Israel leaked video that brought down Austrian government, says German ex-spy chief

Strache GudenusIsraeli intelligence was likely behind the leaked video that brought down the far-right governing coalition in Austria on Monday, according to the former deputy director of Germany’s spy agency. The surreptitiously recorded video was leaked to two German media outlets on May 17, days before Austrian voters participated in the continent-wide elections for the European Union. In the video, two senior members of Austria’s governing far-right Freedom Party are seen conversing with an unnamed woman posing as a Russian investor. The two men in the video were Heinz-Christian Strache, the the Freedom Party’s leader and until recently Austria’s Vice Chancellor, and Johannes Gudenus, the party’s deputy leader and a member of parliament. In the video, Gudenus and Strache promise to award the woman’s firm state contracts if her uncle —a Russian oligarch— purchases an Austrian newspaper and uses it to support the Freedom Party. The video threw Austria’s political system into disarray and prompted the resignations of both Strache and Gudenus. On Monday, Austria’s Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, was removed from power during a special parliamentary session in Vienna.

But the question is who leaked the video, and why? In an article in the Cicero, a monthly political magazine based in Berlin, a former senior official in Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) argues that Israeli intelligence was probably behind the leak. The article’s author is Rudolf Adam, who served as deputy director of the BND from 2001 to 2004, before serving as president of the Federal Academy for Security Policy of the German Ministry of Defense. Adam argues that the actions of Strache and Gudenus, as shown in the leaked video, seem “half mafia-like and half-treasonable”, and that the two should face legal consequences. But he goes on to ask “a far more interesting question”, namely “who is behind this intrigue [and] what were the intentions of its initiators?”. Adam points out that nothing is known about the woman in the video; she reportedly met Gudenus several months before the video was filmed. She posed as the Latvian niece of a Russian oligarch with ties to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. In exchanges that lasted for several months, the woman told Gudenus that she planned to move with her daughter to Vienna and was interested in investment opportunities. She eventually invited him and Strache to a meeting in a villa in the Spanish resort island of Ibiza. It was there where the video was recorded. Read more of this post

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ISIS threatens stability of former Soviet Republics, says Russian spy chief

ISIS Afghanistan

Thousands of Islamic State fighters are operating in Afghanistan’s northern border regions and are attempting to destabilize former Soviet Republics with substantial Muslim populations, according to Russia’s domestic spy chief. This warning was issued by Alexander Bortnikov, director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), which functions as Russia’s primary counter-terrorism agency. Bortnikov made these remarks during a visit to the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, for a meeting of the heads of intelligence agencies of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an intergovernmental organization comprised of former Soviet Republics in the Eurasian region. The meeting was reportedly held behind closed doors, but Russia’s government-owned news agency TASS carried a summary of Bortnikov’s remarks.

The Russian intelligence chief said that, with the aid of the intelligence services of CIS states like Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and others, the FSB was able to uncover and suppress eight Islamic State cells in the past year, which operated in the Central Asian region. However, the reach of the CIS countries does not extend to Afghanistan, said Bortnikov, where as many as 5,000 Islamic State fighters are congregating along the country’s border with three CIS states, namely Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Many of these fighters are Turkmens, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Russians, and other citizens of CIS states, who previously fought with the Islamic State in Syria and elsewhere, and now form integral components of the Islamic State’s fighting force in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It appears that the Islamic State is now attempting to exploit the mountainous and porous borders of northern Afghanistan in order to destabilize neighboring countries, he said. These fighters intend to exploit “migrant and refugee flows [in Central Asia] in order to operate covertly from the Afghan battle zones to neighboring countries” and from there possibly to Russia, according to Bortnikov.

These covert activities of Islamic State fighters have already caused an escalation of tensions in the region and can be expected to continue to do so, as these groups radicalize and co-opt Muslim communities in CIS countries, noted Bortnikov. He added that popular responses to Islamist radicalization are prompting increasing incidents of “anti-Islamic terrorism”, which further-fuel religious and ethnic tensions in the region. As a reminder, last week the Islamic State announced that its so-called Khorasan Province fighters would be amalgamated into a new armed group calling itself Islamic State – Pakistan Province. Earlier this month, the group also proclaimed the establishment of a new overseas province in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state, called “wilayah al-Hind” (province of Hind). In addition to these two forces, there are currently an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan’s Pashtun regions.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 May 2019 | Permalink

German spy agency concerned about Russian penetration of Austrian government

Sebastian Kurz Vladimir PutinA day after Austria’s political system was thrown into a disarray by a covert video featuring the country’s vice chancellor and a woman posing as a Russian investor, German intelligence sources have raised fears that Russia may have penetrated the Austrian government with informants. Heinz-Christian Strache, who heads Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, stepped down from the post of vice chancellor on Saturday. His resignation came a day after two German media outlets aired a covert video in which Strache appears to be promising to award state contracts in the construction sector to a woman posing as a Russian investor. In return for the state contracts, the unnamed woman said that she would have the firm of her uncle —a Russian oligarch— purchase an Austrian newspaper and use it to support Strache’s political party.

