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How Russia Issues Fake Passports to Its Operatives in Ukraine

November 7, 2019

By Bellingcat Investigation Team

On 27 October 2014, a man named Igor Nikoalevich Beregovoy arrived in Simferopol, Crimea, after boarding an Aeroflot flight in Krasnodar earlier that afternoon. Igor Nikolaevich was born on 30 December 1965, from the Crimean city of Simferopol.

However, there is another man named Igor Nikolaevich born on 30 December 1965, and who was born in Simferopol — Igor Nikolaevich Bezler, the infamous separatist commander who controlled the city of Horlivka in the Donetsk oblast in 2014, and who has been credibly accused of a litany of war crimes. On October 27th, the same day that “Beregovoy” arrived in Simferopol, Igor Bezler told the press secretary of his former fighting group in Horlivka that he had left eastern Ukraine and would not return.

Bezler is just one of many Russian operatives who were given fake passports by Russian security services while operating in Ukraine. By using leaked Russian databases, only a few basic biographical details can unmask an operative’s fake identity, as seen with another GRU operative — Oleg Ivannikov (“Andrey Laptev”).

Bezler’s Shoddy Fake Identity

Bezler was issued an internal Russian passport under the name Beregovoy, with all the other personal details (date of birth, first name/patronymic) the same as his real identity. Bezler/Beregovoy used this passport to travel in Russia/Ukraine, as revealed in leaked databases freely available online that show Russian air travel activity in 2014.

The ten-digit number for internal Russian passports are easy to decipher. The first two digits indicate the issuing office for the passport, the next two digits indicate the year that the form was printed, meaning that the passport was likely given in either this year or the following one, and the final six digits are the passport’s serial number. Thus, the “passport neighbors” for “Beregovoy” belong to other people issued their documents in the same batch as him. In a previous Bellingcat investigation, we found that GRU-issued passports to Wagner fighters were in the same “passport neighborhood”, with the final digits being fairly close to one another, as they were all processed together.

The passport of “Beregovoy” (numbered 4513078492) was issued by a Moscow office, as indicated by the 45 at the beginning of his internal passport number. The next two digits — 13 — indicate that the form for the passport was printed in 2013, meaning that the passport was issued in either 2013 or 2014. Lastly, the final six digits — 078492 — refer to the serial number of the passports issued by this Moscow office from 2013-printed forms.

One of the easiest ways to verify a Russian citizen’s real identity is through referencing the taxpayer number (INN), given to all Russian citizens as they reach adulthood. However, when searching for the taxpayer number (INN) for a Russian citizen having these same personal details as Beregovoy, there is no result, indicating that this is likely not a real Russian citizen. Additionally, it’s very unlikely that “Beregovoy” would have a different internal passport, as he was issued this one in 2013/4 and would not need to renew his for quite some time. “Beregovoy” was not listed in any publicly available databases for citizens issued replacement passports due to the document being lost or destroyed.

Today, Igor Bezler continues to live in Crimea, and has indeed not returned to the Donbas since his late 2014 departure. Two weeks ago, Bezler’s wife shared a photograph on her personal VKontakte page showing Bezler (with the moustache, wearing a camo hat) on a boat in Crimea with Sergey “Khmury” Dubinsky (middle, with no hat), one of the four men named as suspects by the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT), the official criminal investigation into the downing of MH17. There is currently an international arrest warrant out for Dubinsky.

Passport Neighbors

Issuing a fake passport for an infamous war criminal under his real first name, patronymic, and date of birth may seem sloppy, but the story does not end there. If we are to search for Beregovoy’s passport number in the same 2014 flight database, but having the last two digits as a wildcard operator (allowing for any result for these last two digits), we can find his “passport neighbors” for individuals issued passports at around the same time as him. Running this search, we find a startling discovery: Andrei Laptev, the cover identity of GRU officer Oleg Ivannikov.

This flight information shows that Andrei Ivanovich Laptev, born 6 April 1967, flew from Rostov to Moscow on 23 August 2014. Like with “Beregovoy”, running these details through Russia’s taxpayer database brings about no results. More importantly, we can see his passport number: 4513078464. This passport number differs by only twenty-eight digits from that of Beregovoy (4513078492), indicating that they were issued from the same batch.

