BARCELONA, Spain — Within the spring of 2019, an emissary of Catalonia’s prime separatist chief traveled to Moscow in the hunt for a political lifeline.
The independence motion in Catalonia, the semiautonomous area in Spain’s northeast, had been largely crushed after a referendum on breaking away two years earlier. The European Union and the US, which supported Spain’s effort to maintain the nation intact, had rebuffed the separatists’ pleas for help.
However in Russia, a door was opening.
In Moscow, the emissary, Josep Lluis Alay, a senior adviser to the self-exiled former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, met with present Russian officers, former intelligence officers and the well-connected grandson of a Okay.G.B. spymaster. The goal was to safe Russia’s assist in severing Catalonia from the remainder of Spain, in accordance with a European intelligence report, which was reviewed by The New York Instances.
Requested in regards to the report’s findings, each Mr. Alay and Mr. Puigdemont confirmed the journeys to Moscow, which have by no means been reported, however insisted they had been a part of common outreach to international officers and journalists. Mr. Alay mentioned any suggestion that he was searching for Russian help was “a fantasy story created by Madrid.”
However different confidential paperwork point out that Russia was a central preoccupation between Mr. Alay and Mr. Puigdemont.
For Russia, outreach to the separatists would match President Vladimir V. Putin’s technique of making an attempt to sow disruption within the West by supporting divisive political actions. In Italy, secret audio recordings revealed a Russian plot to covertly finance the hard-right League get together. In Britain, a Instances investigation uncovered discussions amongst right-wing fringe figures about opening financial institution accounts in Moscow. And in Spain, the Russians have additionally provided help to far-right events, in accordance with the intelligence report.
Whether or not Mr. Alay knew it or not, lots of the officers he met in Moscow are concerned in what has turn out to be often called the Kremlin’s hybrid warfare in opposition to the West. This can be a layered technique involving propaganda and disinformation, covert financing of disruptive political actions, hacking and leaking data (as occurred within the 2016 U.S. presidential election) and “lively measures” like assassinations meant to erode the steadiness of Moscow’s adversaries.
It’s unclear what assist, if any, the Kremlin has supplied to the Catalan separatists. However Mr. Alay’s journeys to Moscow in 2019 had been adopted rapidly by the emergence of a secretive protest group, Tsunami Democratic, which disrupted operations at Barcelona’s airport and lower off a serious freeway linking Spain to northern Europe. A confidential police report by Spain’s Guardia Civil, obtained by The Instances, discovered that Mr. Alay was concerned within the creation of the protest group.
A secret 700-page transcript of textual content messages reveals the concerted effort made by Mr. Alay and others in Mr. Puigdemont’s circle to domesticate ties to Russians with hyperlinks to the nation’s intelligence institution.
“I’m considering loads about Russia,” Mr. Alay texted Mr. Puigdemont on Aug. 23 final yr. “And as of late it’s all very, very sophisticated.”
Rumors of Russian involvement in Catalonia first emerged quickly after Mr. Puigdemont’s authorities held the independence referendum in October 2017. The referendum handed, overwhelmingly, with anti-separatist voters largely boycotting; Spanish authorities declared it unlawful and imprisoned these political leaders who didn’t flee overseas.
Spanish authorities later decided that operatives from a specialised Russian army intelligence group known as Unit 29155, which has been linked to tried coups and assassinations in Europe, had been current in Catalonia across the time of the referendum, however Spain has supplied no proof that they performed an lively function.
Many Catalan independence leaders have accused the authorities in Madrid of utilizing the specter of Russian interference to tarnish what they described as a grass-roots motion of standard residents. The referendum was supported by a fragile coalition of three political events that rapidly dissolved over disputes about ideology and technique. Whilst some events pushed for a negotiated settlement with Madrid, Mr. Puigdemont, a former journalist with a Beatles-like mop of hair, has eschewed compromise.