According to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, the video was filmed in Spain in 2017, two months before the Freedom Party won a record 26 percent in Austria’s national election. This gave the party 51 seats in the Austrian parliament and propelled Strache to the post of vice chancellor. In his resignation statement, Strache said he was filmed while drunk and was engaged in “macho talk” in an atttempt to “impress the attractive hostess”. He also dismissed the airing of the covertly filmed video as “a targeted political assassination”, but added that he was resigning from the government as a matter of principle. Shortly afterwards, the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Chairman of the rightwing Austrian People’s Party, announced that new national elections would be held “as soon as possible”.

Meanwhile, German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag reported on Saturday that the director of Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), warned that sharing intelligence with Austria was “risky”. The Berlin-based newspaper said that BfV director Thomas Haldenwang was speaking at a closed-door meeting with German parliamentarians. He reportedly told his parliamentary audience that, due to the close relationship between the Freedom Party and Moscow, members of the Austrian government could potentially “misuse” and in some cases “forward to Russia” intelligence that they receive from other European Union member-states. This is not the first time that such warnings have come out of Germany. Last year August Hanning, who served as director of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) openly warned Western officials to stop sharing intelligence with the government of Austria, because of its alleged proximity to the Kremlin.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 May 2019 | Permalink

Russian teams bribed Madagascar presidential candidates, BBC claims

Marc Ravalomanana Andry RajoelinaTeams of “Russian technical specialists” bribed several leading candidates in last year’s presidential elections in Madagascar, in an effort to influence the outcome, according to an investigation by the BBC. The 2018 presidential campaign was among the most closely fought in Madagascar’s 60-year post-independence history. The electorate’s attention concentrated mostly on two former presidents, Marc Ravalomanana, and Andry Rajoelina. Following a closely contested second round in late December, Rajoelina was elected president, having received 500,000 votes more than his opponent. Since his election, Rajoelina has promoted closer ties with Russia. Most notably, he has strengthened his country’s military cooperation with Moscow —a process that was initiated by his predecessor in October of last year.

But a new investigation by the BBC suggests there was a “systematic and coordinated operation” by a group of Russian businessmen with ties to the Kremlin to help Rajoelina get elected. There were “clear signs of Russian meddling in the polls”, claims the BBC, adding that at least six leading candidates in the election were offered money by the Russians to support rival candidates in the second round of the elections. Among them was Andre Mailhol, a Christian pastor who ran for president and ended up in fourth place with around 60,000 votes. He told the BBC that a group of Russians paid his deposit to run in the election and funded his campaign. In return, they asked that he would support their preferred candidate in the second round of the elections. Mailhol said that the Russians made him sign a contract promising to do as he was told.

The BBC claims that the payments to several presidential candidates were made by “dozens of Russians” who are central figures in Madagascar’s business community. They allegedly include Andrei Kramar and Roman Pozdnyakov, who live permanently in the island country. Other alleged accomplices are diamond trader Vladimir Boyarishchev, as well as Maksim Shugaley, a political campaign manager who lives in Russia. The BBC claims that their activities were funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin operative who has been indicted in the United States for his alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Prigozhin has allegedly been financing “teams of Russian technical specialists” to sway the results of elections in Madagascar and other African countries, according to the BBC.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 April 2019 | Permalink

Russian diplomat involved in espionage leaves Sweden after ‘unusual’ delay

Russian Embassy SwedenRussia has recalled one of its diplomats from Sweden after he was caught receiving classified information from a computer expert at a nightclub in Stockholm. The computer expert was later identified as Kristian Dmitrievski, a 45-year-old naturalized Swede who was born in Russia. The Swedish government accuses him of having been recruited by Russian intelligence in 2017 or earlier. He allegedly met with his Russian handlers on a regular basis since his recruitment, passing them classified information of a technical nature.

Dmitrievski was reportedly arrested on the evening of February 26, while meeting his alleged Russian handler in a downtown area of the Swedish capital. Both Dmitrievski and his alleged handler were detained by officers of the Swedish Security Service, known as SÄPO. Swedish authorities later said that Dmitrievski’s alleged handler was a member of staff of the Russian embassy in Stockholm and had diplomatic immunity. SÄPO added that the Russian diplomat was believed to be a Russian intelligence officer who worked under diplomatic cover. The Russian man’s diplomatic status granted him immunity, so Swedish authorities were unable to file espionage charges against him. However, the Swedish Foreign Affairs Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador to file a protest, while the alleged intelligence officer was told to leave the country.