Andrei Ivanovich Laptev is not a real person; rather, he is the cover identity of Oleg Vladimirovich Ivannikov, born on 2 April 1967 (four days before the birth of “Laptev”). While operating under the cover identity of Laptev, Ivannikov served as the chairman of the Security Council (2004-2006) and as the Minister of Defense and Emergencies (2006-2008) of the self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia. While in eastern Ukraine, Ivannikov/Laptev operated under the code names “Andrei Ivanovich” and “Orion”, and were the subject of a 2016 call for witnesses by the official criminal investigation into the downing of MH17, the Joint Investigation Team (JIT). Ivannikov/Laptev’s distinct high-pitched voice can be heard in his phone calls in the embedded video below.

Easily Exploitable Vulnerability

While Russia is able to change its records for its own internal records and databases, the widespread proliferation of leaked Russian databases serves a continuing threat to the secrecy of Russia’s security service operatives. Russia can modify its internal, active records, but once a database is scraped and leaked online, it is fossilized at the point of leaking — in other words, Russia cannot modify the thousands of offline copies of databases floating around on torrents, leaving any potentially dangerous information out of reach of the state.

The aforementioned travel database is just one of countless leaked databases from Russian records, which also include vehicle ownership records, residential lists, social media details (including from deleted profiles), and far more examples.

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16 Comments

  1. Gerhard

    So it looks like the best way to undermine Russian intelligence operations abroad is to appeal to their inherent poverty — Western intelligence, take note: Russia and Russians are for sale for next to nothing. Sounds about right.

    But frankly, Russia, as the global leader in such operations I’m disappointed at your sloppiness.

    Reply
    • Sex and Violins

      This has been true for some time. A standard CIA technique as far back as the 90’s was just to bribe random Russian officials. Information they obtained this way included the personnel file of a very high-ranked Russian mole in the FBI. Russian intelligence has been a shambles for decades.

      Reply
    • Servus

      IMHO Russian sloppiness is matched by western police/administrations’.
      Example, the assassin Sokolov got French visa within 24h while simple verification against any of these databases or even just a street address or employer name should have raised the red flag.
      I have not seen any information about any French ´post mortem ´ of this failure but this may not be public information.

      Automatic border police checks of Russian passports against these leaked databases should be standard and could reveal ´true false ´ passport with high probability.

      Reply
      • Servus

        … there is a centralized Interpol database of stolen passports, automatic checks against this database should be standard these days ( I don’t have current information),
        Automated Checks for Russian false identities should be a similar European project.

        Reply
  2. Jeroen

    Who has identified the appartement or periode Ivannikov lived in Siauliai, Lithuanian SSR?
    Probably in the Zokniai garnison.
    Or that his father was commanding the 53th guards fighter aviation regiment?

    Reply
  3. Tracey Thakore

    In Europe, and indeed the United States of America, people’s surnames are more common as they reflect a larger family tree.
    Ever considered the notion that two people can have the same name?

    Reply
    • Gerhard

      Oh my God, you’ve turned the whole investigation on its head. No passport inquiry will ever be the same thanks to this keen insight.

      Reply
  4. Catherine Fitzpatrick

    So you mention that “Beregovoy” is a “fake Russian citizen”. But what is your position on the citizenship of Bezler? If he was born in Crimean in 1965 in reality, he could be characterized as a (future) “Ukrainian citizen” given that Crimea was returned to Ukraine in 1954. But of course Ukraine remained a republic of the Soviet Union, and did not declare its independence until 1991 after the defeat of the coup. So it was possible that Bezler was issued Ukrainian citizenship. But maybe not. Maybe he went to Russia, as others did who had ethnic or family or other ties to Russia. Maybe he had Russian citizenship?

    You will recall the infamous video clip posted on YouTube of the early days of the invasion of Ukraine, when Bezler took command of an evidently reluctant local Ukrainian police force in Gorlovka (as Russian speakers call Horlivka). And one of the policemen calls out skeptically, “What’s your rank?” He replies “Colonel”. Another one, even more belligerently, says, “But in what army?”

