Denník N

The sweet life of Russian spies in Slovakia: drunken parties in the High Tatras and a conspiracy apartment in Bratislava

Foto - TASR/AP
Foto – TASR/AP

Slovakia in the center of an espionage affair: a Russian spy and his agent from Vienna felt at home with us. One of the key witnesses in the espionage affair in Austria is a Slovak woman with Austrian citizenship. She feels threatened. 

At the Panorama Hotel at Štrbské pleso, you could not miss the couple. They had been drinking together for three nights. The staff regularly took several bottles of vodka out of their room.

One of the two men was Austrian, the other was Russian. At first glance, they may have looked like old friends, perhaps businessmen who came here in May 2003 to rest and enjoy the Slovak mountains.

Before leaving the hotel for Vienna, the Austrian was seen digging into a package of banknotes of the highest value.

Two agents in the High Tatras

Employees of the well-known hotel in the High Tatras could not have guessed that it was in fact a pair of spies. One of them was the Austrian Colonel Martin Möller, who had been disclosing secret information from the army to the Russians since the late 1980s, and continued to do so for the next few years.

The man for whom the Austrian colonel traveled from Vienna to the Tatras was his Russian liaison and commanding officer – Igor Egorovich Zaytsev, a 66-year-old military intelligence agent, for whom Austria issued an arrest warrant last year.

Igor Zaytsev – handler of Austrian agent from GRU. Foto – Austrian Ministry of the Interior

Both are now known as the main characters in one of the largest espionage scandals in neighboring Austria.

It has never been written that Slovakia played a significant role in the case. Thanks to several sources that are familiar with the process, and one who knows the Austrian colonel personally, Denník N managed to partially put together the puzzle of the spy affair.

Many of Möller’s contacts with his superior from the Russian GRU intelligence camp took place in Slovakia.

The case ended quite easily for Martin Möller. The trial took place behind closed doors in Salzburg, Austria, and was closed at the beginning of the summer in the shadow of the corona crisis with the sentencing of Möller to three years in prison. Details, including the full name of the Russian spy, were not disclosed by the Austrians.

Treason, which would usually end with a long sentence and a public debate on the impact of Russian espionage, ended in silence overshadowed by pandemic measures.

Despite the fact that Martin Möller had been spying for Russia for at least 25 years and made about 300,000 euros through it, he was released immediately after his conviction. The reason was probably that he had already served half his sentence in pre-trial detention, but also that, according to the judge, “he could no longer continue his espionage activity”.

The 72-year-old Salzburger is already retired and the court apparently also took into account his poor health.

According to intelligence expert Siegfried Beer, the low sentence for Colonel Möller is probably related to the fact that his defense successfully convinced the court that the agent provided the Russians with publicly available information.

“The trial was taken very seriously by the army establishment and was well-prepared by Austrian military intelligence. They were going for maximum sentencing of 10 years in prison,” said Beer, founder of the Austrian Center for Intelligence, Propaganda and Security Studies.

“However, the unofficial reason could be that the Austrians who run vigorous energy and other businesses with Russia are not very angry with Moscow,” said Austrian analyst Gustav Gressel, who works at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin and focuses on security issues.

The low punishment did not surprise him. “In Austria, whose capital became the center of espionage during the Cold War, espionage is rarely treated as a serious crime. Even more so when it is in favor of the Russian Federation and it could jeopardize business,” adds Gressel.

Slovak ex-girlfriend 

As Denník N found out, one of the key witnesses in the espionage affair is Martin Möller’s ex-girlfriend, with whom the Austrian colonel had a close relationship.

This is a 78-year-old Slovak woman with Austrian citizenship, whose name we do not disclose due to her security concerns. “I’m very worried,” she told us, not wanting to give an interview. Due to her advanced age and the stress caused by the trial, she did not want to comment on the espionage affair of which she inadvertently became a part.

As Denník N learned, she significantly assisted the Austrian authorities in investigating the case. Nevertheless, she feels threatened.

According to a source of Denník N acquainted with the investigation, Martin Möller used, for example, her car on his journeys to meet the Russian spy from GRU in Bratislava.

Martin Möller was not at Štrbské pleso only once. In 2010 he returned to the High Tatras again. He just switched the Panorama hotel for the FIS hotel.

Most often, however, he travelled to Bratislava through comfortable borders without checks.

