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Russia confiscates passports of senior officials to stop defections

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Russia’s security services are confiscating the passports of senior officials and state company executives to prevent overseas travel, as paranoia over leaks and defections spreads through President Vladimir Putin’s regime.

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine still raging, security officers have tightened travel requirements within the state sector, demanding the surrender of travel documents from some prominent figures and former officials, said several people familiar with the matter.

The increased pressure reflects deep suspicion in the Kremlin and FSB, the KGB’s successor agency, about the loyalty of Russia’s civilian elite, many of whom privately oppose the war in Ukraine and are chafing over its impact on their lifestyles.

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson, confirmed Russia had tightened the restrictions on foreign travel for some who work in “sensitive” areas. “There are stricter rules for this. In some places they are formalised and in some places they depend on a specific decision . . . about specific employees,” he told the Financial Times. “Since the start of the special military operation, more attention has been paid to this issue.”

Since Soviet times, Russian officials with access to mid-level state secrets have been required to leave their passports in a safe run by the “special department” embedded in their ministries and companies. But Russia’s security services rarely enforced the rules, according to former officials and executives.

This changed after the invasion of Crimea in 2014, when security services began warning against travel to countries such as the US or UK. After the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year restrictions were applied much more broadly and depend heavily on the whims of individual security officers embedded in state institutions, the people said.

For this reason security measures differ across state institutions, with some asking even medium-level figures to refrain from foreign travel and others giving senior officials blanket permission to travel abroad within reason.

Executives at one major state industrial company are banned from travelling more than two hours’ drive from Moscow without official permission, one of the people said.

In other cases, FSB officers have asked former officials who previously had access to state secrets to surrender their passports, and even some who never had access, said people familiar with the matter.

Alexandra Prokopenko, a former Russian central bank official, said passport restrictions had now expanded beyond individuals with security clearance.

“Now they are coming to certain people and saying, ‘please hand in your red civilian passports, because you have access to sensitive information for the motherland, so we want to control your movements’,” she said.

Russia’s security services have almost total leeway to interpret the rules under revisions to laws on state secrets, espionage and treason, said Prokopenko. She quit the central bank after the invasion last year and is now a visiting fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“Basically any information can be deemed secret, so the embedded FSB officers start telling you that you have sensitive information. What is it? Why is it secret and who decides that? Nobody knows,” Prokopenko said.

Peskov said the decisions “depend on the specific area of work” of both the company and the individual. “They may be more or less sensitive,” he said.

The Kremlin has also made some efforts to extend the informal ban to more officials. Following a series of public scandals over leaked footage of MPs holidaying in Dubai and Mexico, Russia’s lower house of parliament in January required lawmakers to notify superiors about overseas work trips.

At least seven regions have issued strong recommendations against foreign travel to local officials, according to Russian newspaper Kommersant.

In February, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the notorious Wagner paramilitary group, called for a total ban on foreign travel for officials, as well as responsibility for their relatives’ “amoral behaviour, ostentatious displays of wealth, and misuse of luxury goods”.

Yevgeny PrigozhinWagner group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin has called for a total ban on foreign travel for officials © Prigozhin Press Service/AP

The moves have come as discontent grows among the elite with the sputtering war effort and its impact on their lifestyles. Once able to spend their riches on mansions, yachts, and boarding schools for their children in the west, Russian officials and oligarchs are now chafing at being confined to countries not deemed “unfriendly”, several members of the elite told the FT.

That discontent spilled out into the open this week after Ukrainian media published an alleged recording of a conversation between Farkhad Akhmedov, a sanctioned Russo-Azerbaijani oligarch, and Iosif Prigozhin, a Kremlin-connected music producer whose wife, a prominent singer, performed at a pro-war concert alongside Putin last year.

The call included complaints about Russia’s growing international isolation and pressure from the security services. Akhmedov could not be reached for comment but a person close to him said the recording was genuine. Prigozhin — who is not related to the warlord — has said the recording was “distorted partially or fully” and vowed legal action against the person who recorded it.

“They screwed us, our children, their future, and their fate. Do you understand?” Akhmedov said on the call. “Screw them. We all understand what’s going on there. Go to the Maldives, to Dubai . . . I don’t know . . . to Altai, to Baikal, wherever you want, but stay away from Moscow,” he added.