Monday, June 24, 2024

Investigation uncovers ties between Silk Way Rally, Russian military and diplomatic activities

The Silk Way Rally is the premier rally raid in Russia, having been featured on the calendar of the Cross-Country Rally World Cup (predecessor to the World Rally-Raid Championship) and had expanded beyond its borders prior to COVID-19 before serving as a “refuge” for Russian (and Belarusian) racers barred from competing internationally in response to their nation’s invasion of Ukraine.

However, as many of the exiled decried the FIA’s “emergency measures”—which entailed condemning the invasion, agreeing to not use Russian or Belarusian emblems, and racing under a different nationality (the FIM instituted a hard ban regardless of views)—as injecting politics into sports, SWR director Bulat Yanborisov reportedly used his position and the race to further Russia’s political agendas. A joint investigation between Bellingcat, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and The Insider published its findings on Saturday, uncovering internal documents and Yanborisov’s activities directly related to the Russian military and foreign affairs.

The investigation described the Silk Way Rally as actually a cover for Yanborisov, used to foster positive relations between Russia and neighbouring countries in the name of motorsport. While it is to be expected for countries co-hosting an international rally to be friendly with one another, a 9 December 2021 document titled “The Silk Way Communication Platform” stressed more geopolitical goals such as “influencing” Saudi Arabia and Turkey, assisting in construction of the China-Russia Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline, and even helping the Taliban develop legitimacy in global affairs provided they recognise Crimea as Russian land as the previous Afghan government did in 2014. Another “top secret” document from Yanborisov to Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu expressed more jingoistic ambitions like growing the Russian military’s presence in Asia and selling Russian military equipment to countries interested in supporting the SWR.

Foreign figures specifically name-dropped by the document as SWR investors who could receive Russian arms included the Crown Prince of Qatar, multiple positions in the Chinese government, and even a Turkish Ministry of National Defense official who holds franchise rights for Formula One in their country.

The Communication Platform envisioned a massive route for 2022 that went through nine different countries, interestingly none in Russia. While perhaps extremely unlikely to occur in the first place, it would have started in Qatar before going through Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, China, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Syria, and Turkey. The race would then end in Damascus, the capital of Syria. Virtually all of the countries listed maintain friendly relations with Russia while Turkey has done so due to commerce but is otherwise at odds regarding the war in Ukraine as a NATO member. The final route, officially revealed in November 2021, ultimately remained exclusively in Russia, running from Astrakhan to Moscow.

Credit: Silk Way Rally

A deeper dive into Yanborisov himself, such as phone and travel records, exposed communications with officials from the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, a military intelligence agency known colloquially as the GRU. Three of them came from GRU Unit 29155, which specialises in overseas assassinations and plots that have included supporting a failed coup d’état in Montenegro, the Novichok poisoning of Sergei Skripal, and destroying foreign ammunition depots.

Yanborisov moved to Paris in 2014, where he later established a Western European base for the rally (that year’s race was eventually cancelled as the Russian government prioritised organising the inaugural Russian Grand Prix) to complement the pre-existing Moscow headquarters; one in Beijing was also set up the following year when the SWR exclusively took place in China before introducing a Russia-to-China route in 2016. This allowed him to connect with figures in the West such as 2006 Dakar Rally winner Luc Alphand, who became the SWR Sporting Director in 2021 but resigned following the invasion; speaking with the investigation, Alphand stressed his position only applied to the race’s sport aspect and expressed shock at Yanborisov’s background. Living in Paris also provided Yanborisov with a residence permit, and he has bounced between Russia and Europe and communicated with GRU agents. One such member Rustam Dzhafarov was part of Unit 29155 and listed as an employee at the SWR’s organising association.

One of the more intriguing bits of evidence for the investigation team came when Yanborisov received the Order of Alexander Nevsky, a medal given to civil servants and military personnel for exceptional service, from the GRU’s deputy head Vladimir Alexeev in 2022 which complemented a medal of valour for military heroes. In May 2022, Alexeev was assigned to oversee intelligence operations in Ukraine.

Yanborisov subsequently spoke to The Insider, where he defended the Order as being for helping with delivering COVID-19 test kits during the height of the pandemic in 2020. He also denied talking with GRU members since the invasion began (which is refuted by his phone’s metadata) and any connections he had with the agency. Still, he did concede the SWR had a bigger platform for diplomatic purposes beyond simply racing.

The 2023 Silk Way Rally is scheduled for 5–15 July and runs from Kazan to Moscow.

The widely condemned, so-called “special military operation” is now in its 424th day. While there are exceptions like current W2RC driver Denis Krotov, a multitude of Russian drivers and teams have denounced the FIA’s aforementioned policies including nineteen-time Dakar Rally Truck champion KAMAZ-master and 2017 Dakar Quad winner Sergei Kariakin, relegating them to domestic series like the Russian Rally-Raid Championship. KAMAZ—whose parent company supplies vehicles for the Russian military—has won their class at the last eight Silk Way Rallies, while Kariakin’s team-mate and ex-F1 driver Nikita Mazepin claimed the SSV class at the 2022 race; Mazepin and his father Dmitry, an oligarch within Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s circle of associates, were sanctioned by the European Union shortly after the invasion.

Ironically, Kariakin said in early April that he looked into racing in China amid seemingly growing ties between Russia and China, especially in the wake of Chinese President Xi Jinping visiting Moscow in March, only to told by the CAMF (Federation of Automobile and Motorcycle Sports of China) that he needed to comply with the FIA’s emergency measures. Kariakin has an ardent opponent of the rule, even writing to FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem last October to lift it in order to let him run the 2023 Dakar Rally to no avail. With few options outside his home country, Kariakin’s SNAG Racing intends to bring three SSVs to the 2023 SWR.

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