Sunday

24th Jun 2018

Investigation

Fight club: Russian spies seek EU recruits

  • Systema seminar in US: The offensive style teaches Russian special forces techniques (Photo: Sean Gerety)

Russian intelligence services are using martial arts clubs to recruit potential troublemakers in Germany and other EU countries, security experts have warned.

The number of clubs is higher than previously reported and the "sleeper cells" could stage violent provocations ahead of the upcoming German elections, they said.

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  • Chmelnizki: "They are organising combat sleeper cells" (Photo: Sean Gerety)

The warnings come amid concerns by enemies of the Russian state who live in the EU that they could be harmed for their work.

The martial arts clubs, which teach an offensive style called "systema", all have "direct or indirect" links to the GRU military intelligence or FSB domestic intelligence services in Russia, according to Dmitrij Chmelnizki, a scholar of Russian espionage who lives in Berlin.

He said the GRU was using them to recruit agents in the West the same way that it used to when it had bases in the former East Germany in Cold War times.

His investigation found 63 systema clubs in Germany and dozens more in other EU states, in the Western Balkans, and in North America.

Many of the clubs publicly boasted that they had links to Russian special forces and used GRU or FSB insignia, such as images of bats or of St. George.

"None of this is a secret to the German authorities, I hope", Chmelnizki said.

The 63-year old academic fled from Russia to the then West Germany in 1987 after being put on trial for doing research on the KGB, the former name of the FSB.

He conducted his investigation of the systema clubs using open sources on the internet. He also did it in collaboration with Viktor Suvorov, a former GRU officer who was posted in Geneva, Switzerland, during the Cold War before he moved to the UK.

Chmelnizki told EUobserver that based on an estimate of "approximately three to five agents on average for a training group", the 63 clubs in Germany meant that the GRU's fifth column there could number up to 315 recruits.

According to GRU doctrine, these agents could be used to attack targets such as military bases or civilian airports if war broke out with Nato, but they could also be ordered to create "general terror in the enemy's rear" or "an atmosphere of suspicion, insecurity, and fear" in an enemy country's population during peacetime.

"They are organising combat sleeper cells", Chmelnizki said.

Looking ahead to the German elections in September, he said that Russian agents could try to start a cycle of racist violence during the vote. "They could be used to destabilise the situation, for instance by instigating violence during anti-government demonstrations, or by throwing molotov cocktails at a mosque or a migrant shelter", he said.

He said the Systema Wolf school was of "special interest" because it was "developing very fast" in Europe.

It has, in just seven years, opened branches in Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Serbia, and Switzerland and it has created a German chapter of the Night Wolves, a Russian biker gang whose leader is friends with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Chmelnizki said the Systema RMA school appeared to be targeting recruits inside German security services.

He noted that five alumni from its club in Bonn were from Germany's special police, for instance.

Chmelnizki said he wanted to speak out because he felt unsafe and because the publicity might help to protect him.

"So far, I have not had any clear threats, but I know who I'm dealing with", he told EUobserver.

"The GRU feels just as at home today in united Germany as it used to in the former USSR", he said.

A previous investigation by Boris Reitschuster, a German journalist, published last year, also said the GRU was using systema clubs to recruit agents.

It cited a classified report by a Western intelligence service, which said the GRU had recruited 250 to 300 agents in Germany and that the foreign service was surprised the German authorities had done nothing to stop it.

An earlier report by Focus, a German magazine, said there were systema clubs in 30 German cities and that the BfV, the country's domestic intelligence service, saw them as a security threat.

Meanwhile, a recent documentary by Germany's ZDF broadcaster raised the alarm on Chechen agents.

A senior FSB officer who quit the service in 2008 told ZDF that the FSB had used martial arts clubs in Chechnya, a Russian province, to recruit men whom it later sent to Germany posing as refugees.

The Chechen "sleepers" could be "given any kind of order," said the FSB officer, who asked to remain anonymous.

EUobserver contacted the largest systema school, Systema Ryabko, for a comment on Chmelnizki and Reitschuster's allegations.

It said by email from its office in Toronto, Canada, without giving the name of the respondent: "The allegations you heard are a fruit of someone's malicious imagination and are completely false".

German elections

With the German election four months away, the GRU already stands accused of trying to meddle in the outcome by hacking German MPs.

"We recognise this [cyber attack] as a campaign being directed from Russia", the BfV director, Hans-Georg Massen, said at a conference in Potsdam, Germany, on 5 May.

"Whether they do it [use the hacked material] or not is a political decision ... that I assume will be made in the Kremlin", he said.

German intelligence and police services declined to comment if they thought that Russian intelligence services posed a physical threat as well as a digital one.

"We do not disclose our security concepts", a Berlin police spokesman said.

Stefan Meister, a German expert on Russia, said Russian intelligence was targeting Germany as part of a wider anti-EU campaign, but he said it was unlikely that the Kremlin would go beyond propaganda and cyber operations.

Meister, from the German Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank in Berlin, told EUobserver that the Russian general staff and intelligence services first discussed how to counter Western influence after anti-Putin protests in Russia in 2011 and 2012.

He said Putin, who is a former FSB director, felt "under attack" by the West, whom the Russian leader blamed for organising the rallies.

"The Kremlin discussed how to fight back, how to meddle in our societies, how to manipulate public debate, how to exploit EU weaknesses to disable the EU," Meister said. 

He said Germany was a "target" because it backed EU sanctions on Russia and because it was vital to EU economic and political stability.

