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Austria. The “breeding ground of global espionage” is again dangerous for Europe

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Russia could gain influence on the entire political scene in Austria, the Politico website notes in an extensive analysis. It recalls the story from six years ago, when the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counter-Terrorism (BVT) was discredited. This action – according to Politico's interlocutors – was part of Moscow's operation and did not have to end.

On February 28, 2018, just after 8 a.m., Austrian police chief Wolfgang Preiszler pressed the bell at the headquarters of the BVT intelligence service and held his ID card close to the security camera. In just a few minutes, several dozen armed people wearing bulletproof vests and balaclavas broke into the building, seizing sensitive data stored on the agency's servers and secret documents lying on desks, Politico describes.

According to the website, more than six years later, the true extent of what happened that day is beginning to come to light. In an interview with Politico, intelligence officials revealed that the raid was part of an operation organized by Moscow aimed at discrediting the Austrian spy services and rebuilding them under new, Kremlin-controlled leadership. The portal's interlocutors claim that this has been supported by evidence.

According to intelligence officials, a key role in these efforts was played by the younger partner of the then government coalition: the far-right, pro-Russian Freedom Party. Austria (FPOe), which is currently the most popular party in the country.

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Headquarters of the BVT counterintelligence in ViennaGoogle Street View

READ: Court in Vienna: police entry into counterintelligence headquarters incomprehensible

“Putin would be very happy”

In April this year, Austrian prosecutors announced that the people who had much to do with the operation from years ago were Russian agents led by Jan Marsalek, a fugitive former director of the bankrupt Wirecard payment processing company, who, according to the Austrian authorities, works for the Russian military intelligence service GRU.

What is most disturbing, however, – writes Politico – is that “the man ultimately responsible for the raid on BVT, then-Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, currently heads the FPOe”, making him the leading candidate to be the next chancellor of Austria after elections, which will take place at the end of this year. Although experienced political observers argue that Austria will not become a Russian vassal under the rule of this group, the office of chancellor held by Kickel will still favor the president Russia Vladimir Putin – says the Politico portal.

– Putin would of course be very happy with the ambiguity that Kickl would introduce into Austrian-Ukrainian relations – says Christian Rainer, an Austrian publicist and political commentator. – The danger for Austria is that it would remain completely isolated – he warned.

Austria “a hotbed of global espionage”

In its extensive publication, Politico recalled how Russia recruited Marsalek. “Natasha”, planted by the Russian services, played a key role in this case. They met in 2013. With “Natasha” (Natalia Złobina), Marsalek led a lavish life, traveling around Europe.

Initially, Russian intelligence was interested in Marsalek primarily because of his connections with Wirecard (the Russians could use this company, among other things, to launder money), but later they also began to appreciate him.

As the capital of a neutral country, at the crossroads of East and West, and home to the offices of important organizations such as UN or OPEC, Vienna has long been a hotbed of global espionage. This explains why Russia has more accredited diplomats and diplomatic staff in this city than anywhere else in the world. Austrian intelligence experts say that about a third of these employees are probably spies, writes Politico.

– Austria is interesting to the Russians because they can use it as a platform for espionage operations against other European countries – said Thomas Riegler, a historian writing about Austrian intelligence, quoted by Politico.

Vienna, AustriaShutterstock

Three Austrians

The Russian espionage operation that led to the collapse of BVT began in 2015. Three Austrians played the most important role in its implementation: Egisto Ott, a BVT employee, arrested in April this year, Marsalek, currently hiding in Russia, and Martin Weiss, the then head of BVT, who fled from Austrian justice in 2021 to Dubai.

According to Politico, they were supposed to anonymously provide the media with documents intended to discredit BVT. As it later turned out, they were fabricated.

The operation was to be carried out, among others, thanks to the politicians of the FPOe party and its leader Herbert Kickel, who was then the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. It was he who was supposed to order the “cleaning” of the intelligence service after the FPOe took power in 2017. On his orders, the prosecutor's office began to investigate allegations against BVT based on fabricated documents prepared by collaborators of the Russian services Ott, Marsalek and Weiss. Their actions discredited the agency in the eyes of Western intelligence services and led to the closure of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counter-Terrorism (BVT) in 2021.

Politico notes that for a long time the Austrian services did not realize the extent to which they had been infiltrated by the Kremlin's people. The first obstacle that faced Marsalek, Ott and Weiss was the 2019 scandal in Ibiza involving the then head of FPOe, who was caught trying to sell influence political niece of a Russian oligarch. The scandal led to the fall of the FPOe government.

Europe's security

Politico emphasizes that although Austrian collaborators with Russian intelligence were unmasked, mainly thanks to information from the American intelligence agency CIA and Britain's MI5, the Freedom Party of Austria, linked to the Marsalek-Ott-Weiss case, “has the most support ahead of this year's elections.” The FPOe government, probably headed by Kickl, could threaten the security of Europe – writes Politico.

READ ALSO: “Slovakia is in a place where lack of trust serves as a political compass”

With Kickel as chancellor, it can certainly be said that Vienna will strive to strengthen economic relations with Moscow. And because Slovakia and Hungary already leaning towards Russia, Austria's entry into the Kremlin's sphere of influence would create a Putin-friendly bloc stretching from the Carpathians to the Eastern Alps, which would be a fundamental challenge to European security, Politico predicts.

Author:asty, tas/kab

Main photo source: Shutterstock

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