“The person who yells ‘Thief!’ the loudest is the thief himself.”
– Old Russian saying
After the long winter, it was spring again in Moscow. The last crusts of sooty snow had melted from the curbs and the city parks were bright with the colors of tulips and lilacs. At the Kremlin gardens, the apple and cherry trees were in bloom, filling the air with a familiar scent of anticipation.
On nearby Boulevard Ring Road, an unmarked white cargo van was moving through afternoon traffic, away from the great onion domes of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, where ten days earlier President Putin and five thousand worshippers had gathered for Easter Mass.
The van’s passenger, Ivan Delkoff, could hear the swish of the wet roadway and the bleats of car horns as the van moved through central Moscow traffic. But he could not see where they were going; he could only imagine. A large man with an aversion to enclosed spaces, Delkoff was seated in the windowless rear cabin of the van, dressed in the sun-faded fatigues and combat boots he wore every day, as a familiar-sounding Russian music played faintly through the speakers. The only personal possession he carried besides his ID was a small photograph of his son, staring at the camera with his dark, innocent eyes, dressed in the uniform he’d been wearing on the afternoon he was killed.
The drive alternated between the stop-and-go of city traffic and the full-on of the highway, so that eventually Ivan Delkoff stopped guessing where they were and thought instead of the odd chain of events that had brought him here. And of the meeting he would soon be having with a man once known as Russia’s “dark angel.”
Delkoff was in his late forties now, a colonel in the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence branch, although he still liked to think of himself as a foot soldier in his country’s larger war. He woke most days knowing that he had a role to play in Russian history, without knowing exactly what it was. Delkoff’s stark appearance – the long, serious face and wide mouth that flattened like a piece of string – often caused people to underestimate him, to miss the tenacity and intelligence that had made him a strong military leader. In Donbas, Delkoff’s special forces units had routed the Ukrainian army and various ad hoc battalions, setting the de facto borders for a new “people’s republic.” For a time, some of the Russian separatists there had taken to calling Delkoff the region’s “defense minister,” a distinction he privately enjoyed. There were others who called him “the crazy colonel,” which he didn’t enjoy so much.
Like many in Russia’s military intelligence agency, Delkoff had married young and divorced young. The death of Pavel, his only son, last summer in Donbas had only deepened his commitment to the motherland. But it had also made him less tolerant of the Kremlin’s political management of eastern Ukraine. Delkoff understood that the undeclared war in Donbas had become the front line in a larger conflict, a moral and cultural war for Russia’s future. But eastern Ukraine was also where that war had stalled. And Delkoff, like many Russian patriots, had come to resent the Kremlin because of it, in particular its policy of sending men to fight without uniforms, allowing some to be buried in unmarked graves. There was a dangerous hubris now at the Kremlin, troubling signs that the average Russian did not see.
He’d spoken about it briefly over the winter with a Ukrainian journalist, who promised not to quote him. But then he’d done so anyway, a little more accurately than Delkoff would have liked, attributing his comments to “a Russian colonel on the ground in Donbas.”
Three weeks later, Delkoff was called back to Moscow, on the pretense of a special assignment from the Kremlin. He was given a small office in the city and a generous weekly salary to do nothing but show up each day and read reports. A “case officer” was assigned – a short, broad-faced man who sat with him in afternoon “de-briefings” asking questions and taking notes. Based on what the man asked about Ukraine, Delkoff began to suspect that he was being set up on treason charges. He’d decided to vanish before that happened, to travel to Belarus where a small network of friends and family would take him in.
But then Ivan Delkoff learned that his “assignment” wasn’t from the Kremlin after all. Two days before he planned to disappear, Delkoff found that it was actually Andrei Turov who had summoned him back to Moscow. And knowing that changed everything.
