What were Russian military intelligence (GRU) officers doing in Barcelona, especially before the Catalan government's attempted secession? This is the question posed by Spanish justice, on the trail of three members of the same unit of the secret services of Moscow who would have stayed in the Catalan capital between November 2016 and December 2017.
According to the investigation by the news site Bellingcat and revealed in the edition of the Spanish daily El Pais from December 27, it would be General Denis Sergeev, alias Sergei Fedotov, a graduate of the Russian Military Diplomatic Academy, and officers Alexei Kalinin and Mikhail Opryshko, all attached to unit 29155 of 161e GRU special training center, specializing in assassinations and clandestine actions.
General Sergueev is in particular one of the spies of the GRU who, from 2014 until the end of 2018, allegedly used Haute-Savoie as a rear base for operations carried out throughout Europe (The world, December 4).
In autumn 2017, a few days before the attempted referendum launched by the Catalan government, on 1st October, Sergeyev is said to have spent 19 hours in Barcelona, according to the trace left by his cell phone. Masquerading as a businessman by the name of Fedotov, he landed at Prat airport on the night of September 29 and stayed in the city center before taking a train on September 30 to Lyon and then from Geneva.
Investigation opened by a high court in Madrid
In early November 2016, the general, still under the pseudonym Fedotov, had already spent six days in Barcelona. As for Alexei Kalinin and Mikhail Opryshko, they would each have made a single trip to the Catalan capital. The first, considered to be one of the most active members of the GRU and well known to European intelligence services, on December 14, 2016; the second in December 2017, shortly before the regional elections.
These revelations come as Manuel Garcia-Castellon, a judge of the National Court, Madrid's high court in charge of terrorism cases in particular, opened an investigation in September into the actions of Unit 29155 in Catalonia (El Pais, November 22). A few days later, the spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry, Maria Zakharova, denied any interference in Spanish affairs and denounced an "anti-Russian" campaign.
In February, Bellingcat also revealed that General Sergeev had coordinated the poisoning with the neurotoxic drug Novitchok, in March 2018, of a Russian ex-spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Ioulia, in Salisbury in England. The two had survived, but a local resident died after finding a bottle that was probably used to transport the toxic product. The operation sparked a major diplomatic incident between Moscow and the European Union, and prompted Western services to track down those responsible.