Meister, who took part in the ZDF documentary, added that there was "speculation" in "expert circles" in Germany that either Putin or Ramzan Kadyrov, the governor of Chechnya, could use Chechen agents to "influence the Muslim community in Europe and support them in organising terrorist attacks".

But he added: "That is not the way the Russian security forces work. They want to weaken the [German] system, show its weaknesses, but they don't want to organise some kind of coup".

There was "panic and overestimation" in terms of "what the Russians were capable of", he said.

Another Russia expert disagreed.

Eerik-Niiles Kross, who used to hunt Russian spies when he led Estonia's security service, the Kapo, from 1995 to 2000, said that an anti-government rally in Berlin last year already "bore the hallmarks" of a "special operation" by Russian intelligence that was designed to influence German politics.

The International Convention of German-Russians, a Berlin-based group that denies having links to the Kremlin, put 700 men and women on the street outside German chancellor Angela Merkel's office on 23 January last year.

It called on anti-Muslim and neo-Nazi extremists to join them via Facebook.

It held the rally in conjunction with a Kremlin-sponsored propaganda campaign about fake allegations that migrants had raped a Russian girl.

'Systematic, aggressive'

Germany aside, Chmelnizki's investigation showed that GRU and FSB-linked martial arts clubs have also mushroomed elsewhere in Europe.

He said there were nine systema-type schools whose founders were "all officers of the GRU or KGB-FSB" and whose "intense" foreign expansion in the past 10 years had "no visible natural explanation".

The expansion looked like a "well-thought-out, large-scale operation of the secret services with powerful government funding", he said.

The Systema Ryabko school, for instance, has branches in Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the UK as well as Germany.

The Systema Siberian Cossack school has students in Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Hungary, Italy, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and the UK.

Another systema school associated with Vadim Starov, whom Chmelnizki described as "a GRU officer who only formally retired", has branches in Cyprus, Greece, and Italy and was the "most blatant" in its use of GRU insignia and slogans, he said.

Kross, the former Kapo chief from Estonia, said EU authorities should pay more attention to Russian intelligence "special operations".

He noted that GRU officers recently gave combat training to a neo-Nazi group in Hungary, the Hungarian National Front, and to similar groups in Slovakia, the Slovak Conscripts and the Slovak Revival Movement.

He also said the GRU tried to stage an anti-Nato coup in Montenegro last year.

Looking at the GRU-alleged cyber attacks on German elections, he said special operations were more "aggressive" and "dangerous".

"A cyber attack can cause a lot of damage, but this requires posting a team of covert operatives to the target country", he said.

"Russia's recent use of special operations in Europe seems to be more than just a list of random incidents. There's a systematic increase and it's going on not just in the Western Balkans, but also in the rest of Europe," Kross said.

Mark Galeotti, a British expert on Russia, told EUobserver that Russian intelligence sometimes outsourced tasks to Russian organised crime groups in Europe to conceal its hand.

"There is evidence that some Russian-based organised crime groups are sometimes contracted by Russian intelligence to carry out certain acts," he said.

Galeotti, from the Institute of International Relations in Prague, said in a report out in April that Russian criminals in Germany were doing "mundane" tasks for Russian spies, such as "simple surveillance" or delivering "materials or messages".

He said the GRU and FSB used the Russian mafia "to raise operational funds for active political measures [bribes] in Europe that had no Russian 'fingerprints' on them".

Pointing to the GRU combat training in Hungary and to the GRU-alleged coup in Montenegro, he said the mafia could also help the Kremlin's fifth column in Europe to carry out more serious attacks if hostilities broke out.

The Russian mafia's "capacity … to smuggle weapons and military equipment" into the EU would be "of particular use to the Kremlin", Galeotti said.

Putin's list

Chmelnizki was not the only enemy of Putin living in Europe who did not feel protected by the EU or Nato border.

Egmont Koch, who made the ZDF documentary on Chechen agents, told EUobserver that the former FSB officer to whom he spoke wanted to remain anonymous because he feared reprisals.

A list of Kremlin-alleged killings on Western territory in recent times would include Alexander Litvinenko, an FSB defector, who was poisoned in the UK in 2006, and Alexander Peripilichny, an anti-FSB whistleblower, who died suddenly in the UK in 2012, among others.

The sudden deaths in Germany of two top MPs on Russia relations – Philipp Missfelder in 2015 and Andreas Schockenhoff in 2014 – also prompted conspiracy theories.

Meister, from the German think tank, told EUobserver that he knew Missfelder and that the MP had been in poor health, but said some of his associates felt that the two deaths "couldn't be normal".

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian oil chief who fell out with Putin and who fled to the UK, also told this website that EU states should pay more attention to physical threats posed by Russian intelligence.

He added, echoing Galeotti, that if the Russian regime wanted to kill him, it would probably outsource it to Chechen criminals in Austria.

Khodorkovsky said that Russian intelligence services had a list of people in Europe "whose death would be a pleasant thing for Putin and his circle".

"The list is not that short. It's not hundreds of people either, but even if you killed just 10 people that would make everyone else think," he said, referring to intimidation of Putin's adversaries in the West.

"The West stopped thinking about Russian special operations about 30 years ago [when the USSR fell], but it needs to understand and view this threat differently today," he said.

Correction on 26 May 2017: The article incorrectly stated that Andreas Schockenhoff died in 2015. In fact, he died in 2014.

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