Turov had once been part of the president’s inner circle, the Leningrad coterie that formed Putin’s unofficial private politburo. He’d worked briefly for the FSB, successor organization to the KGB, and then as secretary of security services, early in Putin’s presidency. But for the past fifteen years, Turov had run his own private security business. His clients included the Kremlin, for whom Turov occasionally did “black ledger” work benefiting the president but never tied to him directly. In the mid-2000s Putin had supposedly called Turov Russia’s “dark angel.”
More recently, though, there had been stories of a rift between Turov and the president. Last fall, several of Turov’s branch offices were seized by the government, and there was talk now that he was under pressure to leave Russia. The stories echoed those of other powerful men who had shown too much ambition or independence in Putin’s Russia. Men such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in the country, who’d spent ten years in a Siberian prison camp after crossing the Russian president. Or Boris Nemtsov, the former first deputy prime minister, a prominent Putin critic who was gunned down in front of the Kremlin in 2015. Or Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB officer who accused Putin of corruption then died an agonizing public death over twenty-three days from a dose of radioactive polonium.
The idea that Turov may have crossed over to the president’s less-then-forgiving side was what made this April summons particularly interesting to Ivan Delkoff. It was the only reason he was in the back of this van today and not in Belarus.
An hour passed, and another ten minutes; finally the traffic sounds began to fade. Delkoff pictured the neighborhood they were in: breezy lawns, shade trees, new flowers. Delkoff had heard that Turov liked to do business in non-descript residential houses, rather than in Moscow offices or in the mansions favored by the oligarchs. He listened as the cargo van slowed, backed up and came to a stop; he heard the mechanical whirring of a garage door.
The man who opened the rear doors looked familiar: small and thickset, with a stubbled face and shaved head. This was Anton Konkin, Turov’s loyal gatekeeper, like himself a former FSB officer.
Delkoff followed the smaller man down a hallway to a dark-paneled library, where Konkin gestured him inside and closed the door.
The room was unlit, with a floor-to-ceiling bookcase, dark-wood tables and chairs, a leather sofa. Like the rest of the house, it felt new, as if no one actually lived here. But then, scanning the furnishings, Delkoff saw that Andrei Turov was in the room, too, seated behind a desk in the corner.
“Zdravstvuyte,” he said, greeting Delkoff with the formal geniality of an innkeeper. He offered a firm handshake and motioned for him to sit on the leather chair in front of him. “It’s an honor to see you again. It took us a while to get you here.”
Turov studied him as they sat. They’d met just once before, seven or eight years ago. Turov conveyed much the impression he had then – an ordinary-looking man, middle-aged, with short-cropped gray hair and firm lips that lent a sensible expression to his face. But there was an otherworldly quality to his pale blue eyes that was slightly unsettling; like the eyes of a wild dog. “We are indebted to you,” Turov said. “You have made important strides in the Donbas. Even though I know that you are not pleased with how the war is going. None of us are.”
Delkoff nodded, being careful. His first instinct was to distrust men he didn’t know. And Turov, despite his unassuming demeanor, had a reputation as a magician, a man who could deceive people in ways they didn’t see or imagine.
“Russia’s passions were awakened in March of 2014, as you know,” Turov went on, meaning the annexation of Crimea. “But you understand better than anyone the problem we have faced since then.”
“Yes, of course.”
Turov’s eyes stayed with him. This issue – “the problem” – had come up often in the de-briefings. Delkoff had taken it as a test of loyalty then; now, he saw it was something else.
“We have an assignment that you are uniquely qualified to carry out,” Turov went on, with his even temperament. “That will help us to at last end this war. To win it.”
Delkoff sat up a little straighter. He knew that Turov was talking about the larger war now. The war for a greater Russian society, anchored in tradition, discipline, morality – all those things the West had lost or was losing.
“It’s important that we speak openly here,” Turov said. “I would like to hear what concerns you most about Ukraine.”
“The same things that concern you,” Delkoff said, glancing at the closed file on Turov’s desk, and the print-out of notes beside it. Turov had vetted him for weeks, he knew, since long before he’d been summoned to Moscow. His team had talked with Delkoff’s estranged daughter in Belarus, his friends and his ex-wife. “The same things that concern the men fighting there, and their families. That we don’t finish what we started. Otherwise, what was it for?”
