By Michael Schwirtz and José Bautista – September 3, 2021
Puigdemont lives in self-imposed exile in Belgium and is now a member of the European Parliament.Credit … Francisco Seco / Associated Press
BARCELONA— In the spring of 2019, an emissary from a senior leader of the separatist movement in Catalonia traveled to Moscow in search of a political lifeline.
The independence movement of Catalonia, the semi-autonomous region in northeastern Spain, had been largely defeated after an independence referendum two years earlier. The European Union and the United States, which supported Spain’s efforts to keep the country intact, had rejected requests for help from the separatists.
In Russia, however, a door was opening.
In Moscow, the emissary, Josep Lluis Alay, a senior adviser to former self-exiled Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, met with Russian officials, former intelligence agents and the grandson of a KGB spy, a well-connected man. The goal was to guarantee Russian aid to achieve the separation of Catalonia from the rest of Spain, according to a European intelligence report that The New York Times was able to review.
Asked about the report’s findings, both Alay and Puigdemont confirmed the trips to Moscow, which have never been reported before, but insisted they were part of a regular effort to liaise with foreign officials and journalists. Alay said that any suggestion that he was seeking Russian support was “a ‘fantasy story’ created by Madrid.”
However, other confidential documents indicate that Russia was a central concern between Alay and Puigdemont.
For Russia, ties to separatists were in line with President Vladimir Putin’s strategy to try to promote disruption in the West by supporting divisive political movements. In Italy, secret audio recordings revealed a Russian plot to secretly finance the League, a far-right party. In the UK, a Times investigation disclosed talks between far-right fringe figures to open bank accounts in Moscow. And in Spain, the Russians have also offered assistance to far-right parties, according to the intelligence report.
Whether Alay knew it or not, many of the officials he met in Moscow are involved in what has become known as the Kremlin’s hybrid war against the West. It is a multi-layered strategy that employs propaganda and disinformation, secret financing and destabilizing political movements, cyber attacks and information leaks (as in the 2016 presidential election), and “proactive measures” such as contract killings to erode the stability of Moscow’s adversaries.
It is not clear what kind of help the Kremlin has provided to the Catalan separatists, or if it has provided any support. But after Alay’s trips to Moscow in 2019, a stealth protest group, Tsunami Democràtic, quickly emerged, disrupting the operation of Barcelona airport and blocking a major highway linking Spain with northern Europe. A confidential report from the Spanish Civil Guard, which the Times obtained, claimed that Alay was involved in the creation of that group.
A secret 700-page transcript of text messages shows the coordinated effort by Alay and others in the Puigdemont circle to cultivate ties with Russians linked to the country’s intelligence community.
“I’m thinking a lot about the Russia issue,” Alay wrote by text message to Puigdemont on August 23 last year. “And these days everything is very, very complicated.”
The first rumors of Russian participation in Catalonia emerged shortly after the Puigdemont government held the independence referendum in October 2017. The referendum was overwhelmingly won by the separatists; anti-separatist voters for the most part boycotted the process. The Spanish authorities declared it illegal and jailed political leaders who did not go abroad.
Later, the Spanish authorities determined that agents of a specialized Russian military intelligence group called Unit 29155, which has been linked to attempted coups and assassinations in Europe, were in Catalonia around the time of the referendum, but Spain has not presented evidence that they have played an active role.
Many Catalan independence leaders have accused authorities in Madrid of using the specter of Russian interference to tarnish what they described as a grassroots movement of ordinary citizens. The referendum was supported by a weak coalition of three political parties that quickly dissolved due to disagreements over ideology and strategy. Even when some parties were pushing for a negotiated deal with Madrid, Puigdemont, a former journalist with a Beatles-like hair, has avoided such compromises.
When asked about the Russian rapprochement, the current Catalan government of Pere Aragonès distanced itself from Puigdemont.
“These trips to Moscow were not made on behalf of the Catalan Government and were carried out without the knowledge of Pere Aragonès,” said Sergi Sabrià, spokesman for Aragonès. “These people are not even part of the president’s party, which is not aware of the agendas of other parties.”
To reconstruct contacts with Russia, the Times has resorted to the European intelligence report, which consists of 10 pages and whose essential content was corroborated by two Spanish officials; to the files of two confidential and different investigations carried out by magistrates in Barcelona and Madrid, which include the transcription of the text messages but have not resulted in charges related to the Moscow meetings; as well as interviews with politicians and pro-independence activists in Catalonia, as well as security officials in Spain and abroad.
The June 2020 intelligence report states that Alay, together with Russian businessman Alexander Dmitrenko, sought technical and financial assistance from Russia for the creation of separate banking, energy and telecommunications sectors from Spain. The pair, along with Puigdemont’s lawyer Gonzalo Boye, also consulted a leader of a violent Russian criminal group, as part of an attempt to establish a secret conduit of money to finance their activities, the report said.
The text messages, extracted from Alay’s phone in October 2020 during a brief arrest, helped corroborate parts of the intelligence report.
“We’re working for The Americans,” Alay said at one point, referring to the FX network’s television show about KGB officials working undercover in the United States.
It was not a joke. Two of his main contacts in Russia, according to the intelligence report, were a team of intelligence agents husbands whose stories helped inspire the series.
