Married Kremlin Spies, a Shadowy Mission to Moscow and Unrest in Catalonia
BARCELONA, Spain — In the spring of 2019, an emissary of Catalonia’s top separatist leader traveled to Moscow in search of a political lifeline …
BARCELONA, Spain — In the spring of 2019, an emissary of Catalonia’s top separatist leader traveled to Moscow in search of a political lifeline.
The independence movement in Catalonia, the semiautonomous region in Spain’s northeast, had been largely crushed after a referendum on breaking away two years earlier. The European Union and the United States, which supported Spain’s effort to keep the country intact, had rebuffed the separatists’ pleas for support.
But 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 current Russian officials, former intelligence officers and the well-connected grandson of a K.G.B. spymaster. The aim was to secure Russia’s help in severing Catalonia from the rest of Spain, according to a European intelligence report, which was reviewed by The New York Times.
Asked about the report’s findings, both Mr. Alay and Mr. Puigdemont confirmed the trips to Moscow, which have never been reported, but insisted they were part of regular outreach to foreign officials and journalists. Mr. Alay said any suggestion that he was seeking Russian assistance was “a fantasy story created by Madrid.”
But other confidential documents indicate that Russia was a central preoccupation between Mr. Alay and Mr. Puigdemont.
For Russia, outreach to the separatists would fit President Vladimir V. Putin’s strategy of trying to sow disruption in the West by supporting divisive political movements. In Italy, secret audio recordings revealed a Russian plot to covertly finance the hard-right League party. In Britain, a Times investigation uncovered discussions among right-wing fringe figures about opening bank accounts in Moscow. And in Spain, the Russians have also offered assistance to far-right parties, according to the intelligence report.
Whether Mr. 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. This is a layered strategy involving propaganda and disinformation, covert financing of disruptive political movements, hacking and leaking information (as happened in the 2016 U.S. presidential election) and “active measures” like assassinations meant to erode the stability of Moscow’s adversaries.
It is unclear what help, if any, the Kremlin has provided to the Catalan separatists. But Mr. Alay’s trips to Moscow in 2019 were followed quickly by the emergence of a secretive protest group, Tsunami Democratic, which disrupted operations at Barcelona’s airport and cut off a major highway linking Spain to northern Europe. A confidential police report by Spain’s Guardia Civil, obtained by The Times, found that Mr. Alay was involved in the creation of the protest group.
A secret 700-page transcript of text messages shows the concerted effort made by Mr. Alay and others in Mr. Puigdemont’s circle to cultivate ties to Russians with links to the country’s intelligence establishment.
“I’m thinking a lot about Russia,” Mr. Alay texted Mr. Puigdemont on Aug. 23 last year. “And these days it’s all very, very complicated.”
Rumors of Russian involvement in Catalonia first emerged soon after Mr. Puigdemont’s government held the independence referendum in October 2017. The referendum passed, overwhelmingly, with anti-separatist voters largely boycotting; Spanish authorities declared it illegal and imprisoned those political leaders who did not flee abroad.
Spanish authorities later determined that operatives from a specialized Russian military intelligence group called Unit 29155, which has been linked to attempted coups and assassinations in Europe, had been present in Catalonia around the time of the referendum, but Spain has provided no evidence that they played an active role.
Many Catalan independence leaders have accused the authorities in Madrid of using the specter of Russian interference to tarnish what they described as a grass-roots movement of regular citizens. The referendum was supported by a fragile coalition of three political parties that quickly dissolved over disputes about ideology and strategy. Even as some parties pushed for a negotiated settlement with Madrid, Mr. Puigdemont, a former journalist with a Beatles-like mop of hair, has eschewed compromise.
Asked about the Russian outreach, the current Catalan government under President Pere Aragones distanced itself from Mr. Puigdemont.
“These trips to Moscow were not taken on behalf of the Catalan government and took place without Pere Aragones’s knowledge,” said Sergi Sabria, Mr. Aragones’s spokesman. “These people are not even part of the president’s party, which is not aware of the agendas of other parties.”
To piece together the contacts with Russia, The Times has drawn on the 10-page European intelligence report, the substance of which was confirmed by two Spanish officials; case files from two separate confidential investigations by magistrates in Barcelona and Madrid, which include the transcript of the texts, but have not yielded any charges related to the Moscow meetings; and interviews with independence politicians and activists in Catalonia, as well as security officials in Spain and abroad.
The June 2020 intelligence report said that Mr. Alay, together with Alexander Dmitrenko, a Russian businessman, sought financial and technical assistance from Russia for the creation of banking, telecommunications and energy sectors separate from Spain. The pair, along with Mr. Puigdemont’s lawyer, Gonzalo Boye, also consulted with a leader of a violent Russian criminal syndicate, part of an effort to set up a secret money pipeline to fund their activities, the report said.
The text messages, taken from Mr. Alay’s phone when he was briefly arrested in October 2020, help corroborate portions of the intelligence report.
“We’re working for The Americans,” Mr. Alay said at one point, referring to the FX show about deep-cover K.G.B. officers in the United States.