Turov nodded for him to go on.
“I’m concerned, as many Russians are,” Delkoff said, “that our weakness will leave us vulnerable. That it will open us up to riots and a Western-led fascist revolution – like what the Americans did in Kiev, and in the Middle East. The hypocrites.”
Turov’s eyes brightened for a moment, giving affirmation to his words – “riots” being the preferred term to “protests”; “fascist” preferable to “democratic.”
“And, of course, we fight the complicity at home every day, don’t we?” Turov said. “We are concerned about what you call –” He glanced at his notes – “the ‘politicized management of the war.’ As you know, his approval ratings top eighty percent now,” he continued, “but what are those polls really measuring? People do not realize how isolated, and paranoid, he has become.”
Delkoff nodded but said nothing, knowing that they had just crossed a line. He saw in Turov’s reasonable face now what this “assignment” really was. Not a proxy op for the Kremlin, as he’d been led to believe when called back to Moscow. It was the opposite: He was being recruited by the right-wing elites within the government, a small cadre of interior ministers and military generals who understood that the current leadership, which had brought Russia to the brink of greatness again, had grown too reckless and unpredictable – too closely bound to the ego of one man. Russia needed a strong leader, a hard-liner to promote the country’s interests; but not this one.
“Already he has put us in a dangerous game of brinksmanship, as you know,” Turov said. “There is no strategic plan anymore, except what is in his head.”
“And that changes,” Delkoff said.
“Yes, exactly. The situation in America, of course, has only emboldened him. They have fed the monster, so to speak, although he is still the same man. A little man, who’s been puffed up. He refuses now to even work out agreements that might prevent an accidental war. He’s too afraid of showing weakness.”
Delkoff waited, stirred by Turov’s words. He did not know the finer details of history as Turov did, but he understood its basic lessons: oppression does not last, hubris does not win, popularity is a transitory business; men who lead repressive regimes leave terrible legacies.
“The problem is, he will never step down on his own,” Turov said, speaking more softly, and Delkoff saw a flicker of regret in his face that he understood; it was possible to love the president’s intentions but disapprove of his actions. Delkoff thought of his son’s mother wailing in her theatrical voice, after learning their boy had been killed: “Putin did this. Putin killed my son.” Delkoff had scolded her to be quiet, although he had secretly shared some of that same feeling. “We find ourselves at a regrettable impasse,” Turov went on, showing the palm of his right hand. “We have no choice now but to open a new front.”
Delkoff said nothing. Open a new front. It was a phrase that he himself had used, many times.
In the span of seven minutes, Andrei Turov explained the operation that Delkoff had been chosen to carry out. The framework was already established. Delkoff’s role would be to recruit and train a small group of soldiers, and then oversee the plan’s execution. The ordinary qualities of Turov’s manner seemed to fall away as he spoke; Delkoff saw a hard inner shrewdness, an aptitude that he hadn’t imagined when he’d walked in the room.
“We believe you are the only one who can do this,” Turov said and Delkoff felt the hairs on his arms prickle. Of course he could do it. It was the assignment he’d been preparing for all his life. But at the same time, Delkoff understood that he wasn’t being asked. He was fairly certain that if he said no, he would not leave this house alive.
But Delkoff had no intention of saying no.
He listened as Turov gave him the terms and logistics. There was one connection he would have to make – a Ukrainian oligarch named Dmitro Hordiyenko, who would supply the arms and equipment. The rest would be up to him. Delkoff’s remuneration would be so substantial that there was no need to negotiate.
“And what about afterward?”
“For Russia?” Turov answered indirectly, assuring Delkoff that the motherland would be in capable hands. “I can’t give you names. But I can tell you that you would not have been chosen if we thought you would disapprove of the outcome in any way.” He nodded at the leather folder on his desk.