Surprisingly, however, Moscow did not recall the diplomat, as expected, and no further reports were issued about the incident. Then on March 28, the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter named the Russian diplomat as Yevgeny Umerenko. Later that day, the Associated Press news agency said that it had seen “an intelligence report from a European service” that identified Dmitrievski’s Russian handler as Yevgeny Umerenko. The Associated Press described Umerenko as a “Line X officer” —a Soviet-era classification referring to case officers specializing in technological espionage. Western intelligence agencies had apparently been monitoring Umerenko’s activities ever since he had a similar role at the Russian embassy in Berlin, immediately before being transferred to Stockholm.

In its report, the Associated Press said that Moscow had finally recalled Umerenko from its embassy in Sweden, and that he was back in Russia. The news agency added it spoke to Anna Lundbladh, a spokeswoman for Sweden’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs, who confirmed that Umerenko had left Sweden, but went on to say that the Swedish government would “not discuss this matter in further detail”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 April 2019 | Permalink

Moscow confirms arrival of Russian troops in Venezuela

Russian planes CaracasRussian media reports have confirmed that an airplane carrying 100 Russian troops arrived in Caracas on Saturday, causing tensions to rise between Washington and Moscow over the deepening crisis in Venezuela. The arrival of the Russian troops in the Venezuelan capital was first reported on Saturday morning by Venezuelan reporter Javier Mayorca, who said on Twitter that two Russian military airplanes had landed in Caracas. The reporter said that an Antonov An-124 Ruslan cargo plane belonging to the Russian Air Force could be seen on the tarmac of the Simón Bolívar International Airport in the Venezuelan capital. Another, smaller aircraft, also bearing the Russian flag on its fuselage, landed shortly afterwards, said Mayorca.

Within hours, several Venezuelan media reports appeared to confirm Mayorca’s claims, some even posting photographs of the two Russian planes surrounded by what appeared to be uniformed Russian soldiers. The BBC reported that the Russian cargo plane had delivered 100 Russian troops and 35 tons of military equipment. The force was led by General Vasily Tonkoshkurov, commander of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces, according to the BBC. Later on Saturday, the Russian government-owned news agency Sputnik confirmed that Russian troops had arrived in Caracas. Citing anonymous “diplomatic sources”, Sputnik said the Russian troops had been sent to Caracas in order “to fulfil technical military contracts” and “to take part in consultations […] on defense industry cooperation” with Venezuelan officials. It added that there was “nothing mysterious” about the visit and that it was “related to [military] contracts that had been signed by the two countries years ago”.

Russia has supported Venezuela militarily, economically and diplomatically ever since 1999, when Hugo Chávez became president. The recent political crisis in the Latin American country, which has prompted a direct diplomatic intervention by Washington, has brought Caracas and Moscow closer together, as Russia has strongly opposed efforts by the United States to bring down the government of Nicolás Maduro. Earlier this year, Russia sent two Tu-160 long-range bomber aircraft to take part in a military exercise organized by the Venezuelan government.

On Monday, Washington said that the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a telephone conversation with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov. Pompeo told his Russian counterpart that Moscow should “cease its unconstructive behavior” and warned him that the United States would “not stand idly by as Russia exacerbated tensions” in Venezuela. Late on Monday, Sputnik quoted a “diplomatic source” as saying that that the “visit of Russian military personnel to Venezuela [was] in no way connected to the statements of the United States on potential intervention in Venezuela”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 March 2019 | Permalink

Putin’s ex-adviser found dead in Washington had broken neck, say medical examiners

Mikhail LesinA former senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who died allegedly by falling while intoxicated in a luxury hotel room in Washington, may in fact have been strangled to death, according to a newly released medical examination. The body of Mikhail Yuriyevich Lesin, a well-known Russian media mogul, was found in the luxury Dupont Circle Hotel on November 5, 2015. He became famous in Russia soon after the collapse of the communist system, when he founded Video International, an advertising and public-relations agency that was hired by Russian President Boris Yeltsin to run his reelection campaign in 1995.

Yeltsin’s electoral success was partly attributed to the well-tailored media message projected by Lesin’s company. The media magnate was rewarded by Yeltsin, who offered him influential government posts, including that of director of Russia’s state-owned news agency Novosti. Meanwhile, Lesin became a media personality and frequently gave interviews espousing a free-enterprise model for the Russian media industry. But soon after Vladimir Putin’s ascendance to the presidency, Lesin saw the writing on the wall and began advocating for increased government regulation of media and telecommunications conglomerates. In 1999, Putin made him Minister of Press, Broadcasting and Mass Communications, a post he held for nearly six years, until 2004. In 2006, Lesin was awarded the Order for Merit to the Fatherland, one of the most prestigious civilian decorations in Russia.

But in late 2009, Putin abruptly fired Lesin from his post in the Kremlin’s Media Advisory Commission, allegedly because the media mogul had developed close contacts with Russian organized crime. Lesin’s ties with Putin’s inner circle were further strained in 2014, when he resigned from his position as head of Gazprom Media, after he clashed with pro-Putin executives on the board. When Lesin’s body was found in his hotel room by a member of the hotel staff, some suggested that he may have been killed by the Kremlin. Read more of this post