Russia imposes strict controls on foreign travel by officials

Senior Russian officials – including lawmakers, governors and top executives of state-owned companies – have been subjected to strict foreign travel restrictions by the Kremlin since the start of the Ukraine war in an attempt apparent to prevent defections and hamper the work of foreign intelligence services. services.

The country’s exit screening system was described to The Moscow Times by 10 current and former officials, including an old acquaintance of President Vladimir Putin, who all requested anonymity to speak freely.

While previous media reports have said overseas travel has become more difficult for officials since the invasion of Ukraine, this is the first time details of the program have been reported.

“No one can go anywhere without individual permission,” a senior Russian government official told the Moscow Times.

Preventing officials from taking vacations or personal trips abroad appears to be part of Russia’s growing isolation since the invasion of Ukraine and reflects growing fears – and perhaps even paranoia – in the Kremlin to the risks posed by foreign spies and defectors.

The measures are an effort “to prevent officials from defecting,” said Kremlin critic Gennady Gudkov, a former Soviet KGB officer and former State Duma deputy.

According to current and former officials who spoke to the Moscow Times, the restrictions are being implemented in several ways.

One is the collection of foreign passports from certain officials and employees of state enterprises by the Federal Security Service (FSB), a practice described in an investigation by the US-funded news outlet Current Time which been published earlier this month.

A longtime Kremlin official confirmed the existence of such a practice to the Moscow Times.

Russian officials listen to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s State of the Nation address.

However, depriving officials of their passports is apparently not the only method used to control foreign travel.

In addition, the FSB maintains a database of officials, governors and other state employees who must obtain permission to leave the country, the Kremlin official, a government official and two former officials told the Moscow Times.

“The database contains so-called checkboxes. To leave, they must be unchecked in advance,” the government official said.

Before the Ukrainian war, this permission had to be obtained from an immediate superior.

Since the beginning of the conflict, however, the practice has become considerably stricter.

Senior civil servants must now obtain so-called ‘double approval’ for any overseas travel – from both their immediate superior and their superior’s boss.

This means that it is not uncommon for the question of a trip abroad to be handled by Kremlin Chief of Staff Anton Vaino or even by Putin himself, the Kremlin official said, a government official and a longtime acquaintance of Putin at the Moscow Times.

“Despite the ongoing conflict, Putin himself sometimes has to go through all these lists and figure out who is going abroad for what purpose,” Putin’s longtime acquaintance said.

Many believe that the decision to restrict the freedom of movement of senior officials in this way could only have been taken in the Kremlin.

“This decision was taken at the highest level of the Russian leadership,” a senior Russian parliament official told the Moscow Times.

“Putin with the FSB and members of the Security Council.”

He added that he believed it amounted to an unofficial restriction imposed on all state employees.

While it’s difficult to gauge the number of requests to go abroad that have been granted – or refused – the increased restrictions suggest that overseas travel is now the exception rather than the rule for the level head of the Russian bureaucracy.

Putin and FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov.

Putin and FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov.

“Officially the borders are open, but the authorities are under pressure… a significant number of people have already been banned from traveling abroad,” the government official said.

In an incident four months after the invasion of Ukraine, a senior Russian official was preparing to fly to a foreign resort from a Moscow airport.

Although he has taken many work trips and vacations abroad in recent years, an associate of the official told the Moscow Times that the border guard checked the information on the computer, looked at the official carefully and asked him to wait. After an hour he was told he was not allowed to travel.

“Please return to your duties,” he was told, the official’s associate said.

And it seems that even officials who request permission to travel abroad in advance are often refused.

There have been many examples of foreign vacation plans canceled over the Christmas and New Year period this year, another Kremlin official, another government official and a senior official told The Moscow Times. of a large public energy company.

“There have been instances where high-profile people have been told, ‘No, no vacations. Working vacations,'” the state-owned company’s top executive said.

Transport Minister Vitaly Savelyev (L) and Economic Development Minister Maxim Reshetnikov.

Transport Minister Vitaly Savelyev (L) and Economic Development Minister Maxim Reshetnikov.

Some officials said they were uncomfortable with the current situation – noting in particular the lack of clarity on who exactly the new rules cover.

“It’s very annoying,” said a Russian government official.

Many senior officials also thought they were upset at being forced to forgo the overseas vacations they have grown accustomed to over the past few decades.

There is even a widespread belief that a complete ban on foreign travel by officials could be imposed as early as this year, three officials told the Moscow Times.

Several steps in this direction have already been taken this year.

In January, the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, passed an amendment requiring all MPs to notify the relevant committee in advance of any foreign travel.

And the head of the Wagner Mercenary Company, Yevgeny Prigozhin, last month submitted a letter urging lawmakers to pass legislation banning any official from traveling abroad during the so-called “special military operation” – the term favorite of the Kremlin for its war in Ukraine.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last month that a travel ban was not being discussed in the Kremlin but they were aware of Prigozhin’s proposal.

A session of the Russian State Duma.

A session of the Russian State Duma.

Unofficial foreign travel bans for local officials currently exist in the Vologda, Ulyanovsk and Tambov regions, as well as in the republics of Mari El, Chuvashia and North Ossetia, according to media reports. premises.

Despite the strict rules, certain exceptions allowing senior officials to travel abroad are still granted.

In two high-profile cases — that of former finance minister Alexei Kudrin and former Putin adviser Anatoly Chubais — Putin granted them permission to leave the country, according to Putin’s longtime associate, the official. of the Kremlin and a former government official.

Kudrin, a Putin ally and then head of the Accounting Chamber, visited Israel at least twice in 2022. News of the trip caused a political backlash, with a Communist Party lawmaker ask the FSB to verify Kudrin’s compliance with state secrecy laws.

Chubais, the “privatization czar” of post-Soviet Russia resigned as the Kremlin’s special envoy in response to the invasion and left Russia in March.

“Both of them could only leave after Putin personally gave his permission,” the Kremlin official said.

And it seems that the Russian security services are more interested in officials who travel abroad on their return.

The state-owned company employee – who is not subject to strict travel restrictions – told the Moscow Times that she was questioned by an FSB officer after a December visit to a neighboring country allied with Russia .

“The officer wanted to know if I had been approached by the secret services (over there)… if I had been asked to sign any papers condemning the policies of our president and also why I went abroad in the first place,” she told the Moscow Times.

Such heightened interest is not surprising because officials who leave the country are seen as a security threat by the Kremlin, according to Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist and expert on Russian spies.

Greater freedom to travel abroad for senior Russian officials seems unlikely as long as the war in Ukraine continues and Russia remains locked in a confrontation with Western countries.

“An iron curtain for those associated with the state is… in place,” the senior Russian government official said.

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