At least three suspected members of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU, as it is known in Russian by its initials) traveled to Barcelona between November 2016 and December 2017, according to information obtained by EL PAÍS with the investigative journalist network Bellingcat and its associated foundation Civic Media.
Alexey Kalinin has long been on the radar of Western intelligence services for his alleged involvement in other operations
The suspected members are Denis Sergeev, Alexey Kalinin and Mikhail Opryshko. All belong to an elite military group within the GRU known as Unit 29155, whose activities are being investigated by Spain’s High Court, the Audiencia Nacional.
The first to travel to Barcelona was Denis Sergeev. On November 5, 2015, he took a direct flight from Moscow under the false name Sergey Fedotov. He returned to the Russian capital six days later, on November 11, not from Catalonia but from the Swiss city of Geneva. It is not known how long he stayed in Barcelona. Sergeyev, a GRU veteran of general rank, returned to Spain 11 months later on September 29, 2017, just two days before the October 1 unauthorized referendum on Catalan independence.
On the second trip, Sergeev traveled again to Barcelona using the name of Fedotov to hide his true identity. Once again, he returned to Russia via Switzerland. On this occasion, according to information collected by Bellingcat on the GPS position of his suspected cell phone, Sergeev was in the Catalan capital for just 19 hours. He left by train for Geneva, via Lyon (France), the morning of the next day, September 30. Bellingcat is a website created in 2014 by a group of investigative journalists who use data verification techniques and open source platforms such as Facebook and Google Earth for their reports.
Alexey Kalinin and Mikhail Opryshko, the other two suspected agents from Unit 29155 who traveled to Barcelona, made only one trip each. Kalinin, under the alias Alexei Nikitin, flew on December 14, 2016, more than a month after Sergeev made his first trip. He did not return to Moscow from Barcelona either, but instead went to Rome and returned to Russia three days later on December 17. Kalinin is considered one of the most active members of the GRU. His presence has been detected not only in Europe, but also in China, Turkey, Israel and Dubai, according to information collected by the Civica Media Foundation. Spanish police sources admitted on Thursday that they were aware of the existence of this agent, and his alleged link with spy operations in other European countries. But they refused to confirm whether he was believed to be involved in the alleged attempt to destabilize Spain via the Catalan separatist movement.
The Russian government has accused certain Spanish media of having an “unhealthy interest” in Russian interference in Catalonia
Indeed, Kalinin has long been on the radar of Western intelligence services for his alleged involvement in other operations. Kalinin is also on the list of a dozen names linked to Unit 29155 who oversee British, French and Swiss counterintelligence services in their investigation of GRU activities, according to a Western officer. The unit is made up of around 20 people with different and complementary abilities, including experts in computers, technology, cryptography and even medicine; all with in-depth knowledge of weapons handling.
These same sources place Kalinin in Sergeev's team which allegedly took part in the attempted poisoning of Bulgarian arms manufacturer Emilian Gebrev in 2015. Kalinin’s brief presence in this failed operation was one of the first pieces of evidence that he belonged to Unit 29155. Indeed, this assassination attempt has provided the most clues about the group's activities. Kalinin has been detected in other “hot spots under investigation,” said an official on condition of anonymity. The group's alleged involvement in allegedly irregular money transfers is also under investigation.
Opryshko, meanwhile, traveled to Barcelona in December 2017. At that point, the Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy, of the conservative Popular Party (PP) had already applied Article 155 of the Constitution that suspended autonomous powers in Catalonia, and gave the central government control of Catalan institutions. Rajoy invoked the emergency powers on October 27 after a unilateral declaration of independence was passed in the Catalan parliament. Ousted Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont fled to Belgium at the end of the same month. It is not currently known how long Opryshko spent in Spain.
Sergeev is the most active of member of Unit 29155 with regards to Catalonia. Born in 1973 in Usharal, a small town in what today is Kazakhstan, Sergeev 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.
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 tracked him 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 – his presence was detected in Great Britain, according to an in-depth investigation carried out by the specialized media outlets Bellingcat, The Insider and Respekt.
Western secret service reports also link Sergeev to the failed poisoning attempt of former Russian spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the United Kingdom in March 2018. Months later, the British government officially accused two other GRU members of the attack that killed a British woman and caused Skripal and her daughter to fall seriously ill when they came into contact with toxic gases.
Spanish diplomatic sources
Sources from La Moncloa, the seat of government, and the Interior Ministry declined to comment on Thursday about the new information on the alleged presence of three agents from Unit 29155 in Barcelona. The caretaker government of Socialist Party (PSOE) leader Pedro Sánchez has kept a tight seal on the alleged activities of this group in Spain since November 22, when EL PAÍS revealed that High Court Judge Manuel García-Castellón had opened an investigation into the group, which remains sealed. That investigation is being carried out by the General Information Office of the National Police, which specializes in counter-terrorism.
Spanish diplomatic sources admitted on Thursday that the Spanish government has long suspected Russian interference in the country. “From spring 2018, and following the Skripal case, British and US intelligence services provided information on various destabilization actions by Russians in Western territory, which in the case of Spain was focused on Catalonia,” the sources said.
The Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry have categorically denied any type of interference in Catalonia or in Spain’s domestic affairs. At the end of November, the Russian government accused certain Spanish media of having an “unhealthy interest” in bringing back the “half-forgotten issue,” and talked about “an anti-Russia campaign.”
English version by Melissa Kitson.