Credit: The Insider

The Silk Way Rally (SWR), Russia’s premier rally raid event, has been embroiled in controversy following a joint investigation by Bellingcat, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and The Insider. The investigation reveals that SWR director Bulat Yanborisov allegedly used the event to further Russia’s political and military agendas, particularly in light of international sanctions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Historically a significant event in the Cross-Country Rally World Cup (now the World Rally-Raid Championship), the SWR provided a platform for Russian and Belarusian racers who were barred from international competition due to sanctions imposed by the FIA and FIM. These sanctions included measures such as condemning the invasion, forbidding the use of national emblems, and requiring racers to compete under a neutral flag.

The investigation uncovered documents indicating that Yanborisov leveraged the rally to enhance Russia’s geopolitical influence. A notable document from December 9, 2021, titled “The Silk Way Communication Platform,” detailed objectives beyond motorsport, such as influencing Saudi Arabia and Turkey, aiding the China-Russia Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline, and supporting the Taliban’s quest for international legitimacy, provided they recognized Crimea as Russian territory.

Further investigation revealed Yanborisov’s communications with officials from the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces (GRU), including Unit 29155, known for its involvement in overseas assassinations and coup attempts. Despite Yanborisov’s public denials of ongoing GRU connections, metadata from his phone records suggested otherwise. Yanborisov admitted the SWR had diplomatic purposes but maintained that his involvement with the GRU was limited to assisting with COVID-19 efforts.

In a more ambitious move, the SWR’s 2022 route was initially planned to span nine countries, starting in Qatar and ending in Damascus, Syria. This plan, however, was not realized, and the rally remained confined to Russian territory, running from Astrakhan to Moscow.

The investigation also highlighted Yanborisov’s receipt of the Order of Alexander Nevsky in 2022 from GRU deputy head Vladimir Alexeev, underscoring his close ties with the Russian military. Alexeev, who now oversees intelligence operations in Ukraine, awarded Yanborisov the medal for his purported efforts in delivering COVID-19 test kits during the pandemic.

As the war in Ukraine continues, the international racing community remains divided. Notably, many Russian drivers and teams, such as KAMAZ-master and 2017 Dakar Quad winner Sergei Kariakin, have denounced the FIA’s policies. KAMAZ-master, whose parent company supplies vehicles to the Russian military, has dominated the truck class at the SWR, while ex-F1 driver Nikita Mazepin, sanctioned by the EU, won the SSV class in 2022. Kariakin’s attempts to compete internationally, including in China, have been stymied by similar restrictions.

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