Requested in regards to the Russian outreach, the present Catalan authorities below President Pere Aragones distanced itself from Mr. Puigdemont.
“These journeys to Moscow weren’t taken on behalf of the Catalan authorities and came about with out Pere Aragones’s data,” mentioned Sergi Sabria, Mr. Aragones’s spokesman. “These persons are not even a part of the president’s get together, which isn’t conscious of the agendas of different events.”
To piece collectively the contacts with Russia, The Instances has drawn on the 10-page European intelligence report, the substance of which was confirmed by two Spanish officers; case recordsdata from two separate confidential investigations by magistrates in Barcelona and Madrid, which embrace the transcript of the texts, however haven’t yielded any prices associated to the Moscow conferences; and interviews with independence politicians and activists in Catalonia, in addition to safety officers in Spain and overseas.
The June 2020 intelligence report mentioned that Mr. Alay, along with Alexander Dmitrenko, a Russian businessman, sought monetary and technical help from Russia for the creation of banking, telecommunications and vitality sectors separate from Spain. The pair, together with Mr. Puigdemont’s lawyer, Gonzalo Boye, additionally consulted with a pacesetter of a violent Russian felony syndicate, a part of an effort to arrange a secret cash pipeline to fund their actions, the report mentioned.
The textual content messages, taken from Mr. Alay’s telephone when he was briefly arrested in October 2020, assist corroborate parts of the intelligence report.
“We’re working for The People,” Mr. Alay mentioned at one level, referring to the FX present about deep-cover Okay.G.B. officers in the US.
It was no joke. Two of his main contacts in Russia, in accordance with the intelligence report, had been a husband-and-wife crew of intelligence officers whose story helped encourage the sequence.
‘Good Information From Moscow’
The Catalan independence motion had been constructing momentum for a decade however by 2019 had fallen into disarray.
9 leaders of the motion had been in jail and would quickly be sentenced to lengthy jail phrases for his or her roles within the referendum. (This summer season, all obtained pardons.) Others had fled Spain, together with Mr. Puigdemont, who resides in Belgium and is now a member of the European Parliament, at the same time as he has railed against the “silence of the primary European establishments.”
The European Union declared the Catalan independence referendum unlawful. Russia’s place, against this, was extra equivocal. President Vladimir V. Putin described the Catalan separatist drive as Europe’s comeuppance for supporting independence actions in Japanese Europe after the autumn of the Soviet Union.
“There was a time after they welcomed the collapse of an entire sequence of governments in Europe, not hiding their happiness about this,” Mr. Putin mentioned. “We speak about double requirements on a regular basis. There you go.”
In March 2019, Mr. Alay traveled to Moscow, simply weeks after leaders of the Catalan independence motion went on trial. Three months later, Mr. Alay went once more.
In Russia, in accordance with the intelligence report, Mr. Alay and Mr. Dmitrenko met with a number of lively international intelligence officers, in addition to Oleg V. Syromolotov, the previous chief of counterintelligence for the Federal Safety Service, Russia’s home intelligence company, who now oversees counterterrorism as a deputy minister on the Russian international ministry.
Mr. Alay denied assembly Mr. Syromolotov and the officers however acknowledged assembly Yevgeny Primakov, the grandson of a well-known Okay.G.B. spymaster, in an effort to safe an interview with Mr. Puigdemont on a world affairs program he hosted on Kremlin tv. Final yr, Mr. Primakov was appointed by Mr. Putin to run a Russian cultural company that, in accordance with European safety officers, typically serves as a entrance for intelligence operations.
“Excellent news from Moscow,” Mr. Alay later texted to Mr. Puigdemont, informing him of Mr. Primakov’s appointment. In one other trade, Mr. Dmitrenko instructed Mr. Alay that Mr. Primakov’s elevation “places him in an excellent place to activate issues between us.”