    And here he replies, “The Russian”. So if he was telling the story of his real biography, he was a colonel in the Soviet Army, let’s suppose, if he was drafted at the age of 18 in say 1983. This he might call “the Russian Army” but people who served in the Soviet Army tend to call it that. But perhaps his service was not the standard one of a draftee; perhaps he was regular army; perhaps he obtained the rank of a colonel in the GRU, that is, first Soviet, and then later Russian military intelligence, which seems quite likely, given the circumstances. He didn’t say.

    Many thought Bezler was dead, and supposedly killed after the flight from Slavyansk of Strelkov and his men. But then some said they saw him alive on that retreat of the DNR forces. And no one could confirm he was alive for a long time until by process of elimination, some DNR fighters on talk shows and such would describe DNR leaders killed, but leave him off the list, or he would be cited as seen.

    So here he is, large as life and twice as natural, living large, sipping foreign whiskey — now how did he get that given all the import restrictions and boycotts following Western sanctions? He’s in occupied Crimea, which is not Russia. He evidently felt no need to flee to the Russian mainland, or else wasn’t welcome.

    The “DNR Angels” as some call them tend to be actually Russian-speaking Ukrainians who were actually local, so they could keep up the fiction of “separatism”. There is always this story that the GRU killed off those they used as agents because they knew too much. And certainly a lot of them had sudden deaths. Except I would question that theory because we see in fact the GRU didn’t kill off their cadres like Strelkov and Borodai and others who were *Russian* nationals who had in fact fought in previous conflicts in Chechnya, Transnistria and elsewhere. Why waste their skilled and trained cadres who seemed loyal enough? Instead they dispatched to their maker characters like Givi and Motorola who were locals, born in the Donbass, with Ukrainian citizenship and who were sometimes supposedly further out in front than their Moscow masters wanted them to be.

    The only reason anyone could be glad that any of them are still alive is the hope that they may be tried in the Hague some day for their war crimes.

    Reply
    • M

      Givi was local, Motorola wasn`t – he was born and raised in Russia “volunterred”” in Donbas. Main characters of the Donbass row had some connections with Ukraine – Oleg Pulatov , Igor Bezler and Sergey Dubinsky they were born in Ukraine but then they chose Russia (what we learned thanks to the brilliant bellingcat report). They are still alive.
      Catherine Fitzpatrick how do you know that GRU (GU) killed
      Givi and Motorola? This is just one option, the other is internal struggles for power. 🙂
      “the Revolution is like hungry Saturn, devouring its children”

      Reply
  5. Jeroen

    In 1983 Bezler was ordered to serve in the Soviet Army in Afghanistan.

    Possibly he studied at the Feliks Dzerzhinski Akademy in Moskva from 1994-1997.
    According Ukraine SBU he retired from GRU as lieutenant colonel and moved to Ukraine in 2002, Simferopol would I guess.

    He admitted reporting to (Colonel Vasili Geranin according SBU) July 17th, 2014 the shooting down of a plane, by recorded telephone conversation.
    To Guardian reporter Shaun Walker he explained that they executed fighters of the volunteers battalions after questioning.

    Let us wait until the SBU or some other nations SF operator knocks on the door of Bezler.
    The MH17 trial will commence March 9th.

    Let us hear what Vladimir Tsemakh will tell, or lie about.
    https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/11/08/key-mh17-witness-ready-to-testify-in-eastern-ukraine-lawyer-says-a68089

    Wenn will new specific instructions to lie, distract, etc about that trial be provided to the troll army? We will monitor that. The old ones were poor. Will they warm up “Spanish” ATC Carlos? An “ukrainian Su-25” that did it, a “captured and repaired rebel Buk system” no one have ever seen? Will try to smear impartiality of the tribunal, find another malaysian citizen who doubts certain findings.
    Or surprisingly, at last, they found out that some Russian “citizens” and “cathedral loving tourists” did it, but most important Putin did not know about that?

    Let us hear rather what Colonel Sergey Borisovich Muchkayev of the 53th missile brigade from Kursk has to report about missing a TELAR or missile so about the summer of 2014?
    May 18th, 2018 the JIT concluded MH17 was shot down using a Buk system from the 53th brigade.
    Can he provide the whereabouts of his Buk systems or can he not?
    Where is that repainted Buk TELAR today?
    When was it repainted?
    Wo did or ordered that?
    Some day some one is going to speak out.

    Reply

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