Once it was a conspiracy apartment in Petržalka, where they spent several days; at another time, the Leberfinger restaurant on the Petržalka side of the Danube, beside the Janko Kráľ Garden, was enough for a short meeting.

Martin Möller also exchanged messages through dead drops in the forests near Vienna, but the number of their meetings in Slovakia confirms what has been talked about very little up to now.

For Russian agents, Slovakia has become a convenient place for espionage.

Recruited in Iran

According to Denník N’s source, the Russians probably recruited Martin Möller in Tehran in the late 1980s. The Austrian colonel traveled to the Middle East often, but it was in Iran that the Russians allegedly cast a fishing line – a proposal for cooperation, which Möller seized.

Most recently, before retiring, he worked, according to Austrian media, at the Ministry of Defense’s structural planning department. His main motivation seemed to be money, which eventually convicted him.

The Austrian expert Beer believes that Möller had got involved with a Russian agent quite by chance already before the Cold War came to its end and had probably been after some extra salary.

As reported by Austrian media, it was the cash of almost 30,000 euros, with which he was caught in a meeting with an agent of the Russian military secret service GRU, that was one of the main pieces of evidence against him. The evidence was accumulated thanks to a long-term intelligence operation targeting an alleged traitor in the Austrian army.

Then it went fast. Martin Möller was arrested in November 2018 and convicted in the early summer of 2020 for “betrayal of state secrets”, “secret intelligence to the detriment of Austria” and “deliberate disclosure of military secrets”.

He was friendly. And anti-Semitic

Denník N spoke to a source who knew Möller very personally. “He was very friendly and quickly gained confidences. Sometimes, however, he did not hide that he was close to Nazi ideology. He claimed that the Holocaust did not happen and considered the Slavic nations inferior.”

According to the Austrian analyst Gressel, anti-Semitism and far-right views are also a problem in the German army, but in Austria the problem is even more pronounced.

“It also has to do with the fact that the far-right FPÖ managed to get into the government and push its people known for their anti-Semitism into the system,” Gressel said.

According to him, far-right officials are often close to Russia. ”This is related, for example, to their opposition to the European Union or to the emancipation of Slavic nations such as Ukraine,” says Gresell. “The connection of Russian secret services to the extreme right in Europe is a generally proven phenomenon.”

What he disclosed

GRU agent Igor Egorovich Zaytsev (66), for whom the Austrians have issued an arrest warrant, was according to Austrian media interested in a variety of information on the functioning of the Austrian and German armies and NATO, or information about who has what weaknesses in their army. He was interested in weapon systems, the roles of ground and air forces.

As stated in the verdict, Möller revealed to him the equipment of research and tank units, and provided information about radar stations or air defense systems, NATO projects and the structure of the German army. With the help of agents from partner countries like Austria, Russia can easily keep an eye on the Alliance.

The Russian spy from GRU also provided his agent with special technical equipment. It included a radio that allowed them to communicate with each other. He trained him to use satellite communications as well as basic encryption.

Information from NATO exercises and conferences, where Möller was permitted to participate as a Partner soldier, could also be useful.

Schengen – free zone for spies

One of the other proofs that Russian espionage has been using Slovakia for its own goals was provided at the beginning of this summer by the Bellingcat organization. Investigators found out that one of the accomplices suspected of the murder of a Chechen asylum seeker in a Berlin park in 2019 traveled to Germany thanks to Slovak visas.

He obtained them very easily, for a whole year and for several entries within a few days, without Slovakia’s embassy even checking his name. Nothing in his request was true.

In retaliation, Slovakia expelled three Russian spies in August, who operated in Slovakia with diplomatic cover.

Slovak diplomacy has already responded by canceling cooperation with a tourist agency which was used to process visas for the alleged FSB agent.

“The Schengen system is great for spies, and Austria is very open to Russians. They do not pay as much attention to espionage if it concerns other countries and international organizations, as long as it is not aimed at Austrian government institutions,” says British expert on intelligence Mark Galeotti.

Slovak politicians generally avoid criticism of the Russian regime, and in 2018, Slovakia was the only V4 country to refuse to expel Russian spies operating in Slovakia under diplomatic cover. Expulsion was expected to be a gesture of solidarity corresponding to that of the Western allies of Great Britain who had expelled about a hundred Russian spies after the attempted assassination of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in the south of England.