Mr. Alay additionally confirmed assembly Andrei Bezrukov, a embellished former officer with Russia’s international intelligence service. For greater than a decade, Mr. Bezrukov and his spouse, Yelena Vavilova, had been deep cowl operatives residing in the US utilizing the code names Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley.
It was their story of espionage, arrest and eventual return to Russia in a spy swap that served as a foundation for the tv sequence “The People.” Mr. Alay seems to have turn out to be shut with the couple. Working with Mr. Dmitrenko, he spent about three months within the fall of 2020 on a Catalan translation of Ms. Vavilova’s autobiographical novel “The Lady Who Can Preserve Secrets and techniques,” in accordance with his encrypted correspondence.
Mr. Alay, who can also be a university professor and creator, mentioned he was invited by Mr. Bezrukov, who now teaches at a Moscow college, to ship two lectures.
Mr. Alay was accompanied on every of his journeys by Mr. Dmitrenko, 33, a Russian businessman who’s married to a Catalan lady. Mr. Dmitrenko didn’t reply to requests for remark. However Spanish authorities have monitored him and in 2019 rejected a citizenship software from him due to his Russian contacts, in accordance with a Spanish Ministry of Justice determination reviewed by The Instances.
The choice mentioned Mr. Dmitrenko “receives missions” from Russian intelligence and likewise “does totally different jobs” for leaders of Russian organized crime.
A Political Tsunami
A number of months after Mr. Alay’s journeys to Moscow, Catalonia erupted in protests.
A bunch calling itself Tsunami Democratic occupied the workplaces of one among Spain’s largest banks, closed a essential freeway between France and Spain for 2 days and orchestrated the takeover of the Barcelona airport, forcing the cancellation of greater than 100 flights.
The group’s origins have remained unclear, however one of many confidential police recordsdata acknowledged that Mr. Alay attended a gathering in Geneva, the place he and different independence activists finalized plans for Tsunami Democratic’s unveiling.
Three days after Tsunami Democratic occupied the Barcelona airport, two Russians flew from Moscow to Barcelona, the Catalan capital, in accordance with flight information obtained by The Instances.
One was Sergei Sumin, whom the intelligence report describes as a colonel in Russia’s Federal Protecting Service, which oversees safety for Mr. Putin and isn’t recognized for actions overseas.
The opposite was Artyom Lukoyanov, the adopted son of a prime adviser to Mr. Putin, one who was deeply concerned in Russia’s efforts to help separatists in jap Ukraine.
Based on the intelligence report, Mr. Alay and Mr. Dmitrenko met the 2 males in Barcelona for a method session to debate the independence motion, although the report provided no different particulars.
Mr. Alay denied any connection to Tsunami Democratic. He confirmed that he had met with Mr. Sumin and Mr. Lukoyanov on the request of Mr. Dmitrenko, however solely to “greet them politely.”
Even because the protests pale, Mr. Puigdemont’s associates remained busy. His lawyer, Mr. Boye, flew to Moscow in February 2020 to satisfy Vasily Khristoforov, whom Western regulation enforcement businesses describe as a senior Russian organized crime determine. The objective, in accordance with the report, was to enlist Mr. Khristoforov to assist arrange a secret funding channel for the independence motion.
In an interview, Mr. Boye acknowledged assembly in Moscow with Mr. Khristoforov, who is needed in a number of international locations together with Spain on suspicion of economic crimes, however mentioned they solely mentioned issues regarding Mr. Khristoforov’s authorized circumstances.
By late 2020, Mr. Alay’s texts reveal an eagerness to maintain his Russian contacts pleased. In exchanges with Mr. Puigdemont and Mr. Boye, he mentioned they need to keep away from any public statements that may anger Moscow, particularly in regards to the democracy protests that Russia was serving to to disperse violently in Belarus.
Mr. Puigdemont didn’t all the time head the recommendation, showing in Brussels with the Belarusian opposition and tweeting his help for the protesters, prompting Mr. Boye to textual content Mr. Alay that “we must inform the Russians that this was simply to mislead.”