‘Good news from Moscow’
The Catalan independence movement had been building momentum for a decade but by 2019 had fallen into disarray.
Nine leaders of the movement were in jail and would soon receive long sentences for their role in the referendum. (This summer they were all pardoned). Others fled Spain, including Puigdemont, who lives in Belgium and is now a member of the European Parliament, although he has complained about the “silence of the main European institutions.”
The European Union declared the Catalan independence referendum illegal. The Russian position, on the other hand, was more equivocal. President Vladimir Putin described the advance of Catalan separatism as what Europe deserved for having supported the independence movements of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“There was a time when they received the collapse of a whole series of governments in Europe without hiding their joy,” Putin said. “We always talk about double standards. There you have them ”.
In March 2019, Alay traveled to Moscow, just weeks after the leaders of the Catalan independence movement went to trial. Three months later, Alay went again.
In Russia, according to the intelligence report, Alay and Dmitrenko met with several active intelligence officers, as well as Oleg V. Syromolotov, a former director of counterintelligence at the Federal Security Service, the Russian national intelligence agency, which now oversees counterterrorism as deputy minister in the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Alay denied meeting with Syromolotov and officials, but acknowledged that he met Yevgeny Primakov, the grandson of a famous KGB spy, to get an interview with Puigdemont on an international affairs program that he hosted on Kremlin television. Last year, Putin appointed Primakov as director of a cultural bureau that, according to European security officials, often serves as a front for intelligence operations.
“Good news from Moscow,” Alay later wrote to Puigdemont in a text message informing him of Primakov’s appointment. In another exchange, Dmitrenko told Alay that Primakov’s rise “puts him in a very good position to activate things between us.”
Alay also confirmed that he had met with Andrei Bezrukov, a decorated former official in Russia’s foreign intelligence service. For more than a decade, Bezrukov and his wife, Yelena Vavilova, were undercover operators living in the United States under the code names Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley.
It was the story of his espionage, arrest and eventual return to Russia in a spy swap that inspired the television series The Americans. Alay seems to have become close to the couple. In collaboration with Dmitrenko, he spent about three months in the fall of 2020 working on a Catalan translation of Vavilova’s autobiographical novel, entitled The Woman Who Knows How to Keep Secrets, according to his encrypted correspondence.
Alay, who is also a university professor and writer, says that Bezrukov, who now teaches at a Moscow university, invited him to give two lectures.
On each of the trips, Alay was accompanied by Dmitrenko, a 33-year-old Russian businessman married to a Catalan woman. Dmitrenko did not respond to requests for comment. But Spanish authorities have monitored him and in 2019 rejected his citizenship petition due to his Russian contacts, according to a decision by the Spanish Justice Ministry that the Times reviewed.
The decision said that Dmitrenko “receives missions” from the Russian intelligence services and that he also “performs different tasks” for leaders of Russian organized crime.
A political tsunami
A few months after Alay’s trips to Moscow, protests broke out in Catalonia.
A group calling itself Tsunami Democràtic occupied the offices of one of the largest banks in Spain, closed a highway between France and Spain for two days and organized a seizure of the Barcelona airport, forcing the cancellation of more than one hundred flights.
The group’s origins remain unclear, but one of the confidential police files said Alay attended a meeting in Geneva, where he and other pro-independence activists finalized plans to publicize Tsunami Democràtic.
Three days after the Barcelona airport occupation, two Russians flew from Moscow to Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, according to flight logs obtained by the Times.
One of them was Sergei Suppl, identified in the intelligence report as a colonel with the Russian Federal Protection Service, an agency that oversees Putin’s security and is not known to carry out operations abroad.
The other was Artyom Lukoyanov, the adopted son of a senior Putin adviser, one who was deeply involved in Russian efforts to support separatists in eastern Ukraine.
According to the intelligence report, Alay and Dmitrenko met with the two men in Barcelona for a strategy session to discuss the independence movement, although the document does not offer other details.
Alay denied any link to Tsunami Democràtic. He confirmed that he had met with Suppl and Lukoyanov at Dmitrenko’s request, but only to “greet them politely.”
Even as the protests weakened, Puigdemont’s allies remained busy. His lawyer, Boye, flew to Moscow in February 2020 to meet with Vasily Khristoforov, whom Western justice agencies describe as a veteran Russian organized crime figure. According to the report, the goal was to recruit Khristoforov to help establish a secret funding channel for the independence movement.
In an interview, Boye acknowledged having met in Moscow with Khristoforov, who is wanted in several countries, including Spain, on suspicion of financial crimes. But he said they had only discussed matters related to the Khristoforov court cases.
Towards the end of 2020, Alay’s text messages reveal an eagerness to keep his Russian contacts happy. In exchanges with Puigdemont and Boye, he said they should avoid any public statements that might upset Moscow, especially in relation to pro-democracy protests in Belarus that Russia was helping to disperse with violence.
Puigdemont didn’t always follow the advice, appearing in Brussels alongside the Belarusian opposition and tweeting his support for the protesters, prompting Boye to text Alay saying “we’ll have to tell the Russians this is just to mislead. ”.
Michael Schwirtz is an investigative reporter with the International desk. With The Times since 2006, he previously covered the countries of the former Soviet Union from Moscow and was a lead reporter on a team that won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for articles about Russian intelligence operations.