Even typically significantly pro-Russian Budapest applied the retaliatory measure.

Slovakia’s then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Miroslav Lajčák was ready to expel the Russians, but Peter Pellegrini’s government decided to leave the assassination by toxic novichok without reaction and allowed Russian spies to continue operating in Slovakia under diplomatic cover.

It was not until a few months later that Pellegrini had Russian Colonel Alexander Vinogradov expelled. As Denník N wrote at the time, Pellegrini no longer had a choice.

The Russian GRU agent, under the cover of a military attaché, carried out espionage activities that raised security concerns among Slovak officials.

However, the Austrian approach also raises doubts. Why did they decide to sweep the whole spy affair under the rug? So as not to anger their Russian partner and so that business could continue as usual?

According to the Warsaw Institute, Austrian-Russian cooperation did not suffer even after a major political scandal such as when the leader of the far-right FPÖ party Heinz-Christian Strache promised political benefits to the Russians in exchange for money for his party.

“This, however, did not hamper Moscow’s relations with Vienna, especially given that all top Austrian political parties declare themselves as pro-Russian, while the gas sector is the core of cooperation between the two countries. The Austrian oil and gas company ÖMV is involved in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 energy project,” writes the Warsaw Institute.

Why Russian spies love Austria

According to Gressel, Austria closed its eyes to communist espionage during the Cold War. “As a result, it gained the status of a bridge between East and West. The most active and cruel secret services in Vienna were the Russian KGB, the East German Stasi, and the Romanian Securitate,” says Gressel.

According to him, it is important to realize that the secret services adapted their infrastructure so that they got into business companies, law firms and banks, which were not only established to run business between East and West, but also used to “launder money from KGB operations in the West, the theft of technology or personal enrichment of agencies,” says Gressel. This modus operandi, according to him, became crucial between 1989 and 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Germany was united.

“Former state assets, such as black bank accounts, have gone unchecked and are taken care of by former communist agents. Some of these post-communist companies have integrated into Austrian business, such as energy companies, transport companies, savings banks and banks,” says Gressel.

All this was possible thanks to their good contacts in the eastern markets. The former agent in Austria also benefited from the political system. “Since all the large Austrian companies are connected to one of the parties – the Socialists, the People’s Party, or the Freedom Party, the spies have managed to maintain political influence,” Gressel explains.

An example is the Nord Stream 2 project and the consortium behind it. “The whole consortium is nothing more than a Stasi refuge, and ÖMV is a good example of this,” adds Gressel.

The expert Beer does not see a connection to ÖMV and Nord Stream but rather an embarrassment of the Austrian government and military for not having discovered this spy internally. “This explains why the prosecution opted for total secrecy, thereby strengthening its argument that this spy betrayed state secrets that still needed to be protected,” says the Austrian expert.

Austria also suits the Russians for the strong anti-American stance of the main political parties. “Conservative Catholics hate the Protestant United States for destroying the monarchy in World War I, German nationalists in Austria hate them for destroying the great German Empire, and socialists hate the United States for destroying the Soviet Union during the Cold War,” Gressel said.

The Austrian analyst recalls Putin’s visit to Vienna in June 2014, when the EU imposed sanctions on Russia after its annexation to Crimea and after provoking the war in Donbas.

“Putin got standing ovations among conservative economists, joked with Christoph Leitel about the partition of Ukraine, and had a warm, friendly conversation with President Fischer and Chancellor Faymann about business cooperation, as if nothing had happened,” Gressel said.

According to him, all this explains the lax approach of the Austrian authorities to Russian espionage, even when it might endanger its allies. “Weak espionage laws give Austrian secret services very little competence and opportunities to go after spies. In addition, espionage is a criminal offense only if it is directed against Austria,” adds Gressel.

An example of this is the case of an Austrian spy who was an agent of the Russian intelligence SVR. “He disclosed information about German Tiger helicopters, but since it was a German company, the Austrians were unable to convict him of espionage,” says Gressel.

The most recent example of an Austrian appearing to have signed up for Russia’s GRU secret service has been the Wirecard scandal – the head of its operations, the Austrian Jan Marsalek, was close to GRU people, according to the Financial Times. “Marsalek is close to the Russian secret service and is hiding in Moscow, and he has a very good relationship with the FPÖ and with people at the Austrian Ministry of the Interior and Defense,” adds Gressel.

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