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Deception runs in the family: Son of Russian army decoy supplier leaves for Europe to supply same product to NATO

The Talanovs have been long-time suppliers of inflatable dummy tanks, planes, and other decoys for the Russian army – for use as false targets for the enemy during combat. However, while Talanov Sr. is inflating tanks for Russia's MoD, his son, disillusioned with the government policy, has moved to the Czech Republic to produce similar decoys, which Western countries purchase for transfer to the Ukrainian army.

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The Insider's investigation has been prepared in partnership with Reportéři ČT of Czechia.

Alexander Talanov, 72, has been in the hot-air balloon business for thirty years as the head of the Russian company Rusbal.

A Rusbal hot-air balloon
A Rusbal hot-air balloon

Apart from hot-air balloons, the company has another line of operations – although Rusbal prefers not to advertise it on the corporate website. Talanov is a long-standing contractor of Russia's Ministry of Defense. For the military, Rusbal produces and supplies inflatable mock-ups of tanks, fighter jets, and other military vehicles and equipment. Their purpose is to trick the enemy. The Russian armed forces even set up a specialized unit to handle the decoys: the military deception regiment.

At the moment, almost all of Russia’s defense contracts are classified, including with Rusbal. However, The Insider has been able to find data on the shipments in 2018-2019 in the commercial court archives. Due to delays, the Ministry of Defense went to court, demanding that Rusbal be fined for failing to meet contractual obligations, which had in turn resulted from the dispute over the increased contract price due to VAT growth.

Alexander Talanov
Alexander Talanov

Thus, Rusbal was supplying the ministry with mock-ups of Su-27 and MiG-31 jets at a price of ~$76,000.

The shipments appear to have continued after February 2022. In June 2022, Zvezda, an MoD media outlet, reported that Rusbal was still manufacturing three-dimensional mock-ups of tanks, planes, missile launchers, and other equipment. A year before, Rusbal presented new camouflage samples for armored vehicles at the Army 2021 Forum.

And in January 2023, the company announced a job opening, looking to hire the chief of the research and development lab. The job description read: “Knowing and applying the foundations of camouflage, including the basics of radar, heat, and photographic reconnaissance.”

Meanwhile, the Meshchansky District Court of Moscow is hearing a criminal case of corruption in obtaining military contracts by Rusbal. The next session is scheduled for April 6, so the verdict is yet to be reached. However, the case files suggest that former MoD officials were extorting a bribe from Talanov for facilitating the procurement process. The defendants assert that Talanov was the one who offered the bribe and even set the payoff rate at 4% of the contract value.

Alexander Talanov’s former place of residence was in Moscow, at 23 Smolnaya Street, Building 1. It's an old five-story block in the north of Moscow. According to leaked real estate data, Rusbal CEO’s son, Viktor Talanov (currently 49 years old), also lived there.

Viktor Talanov
Viktor Talanov

Since 2014, Talanov Jr. has co-owned the Czech company Inflatech, which supplies decoys to Ukraine. As Inflatech itself brags, over one-third of the HIMARS systems presumably destroyed by Russian forces were in fact inflatable mock-ups.

Infratech also has several Western clients under the belt: the company was supplying military dummies to the US while its shareholder Viktor Talanov was still toiling at Rusbal, a Russian defense supplier.

Talanov Jr. worked at his father's company up until 2017. He currently resides in Czechia but still has business in Russia, co-owning OOO Aerokontrol with his sister. Aerokontrol runs engineering tests and is affiliated with Rusbal up to the point of sharing the contact phone number.

As Viktor Talanov told The Insider, he hasn't been in contact with his father for about two years. In addition to their pre-existing personal differences, the Russian invasion of Ukraine exacerbated political ones.

“I started working for my father in 2010. Before that, I was doing well in IT. However, I decided to lend him a hand at some point. His company was going through hard times,” he said.

Talanov Jr. explains his ongoing cooperation with Rusbal after the launch of his Czech business by the fact that the European company existed almost exclusively on paper, as a start-up in the investment stage:

“We had almost no money. We were traveling [to Europe] and buying sewing machines at our own expense. The investment was arranged through Rondat, a company we co-founded in 2011 with a partner. Meanwhile, I continued working for my father. When Inflatech gained strength, I moved here.”

To the question about the possibility of working for the Western and the Russian military at the same time, Viktor Talanov says:

“Legally, we were in the clear. Ethically, though... Well, you manufacture a certain product. Granted, it’s for military use. But it’s not lethal. One way or another, I had very little to do with defense contracts in my last years at Rusbal – they have a dedicated manager for that.”

Viktor underlines that, despite visual similarities, Rusbal's and Inflatech's inflatable decoys feature different design and manufacturing technologies.

Talanov Jr. doesn't go to Russia anymore. He “hasn't had the time” to cede the co-ownership (purely technical, according to him) of his Russian Rusbal-affiliated business, all the more so considering the modest profits it yields (in 2021, the revenue was just under $40,000, with a net profit of $6,200). Referring to political differences with his father, Viktor Talanov is most likely telling the truth. Studying his activity on social media, The Insider concluded that he’d become critical of the government long before moving to the Czech Republic.

The Reportéři ČT team secured a comment from Inflatech:

“Our company has never made a secret of having two Russian nationals among its partners and executives <The Insider’s note: the other Russian shareholder is Andrei Parfenov>. This information is available in public registers. They are both experts in physics, model design, and avionics. Thanks to them, we obtained valuable know-how for manufacturing military mock-ups that are being used by Ukraine in its fight against the aggressor and by other NATO states, including the US. Our Russian colleagues have decided to build a life in Czechia; their families live here. Considering their contribution to our efforts to aid Ukraine, they may never return to their homeland unless the political regime changes in Russia.

Both of our Russian colleagues obtained visas under the key foreign researcher acquisition program. The Czech Ministry of Defense also contributed to the approval of their visa applications. There can be no doubt that both of our Russian colleagues have been cleared by Czech national security agencies; otherwise, they wouldn’t have been issued visas. Therefore, the Czech government and its security agencies are well aware that our company has Russian partners and employees.

The media attention our two Russian colleagues and their closest associates are facing poses risks for their personal safety and the safety of their families.

It is also worth mentioning in this context that, apart from the Russians, we also have Ukrainian employees, who fled the war.

The only beneficiary in this situation is Putin’s regime. We regret that our company's reputation and our Russian colleagues’ safety are under attack. We are one hundred percent ready to support our Russian colleagues, and we appreciate their input. We’ll stand by their side in these trying times.

Were you aware of Viktor Talanov's ties to the Russian manufacturing industry, including Rusbal?

You’ve narrowed down your questions to just one of our two Russian colleagues. Meanwhile, they both possess unique know-how, which they obtained in their homeland, as could be expected, and brought here. Their professional background is well-known both to us and the Czech government, which requested this information as part of background checks. A major client of ours, the US military, is also aware of the fact that we employ Russian specialists.

Do you know that Rusbal is a long-time Russian military contractor? Don't you see it as a problem?

The two Russians’ employment and personal history is known both to us and the Czech government with its security services. We think it extraordinary that they decided to leave their country and bring their unique know-how to Czechia, its NATO allies, and Ukraine. We regret that these facts risk broad media coverage. We perceive this case as an attempt to harm not only our company but also, most importantly, our Russian colleagues in the interests of Putin’s regime, which hates to see its science and industry lose precious specialists to the West in a massive ‘brain drain’.”

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