Spanish Newspaper ‘El País’ this week revealed that the Spanish High Court, known as the ‘Audiencia Nacional’, is investigating Russian interference in the Catalan independence movement. Although the investigation is strictly confidential, three sources, including a judge, have spoken to ‘El País’ to confirm that investigators are examining evidence of an elite Russian military group’s involvement in the secessionist movement. The unit in question is known as ‘Unit 29155’ and has been tasked with foreign assassinations as well as other activities that seek to destabilize European countries. The investigation of this Russian military organization forms part of a larger investigation into the separatist movement in Catalonia – an investigation which is also looking into the actions of other prominent Catalonian independence groups such as ‘Tsunami Democràtic’. Over recent months there has been a spate of investigations into Russian interference in domestic affairs across Europe, most notably, a parliamentary investigation in the U.K. which scrutinized Russian interference in the Brexit campaign as well as the 2016 general election.
Allegations of Russian interference in the Catalan independence movement is nothing new. In the past, Germany’s secret service have expressed their “concern” about Russian support for the secessionist movement. The ex-head of the German secret service, Hans-Georg Maassen, went so far as to say that “Russia is trying to use secret operations to influence public opinion through extremist and racist organizations”. The Kremlin has, however, denied all allegations of interference and has gone so far as to make fun of such allegations. Despite Russia’s rebuttal of the strong accusations of interference and sabotage as pure “hysteria” Bellingcat, an investigative journalism website, has linked members of the infamous Unit 29155 to numerous destabilizing and clandestine activities across the continent. These include the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the failed coup of Montenegro in 2016 and the poisoning of a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, which took place in the English city of Salisbury in 2018. These allegations are not unfounded and, as previous investigations have shown, are not unprecedented.
These sorts of allegations have frequently been leveled against the Kremlin and have become more and more commonplace in recent years. It was only last week that Russian interference in British politics made the headlines as the release of a parliamentary report was delayed. Just as the extent to which Russia has meddled in Britain’s domestic affairs currently remains unclear, this is equally the case in Spain. Both allegations follow the same, worrying trend of repeated attempts to destabilize democratic European states through supporting divisive campaigns, such as Brexit, or promoting secessionist movements. Should these allegations be proven by the ‘Audiencia Nacional’, international governments, as well as world leaders, must react to what has not only become a European crisis but a global crisis. The prevention of illicit, foreign interference in domestic politics is an essential value of democracy that must be safeguarded.
Although many of the facts regarding this case not yet clear, several conspicuous links have already been revealed. Most notably, Bellingcat revealed that Denis Sergeev, a Russian secret service official, traveled twice to Catalonia under the false name Sergey Fedotov with his second visit being just two days before the illegal Catalonian referendum in 2017. Interestingly, Mr. Sergeev was also in the U.K. just two days before the Skripal poisoning. In addition, the Spanish Civil Guard uncovered links between Russian officials and a prominent member of the Catalan secessionist movement named Víctor Terradellas. Mr. Terradellas pressured the leader of the movement Mr. Puigdemont, to declare independence in October 2017, following the illegal referendum and stated that an emissary of Vladimir Putin confirmed that the Kremlin would support Catalonia’s declaration of independence.
These latest allegations of Russian interference in domestic politics are extremely worrying and, if proven to be true, there must be a strong international response to the growing crisis.
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