“And what about me?” Delkoff said.
“We’ll work with you. You won’t have to return to Russia if you’d prefer to start a new life elsewhere. But that will be your choice. We’ll help you.” And Turov explained this, too.
By then, Delkoff was already beginning to think of the men he would hire: an eager Russian soldier named Alexander Zelenko, who’d fought with him in Luhansk and reminded Delkoff of his late son; Mikhail Kolchak, a corrupt Ukrainian missile commander, who would bring strong personal motives to the mission; and his own cousin, Dmitri, who would help him once it was over. “And the blame?” he said.
“The blame will fall on the SBU,” Turov answered, meaning Ukraine’s security and intelligence agency. “But, ultimately, on the Americans. It’s their hypocrisy, as you call it, that has pushed us to this. As the Russian soul has awakened, the American soul – what passes for one – has been asleep. For too long, the Americans have been allowed to invade sovereign nations, indiscriminately killing tens of thousands of civilians in the name of ‘democracy.’ Then they condemn us for simply defending the ethnic Russian people of Ukraine against oppression, a business that has nothing to do with them. We need to turn that around. This is something they will not see coming.”
Delkoff nodded, careful not to show his enthusiasm. “And how do I know I’m not being set up?”
“You don’t,” Turov said. “But you know that I pursued you. You know that we have common concerns and can help each other. You’ll have to trust me.”
Delkoff was silent. He did trust him, that was the strange part: There was something reassuring in Turov’s face, in his steady manner and physical ordinariness. It made you stop noticing what he looked like and enter into the realm of his thoughts and ideas. When they shook hands, Delkoff noticed that Turov was wearing a cheap off-the-rack jacket, the sleeves slightly long, and that assured him, too – as if, in a sense, they were wearing the same uniform.
As the cargo van returned Delkoff to central Moscow, he felt as if some of Russia’s divinely inspired historical mission had just been handed to him. The same music played tinnily from the van’s speakers but it sounded different now: a triumphant Russian melody, which caused Delkoff’s eyes to sting with emotion. Betrayal out of loyalty to a higher cause is no longer betrayal, he thought, a line he knew from school days, although he couldn’t recall who’d said it. Gogol, perhaps. Or Tolstoy. Like many of his generation, Delkoff had been raised believing in Soviet greatness without ever actually having seen it. His father had made it seem tangible, like a place that he would visit someday, and he’d felt its proximity all of his life: in the country’s patriotic songs and ceremonies, in the monuments and brick ramparts of Red Square, in his own son’s decision to join the military; sometimes, he heard it early in the morning now, just in the way the poplar trees rattled outside his apartment window, a haunted sound that he thought of as the whispers of dead soldiers.
Delkoff believed in Russia’s destiny as a great power, which would one day span East and West – a dream that still burned in many Russians. But there was a street-level battle under way now that had made his country’s greatness harder to see, particularly in Moscow, where new skyscrapers and construction cranes had stolen the skyline, and vulgar Western billboards overpowered the historical monuments. Perhaps this was what Turov meant by “complicity.”
Still, Delkoff did not know for sure that this assignment was not some elaborate set-up. He considered that as he rode the crowded Metro train to his apartment in Troparevo. It was still possible that someone would surprise him in the hallway of his apartment house as he stepped from the elevator, as other Kremlin critics had been silenced on other Moscow evenings. Because as Delkoff began to distance himself from Turov, something about this assignment struck him as false. Even then, he knew there were pieces of the story that he wasn’t being told.
Nothing happened to Ivan Delkov that night. And nothing happened over the next fifteen weeks, as he discreetly implemented Turov’s plan, meeting with the arms supplier Hordiyenko in Kiev, and hiring and training the five men who would carry out the mission.
Nothing happened until that afternoon in August, when the world’s eyes suddenly turned again to Russia and history changed.
By then, it wasn’t Turov’s operation anymore. By then, it was Ivan Delkoff’s operation.