It was no joke. Two of his primary contacts in Russia, according to the intelligence report, were a husband-and-wife team of intelligence officers whose story 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 be sentenced to long prison terms for their roles in the referendum. (This summer, all received pardons.) Others had fled Spain, including Mr. Puigdemont, who is living in Belgium and is now a member of the European Parliament, even as he has railed against the “silence of the main European institutions.”
The European Union declared the Catalan independence referendum illegal. Russia’s position, by contrast, was more equivocal. President Vladimir V. Putin described the Catalan separatist drive as Europe’s comeuppance for supporting independence movements in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“There was a time when they welcomed the collapse of a whole series of governments in Europe, not hiding their happiness about this,” Mr. Putin said. “We talk about double standards all the time. There you go.”
In March 2019, Mr. Alay traveled to Moscow, just weeks after leaders of the Catalan independence movement went on trial. Three months later, Mr. Alay went again.
In Russia, according to the intelligence report, Mr. Alay and Mr. Dmitrenko met with several active foreign intelligence officers, as well as Oleg V. Syromolotov, the former chief of counterintelligence for the Federal Security Service, Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, who now oversees counterterrorism as a deputy minister at the Russian foreign ministry.
Mr. Alay denied meeting Mr. Syromolotov and the officers but acknowledged meeting Yevgeny Primakov, the grandson of a famous K.G.B. spymaster, in order to secure an interview with Mr. Puigdemont on an international affairs program he hosted on Kremlin television. Last year, Mr. Primakov was appointed by Mr. Putin to run a Russian cultural agency that, according to European security officials, often serves as a front for intelligence operations.
“Good news from Moscow,” Mr. Alay later texted to Mr. Puigdemont, informing him of Mr. Primakov’s appointment. In another exchange, Mr. Dmitrenko told Mr. Alay that Mr. Primakov’s elevation “puts him in a very good position to activate things between us.”
Mr. Alay also confirmed meeting Andrei Bezrukov, a decorated former officer with Russia’s foreign intelligence service. For more than a decade, Mr. Bezrukov and his wife, Yelena Vavilova, were deep cover operatives living in the United States using 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 basis for the television series “The Americans.” Mr. Alay appears to have become close with the couple. Working with Mr. Dmitrenko, he spent about three months in the fall of 2020 on a Catalan translation of Ms. Vavilova’s autobiographical novel “The Woman Who Can Keep Secrets,” according to his encrypted correspondence.
Mr. Alay, who is also a college professor and author, said he was invited by Mr. Bezrukov, who now teaches at a Moscow university, to deliver two lectures.
Mr. Alay was accompanied on each of his trips by Mr. Dmitrenko, 33, a Russian businessman who is married to a Catalan woman. Mr. Dmitrenko did not respond to requests for comment. But Spanish authorities have monitored him and in 2019 rejected a citizenship application from him because of his Russian contacts, according to a Spanish Ministry of Justice decision reviewed by The Times.
The decision said Mr. Dmitrenko “receives missions” from Russian intelligence and also “does different jobs” for leaders of Russian organized crime.
A Political Tsunami
A few months after Mr. Alay’s trips to Moscow, Catalonia erupted in protests.
A group calling itself Tsunami Democratic occupied the offices of one of Spain’s largest banks, closed a main highway between France and Spain for two days and orchestrated the takeover of the Barcelona airport, forcing the cancellation of more than a hundred flights.
The group’s origins have remained unclear, but one of the confidential police files stated that Mr. Alay attended a meeting in Geneva, where he and other 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, according to flight records obtained by The Times.
One was Sergei Sumin, whom the intelligence report describes as a colonel in Russia’s Federal Protective Service, which oversees security for Mr. Putin and is not known for activities abroad.
The other was Artyom Lukoyanov, the adopted son of a top adviser to Mr. Putin, one who was deeply involved in Russia’s efforts to support separatists in eastern Ukraine.
According to the intelligence report, Mr. Alay and Mr. Dmitrenko met the two men in Barcelona for a strategy session to discuss the independence movement, though the report offered no other details.
Mr. Alay denied any connection to Tsunami Democratic. He confirmed that he had met with Mr. Sumin and Mr. Lukoyanov at the request of Mr. Dmitrenko, but only to “greet them politely.”
Even as the protests faded, Mr. Puigdemont’s associates remained busy. His lawyer, Mr. Boye, flew to Moscow in February 2020 to meet Vasily Khristoforov, whom Western law enforcement agencies describe as a senior Russian organized crime figure. The goal, according to the report, was to enlist Mr. Khristoforov to help set up a secret funding channel for the independence movement.
In an interview, Mr. Boye acknowledged meeting in Moscow with Mr. Khristoforov, who is wanted in several countries including Spain on suspicion of financial crimes, but said they only discussed matters relating to Mr. Khristoforov’s legal cases.
By late 2020, Mr. Alay’s texts reveal an eagerness to keep his Russian contacts happy. In exchanges with Mr. Puigdemont and Mr. Boye, he said they should avoid any public statements that might anger Moscow, especially about the democracy protests that Russia was helping to disperse violently in Belarus.
Mr. Puigdemont did not always head the advice, appearing in Brussels with the Belarusian opposition and tweeting his support for the protesters, prompting Mr. Boye to text Mr. Alay that “we will have to tell the Russians that this was just to mislead.”