Western intelligence services tracked Russian spy in Catalonia

Spain’s High Court is investigating whether a GRU official named Denis Sergeev, who carried out subversive actions across Europe and Asia, also tried to destabilize the region during its 2017 independence drive

Image of Denis Sergeev in 1999 taken from a documentary on the battle for Alilen.
Image of Denis Sergeev in 1999 taken from a documentary on the battle for Alilen.

General Denis Sergeev, the Russian spy who traveled to Barcelona in 2017 on the eve of the October 1 illegal referendum in Catalonia, carried out subversive operations in a dozen or so countries in Europe and Asia. Using the false name Sergey Fedotov, this agent linked to so-called “Unit 29155” was detected in the United Kingdom and Bulgaria, where Western Intelligence services have linked him with a number of assassination attempts. The Spanish High Court is currently investigating him, as EL PAÍS revealed on Thursday.

Sergeev visited Barcelona just two days before the illegal referendum on October 1, 2017

Denis Vyacheslavovich Sergeev is a veteran of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU, as it is known in Russian by its initials), Russia’s largest foreign intelligence agency. With the rank of general, the agent operated for at least a decade in different countries. At the start he did so with his true identity, and later as Sergey Fedotov. Using this name, he was detected in Bulgaria and the United Kingdom. Now, Spain’s High Court is investigating this agent – who has been classed as “dangerous” – and his alleged relationship with events in Catalonia, within the framework of Russian attempts to destabilize other countries.

Born in 1973 in Usharal, a small militarized city in what today is Kazakhstan, according to journalistic investigations, Sergeev is married and has a daughter. He served in the Siberian army until he was transferred to Moscow. There he signed up for the Elite Diplomatic Military Academy, which is known as The Conservatory, the feeding ground of the GRU. He then became a high-ranking officer, stationed in the top levels of the military intelligence services, those that operate with their normal identity but with a certain level of cover. His cover was that of manager or shareholder of at least eight Russian companies.

Russian secret services have moved from covert actions to others that are more open 

Félix Arteaga, senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute

In 2010, he was given a new identity: Sergey Fedotov. With it, he operated in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, according to the Western intelligence services who have followed his tracks in recent years. In 2015, he was in Bulgaria when the arms dealer Emilian Gebrev was the target of two assassination attempts. In 2016, before and after the “Brexit” referendum – a vote on whether the United Kingdom should stay within the European Union – he was detected in Great Britain, according to an in-depth investigation carried out by the specialized media outlets Bellingcat, The Insider and Respekt.

A search for the fake name that he used on the Passenger Name Record (PNR) database – used by airlines to record information about all of their travelers – also revealed two trips to Barcelona. On the first, Fedotov arrived in the Catalan capital on November 5, 2016, and after staying for six days, flew back to Moscow via Zurich. The second took place nearly a year later, on September 29, 2017, just two days before the illegal referendum on October 1. On that occasion, the Russian official stayed in Spain until October 9, returning to Moscow via Geneva. There is no evidence of further visits to Spain.

Practically nothing about him is known since March 2018, shortly after the poisoning on British soil of the former Russian spy and British intelligence collaborator Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. Intelligence reports believe that it was Sergeev who supervised the failed operation against Skripal. They also state that the operatives belong to a group within the GRU known as Unit 29155, which is dedicated to particularly sensitive operations abroad.

Sergeev was detected in Great Britain before and after the Brexit referendum

The British investigation first identified the two alleged perpetrators of the failed assassination attempt, Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, who had also used false identities during their time in the United Kingdom. Later, a third member of the group was named: Sergeev, according to information published by Bellingcat.

According to sources close to the investigation that has been opened in Spain, this information has been included in the probe recently opened by High Court Judge Manuel García-Castellón, and which is currently under seal and whose existence was revealed by EL PAÍS on Thursday. The inquiries are being carried out by the National Police force’s General Information Office, which specializes in counter-terrorism. The investigation, which is still in its early stages, suggests that the Russian spying activities in Catalonia were not coordinated with pro-independence figures, but rather aimed to take advantage of the crisis to destabilize Spain.

Félix Arteaga, senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute, states that the activities of Sergeev’s group fit within “the pattern of Russian activity” within Europe. Arteaga stresses that since 2014, the different secret services from that country have widened their activities abroad. “They have moved from covert actions to get hold of information to others that are more open with the aim of displaying their capacity for influence.”

English version by Simon Hunter.

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