Russia recruits IS fighters for espionage, assassination in Ukraine

By Olha Chepil

An IS member poses next to artillery shells in a picture posted as part of the group's claim of an April 18, 2022, attack on Uzbekistan. [File]

An IS member poses next to artillery shells in a picture posted as part of the group's claim of an April 18, 2022, attack on Uzbekistan. [File]

KYIV -- Russia is trying to use former "Islamic State" (IS) militants to infiltrate Chechen detachments and Crimean Tatar battalions fighting for the Ukrainian armed forces, according to reporters and analysts.

Ukraine's battle against Russian invaders has attracted sympathetic combatants from ethnic groups that the Soviet Union or Russia oppressed over the centuries.

An investigative report by Russian opposition publication Meduza found that Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) had attempted to recruit a former IS member to spy on Ukrainian forces.

Baurzhan Kultanov, a Russian, fought in Syria in 2014 as part of IS. He told Meduza he later became "disillusioned" with the militants and fled to Turkey, where he sought political asylum.

Russia-recruited mercenaries are shown near Palmyra, Syria, in 2017. [ISIS Hunters/Twitter]

Russia-recruited mercenaries are shown near Palmyra, Syria, in 2017. [ISIS Hunters/Twitter]

Turkish authorities, citing his terrorist past, denied his claim and deported him back to Russia where he was imprisoned.

Russian authorities, however, invited him to become an FSB asset on the eve of his sentencing, and upon his release in 2019, Kultanov received his first assignment to Ukraine.

Kultanov shared the instructions he was given by the FSB with Meduza: "You don't have to invent anything: your history and your combat speak for themselves. After all, you really are a terrorist, a Muslim, an ex-con."

"Just tell them [Ukrainians] you hate Russia and the FSB and want to help. They'll take you in with open arms."

"You're our eyes and ears there," he said, recalling the words of his FSB handlers. "But you're not the only one."

Kultanov told the publication that he received kill orders twice with the photos, names or addresses of his assigned victims.

He said he rejected those jobs and ultimately never entered Ukrainian territory, instead fleeing to Turkey, where he again sought asylum.

"I went to the Turkish police and told them everything. I don't want to be a spy or end up in prison for being a spy. Most important, I asked them not to deport me to Russia," said Kultanov on May 15 in a YouTube interview with

He expressed fear of being sentenced to life in prison or killed if he is deported again.

Russian infiltration

Kultanov's story is just one example of the FSB's efforts to infiltrate foreign security forces.

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) has unmasked more than 600 Russian agents and spies since the Russian invasion began in February 2022, Ukrainska Pravda reported in January.

Vera Mironova, a Russian-American academic focusing on armed conflict, pointed to the story of Khusein Dzhambetov, who was also recruited by the FSB.

Dzhambetov, a former Russian soldier from Chechnya, lived as a refugee in Belgium, where he sold halal meat, Mironova told Caravanserai.

After Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine began, he left his wife and seven children and travelled to the front to fight for Ukraine.

There he became "the second-in-command in the 'Chechen' battalion. He often appeared on Ukrainian television, in Western media," said Mironova.

This May, Dzhambetov suddenly appeared in Grozny, Russia. He admitted to killing his Ukrainian comrades-in-arms and swore allegiance to pro-Putin Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov.

"Not only did he leak everything to Russia. He also left for Russia and reviewed a parade with Kadyrov. Now he even has a watch with the letter Z," said Mironova, referring to a symbol of support for Russia's war on Ukraine.

FSB agents are trying to infiltrate not only Ukrainian but also American security agencies, according to Mironova.

"I'm confident that Russia has now infiltrated very many of its agents into Ukraine and around the world in general," said Mironova, who is advising Ukrainian forces.

Mironova, who previously worked in Chechnya, Dagestan, Syria and Iraq studying militancy, said that the FSB is working to recruit militants in Syria.

"Look at the SBU ... And consider that for every arrested person, there are 20 who are not arrested," said Mironova.

Why recruit militants?

Russia has previously benefited from co-operation between the FSB and IS militants, say observers.

"In fact, earlier the FSB provided channels for sending radical Muslims from Russian provinces into IS," Maksym Palamarchuk, director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies of Ukraine's National Institute for Strategic Studies, told Caravanserai.

"So they infiltrated this organisation with their agents, and shipped out people unsatisfied with the Russian regime," he said.

"We see that these schemes that Russia contrives are being exposed and the exposure harms their effectiveness," said Palamarchuk.

"The most important thing for the FSB is that everyone has a 'back story'," Ivan Stupak, a former SBU officer and analyst at the Ukrainian Institute of the Future, told Caravanserai.

"Here's what the Russians figure out -- whom will Ukrainian special services fall for? Whom will they let in the fastest? Someone who has problems with government agencies in Russia, of course," Stupak said.

Russian psychologists work with former militant recruits, rehearse stressful situations with them, and dream up at least two or three back stories, he said.

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It's unsurprising, given that Russia has been recognized as a state sponsor of terrorism.