Catalonia: where there are problems, there is Russia
By Olga Lautman, for CEPA
The October 2017 referendum in Catalonia provides a good overview of the Kremlin’s ability to identify and exploit weaknesses in democratic states.
Tensions were high as millions of Catalans voted in an unofficial referendum on whether to separate from Spain. The proposal was passed with overwhelming support because anti-separatists boycotted the vote completely, with less than half of the vote.
Following violence, a Spanish court ruled the vote illegal and the authorities took direct control of Catalonia by triggering article 155 of the country’s constitution. He fired or arrested the separatist leaders who had not fled abroad. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has moved to Belgium.
We now know that this was only the beginning of a story that could form the outline of a spy novel. Trying to revive a largely crushed movement that garnered no support from the European Union or the United States, Puigdemont adviser Josep Lluis Alay made several low-key trips to Moscow in the spring of 2019 to seek secret help to separate Catalonia from Spain.
Earlier this month, The New York Times revealed that during his visits, Alay and his group had met “several Russian officials, former intelligence officers and the well-connected grandson of a master- KGB spy, “Yevgeny Primakov, according to a European intelligence report which paper had examined. The report states that Alay, with the help of Russian businessman Alexander Dmitrenko, met with active and former intelligence agents, including Andrei Bezrukov, whom the television series Americans was based on Sergei Sumin, a colonel with the Russian spy agency FSB, and Artyom Lukoyanov, known for his strong involvement and support for Russian separatists in occupied eastern Ukraine.
Shortly after, in 2019, Tsunami Democratic, an independence-seeking protest group was formed with the participation of Alay. In one of their first acts, they led protests at Barcelona airport that resulted in riots, disruptions and the cancellation of more than 150 flights. It is not known, as always, with regard to Russian operations, what exactly was organized during the meetings in Moscow and what Russia’s direct involvement was. But suspicions of Russian interference are perceptible as early as 2017.
Spanish judge Joaquín Aguirre, who is investigating the 2017 referendum, has made several statements regarding Russia’s role in supporting Catalonia’s separatist campaign. This included everything from their widely used and most effective weapon against the West, the spread of disinformation and the establishment of troll / bot farms, to an investigation into a Russian group that apparently offered to send 10 000 soldiers and money to write off Catalonia’s debt if independence is declared.
Predictably perhaps, GRU 29155, which gained notoriety for multiple assassination and sabotage operations across Europe, was also allegedly involved. The unit attempted to assassinate Sergei and Yulia Skripal using the military grade nerve agent Novichok, resulting in the death of a British citizen in Salisbury; they were responsible for a series of bombings against munitions depots in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria that killed two Czech citizens, they attempted to assassinate a Bulgarian arms dealer and carried out cyber attacks.
According to a Bellingcat investigation, GRU agent Denis Sergeev, alias Sergey Fedotov, who has just been appointed suspect and mastermind of the Skripals’ poisoning by Novichok, has been to Catalonia several times, including to the eve of the 2017 referendum. The purpose of his trip is unknown.
Russia’s operations in Catalonia are just a sample of a larger campaign to destabilize the West and not only weaken alliances, but divide and attempt to shatter countries. President Vladimir Putin seems to see this as revenge for the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire. “There was a time when they welcomed the collapse of a whole series of governments in Europe, not hiding their happiness about it,” he said, adding a bitter reference to “double standards”.
The accusations against Russia are made more plausible because they fit into the Kremlin’s pattern of behavior. Similar tactics were used during the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, where Russia launched a multi-faceted attack that included everything from the supply of mercenaries, to massive disinformation campaigns, to funding of aligned groups. the Kremlin, cyber attacks and divisive campaigns inside Ukraine using pro-Russian media. electrical outlets. In most cases, Russia does not create divisions, but clings quickly. In Catalonia, the separatist will has long been part of political life, but with little outside help.
The same was true with the Scottish referendum of 2014. A House of Commons intelligence report in 2020 revealed “a credible open source commentary that Russia is committed to influencing the campaign for independence of the United States. ‘Scotland “. Although the section on the Scottish referendum was heavily drafted, it concluded that there was evidence that Russia had carried out influence campaigns in an attempt to influence the outcome. Former Scottish Prime Minister Alex Salmond, who recently launched the independence party The Alba, is under increasing pressure because of his talk show on Russian state propaganda medium RT. Salmond said RT does not play any role in the editorial content of his show. President Emmanuel Macron, for his part, described RT and his stable mate Sputnik as “organs of influence, propaganda and false propaganda”.
Less worrying is Russian support for a Californian secessionist operation, Calexit. The Yes California 2017 campaign, aimed at removing California from the union, was led by Louis Marinelli from the comfort of his home in Yekaterinburg, Russia. As with other Kremlin operations, social media trolls / bots played a major role in amplifying the campaign, with Twitter finally getting involved and shutting down thousands of accounts.
Supporting secessionist movements is only a tiny part of a much larger goal of influencing world politics, sowing chaos and creating division to weaken opponents, trying to control the outcome of elections in the world and increase citizens’ mistrust of their institutions.
By Olga Lautman, for CEPA
Photo: Catalan walkers. Credit
Külli Kittus / Unsplash
Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic political debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or of the Center for European Policy Analysis.