity’ — and said, ‘Well, that’s twenty years. But if you cooperate with us, we’ll make your prison term shorter than short,’” Kultanov recalled.

The case was examined in a special procedure, and Kultanov was sentenced to just four years and four months. On the day before his sentencing, Captain Gushchin first raised the prospect of him working with Russian intelligence. “We’ll give you a minimal sentence, and as soon as you’re released, we’ll make you into an agent,” Kultanov remembers him saying.

The collaboration began while Kultanov was still in prison, he told Meduza. “I scribbled my signature on some reports for Gushchin, perjuring myself. On the FSB’s orders, I went on TV and spoke,” he said. Often, the agents showed him photos of people he’d never seen before and instructed him to “recognize” them as militants.

“To be honest, I signed so many testimonies that I hardly remember the details,” Kultanov admitted.

In 2018, not long before Kultanov was released from prison, Gushchin took him to an FSB building, sat him at a table, and presented him with an FSB cooperation agreement. “Read this — you’ll have to sign it,” Kultanov remembers him saying. “The leadership is interested in you. And I’ll be your resident — I’ll oversee your work. There are two copies: one for you and one for me.”

Among other things, the document included Kultanov’s new alias: Ruslan. “I signed it, but Gushchin kept both copies for himself, saying, ‘You’re in prison right now. Why don’t you leave that with me,’” Kultanov recalled.

Baurzhan Kultanov was released in 2019, but the FSB allowed him to forego the period of administrative supervision that would usually be required in a case like his. Instead, Gushchin informed him that he would soon be sent on his first assignment — to Ukraine.

“How will I get there? What will I do there?” Kultanov recalled asking his new boss.

“We’ll organize everything. It’s important right now that we have agents there. We have something planned in Ukraine soon,” he responded.

‘You’ll be our eyes and ears’

In 2019, the FSB began preparing Kultanov for integration into “Chechen groups and Tatar battalions that want to fight with the Ukrainian Armed Forces,” he told Meduza. The agency wanted “the full information” about the units’ equipment and personnel.

The officers overseeing him “decided not to worry about” a cover story, he told Meduza. “‘We don’t need to make anything up: your history and your military experience speak for themselves,’” Kultanov recalled Alexander Gushchin saying. “After all, you really are a terrorist, a Muslim, an ex-con. Just tell them you don’t like Russia and the FSB and that you want to help. They’ll take you with open arms.”

One of Gushchin’s colleagues at the FSB’s Astrakhan branch, agent Vadim Stetsenko, began working with Kultanov to prepare him for his assignment. Having lived in Sevastopol before Russia’s annexation of Crimea and served in the Ukrainian Security Service’s counterintelligence department, Stetsenko likely knew Ukraine better than any of his colleagues. “And then he defected to the FSB,” Kultanov told Meduza.

Kultanov had difficulty keeping track of the complex instructions he was given. “To be honest, I didn’t even learn all of this Ukrainian stuff. I mean, I’d never been there before. When you don’t know how day-to-day life works in a place, it’s difficult to remember things,” he said. “And Vadim advised me on everything from what SIM card to get to which district to live in. ‘I know Kyiv, I know Kharkiv. Live in such-and-such apartment — I have people there.’”

From his conversations with Stetsenko, Kultanov learned that the FSB was interested in a man named Isa Akayev, the commander of the Crimea Islamic volunteer battalion, which had been fighting against Russia since 2014 and consisted of Crimean Tatars, Chechens, and Kabardians.

In the spring of 2022, fighters from the Crimea battalion became some of the first to enter Motyzhyn, a village in the Kyiv region’s Bucha district, after it was liberated from Russia forces. There, they found the bodies of civilians who had been killed during the occupation. In March of that year, Akayev vowed to kill Russian soldiers “by all means permitted by Sharia.” “Just don’t forget to put seeds in your pockets so that sunflowers will grow [from your bodies],” he added.

The FSB didn’t begin searching for Akayev until then, though the agency had been “obsessed” with the “Crimean Tatar underground” ever since the annexation of Crimea, Andrey Soldatov, an expert on Russia’s intelligence services, told Meduza. “One FSB officer admitted to me that in 2014, when they were supposed to create an [FSB] branch [in Crimea], they just pulled out the archives and looked at what the KGB was prioritizing in 1974 or so. And someone had written, ‘Crack down on Crimean Tatar nationalism,’” Soldatov said. “So they started cracking down on it.”