The book of our friend Dmitry Khmelnitsky «Russian Agents of Influence in Germany» was published in Kiev.
Dmitry, we congratulate you on the publication of your book. Tell us what it is about and for whom it was written?
This book is about the activities of Putin’s Russian agents of influence in Germany. I have been working on this subject for eighteen years. I came upon it at one time quite by accident. In 2005, a German journalist approached me with a question. She interviewed the German princess Maya von Hohenzollern, who boasted that she had received an order from a certain Russian Academy of Security, Safety and Law Enforcement (ABOP). The journalist asked to find out what kind of academy it is and what kind of order it is. There were many such academies at that time. They were created by various crooks in order to give each other titles, orders, medals and ranks. But ABOP turned out to be something exceptional. I poked into the material and was completely shocked by the scale of its activities. It was a purely Gebeshny (Russian security services) office, organized at the moment when Putin came to power, in 1999. The academy’s leadership consisted exclusively of security officers, with KGB Lieutenant General Shevchenko as president and an insane number of high-ranking intelligence officers among the vice-presidents. Almost all the power ministers were there as well. In reality, this office was engaged in the fact that under the roof of Russian embassies around the world handed out its orders to various important people — ambassadors, military attachés, prime ministers, ministers and so on. The list of ABOP order-bearers is gigantic. In fact, it was purely a recruitment activity. They would come to the West, or organize it in Moscow under the roof of some embassies and present these so-called «public orders». In fact, they were just badges, but they allowed them to make important contacts. That is, to get in contact with political, business and other circles of the West became in those days incredibly easy for the Russian security services. And those who dealt with them simply did not understand what it was. It is clear that all these foreign ministers, prime ministers and military attaches were not necessarily recruited. But it is hard to imagine how many referents, secretaries, and other intermediate persons who came into contact with this academy were recruited.
It would take a long time to tell about it. The story with the ABOP was my first attempt to do this kind of investigation and it was very successful, because after several exposing publications in the German press, it was disbanded in 2009. Most likely by direct order of Putin. A huge system of foreign connections already established by the security services collapsed. And not only in Germany, but all over the world — the ABOP had branches in many countries. A scandal arose in Germany, after which, I think, no German politician would go near any Russian organization that would present him with any incomprehensible awards.
Then the extent of these guys’ penetration into Western society at all levels became clear to me. It became terribly interesting and I started tracking other similar situations. Somewhere in 2017, I developed a rather capacious study, which I published in the form of articles in various places, both in the Russian press and in the German press. Now it turned out that in Ukraine a book has been published in a more or less complete form. It describes different variants of these organizations, their methods of action and ways of work.
Who will be the main reader of your book?
I think everyone who is interested in the activities of Soviet and Russian special services. In this book, the first chapter is a brief history of the Soviet secret services. I hope that it will be useful to everyone who fights this contagion in different countries of the world. It turned out to be something like a manual. Using Germany as an example, you can judge how they operate in various other places.
You said that on the example of Germany we can see what methods the Russian security services use in other countries. Do you think they use the same methods in all countries? Or does each country have its own specifics?
The methods are common. The specifics are that different countries have different target groups. The specificity of Germany is that there is a huge number of Soviet and Russian emigrants, several million people, so-called «Russian Germans» and «Russian Jews» who came here in large numbers in the Soviet and, especially, in the early post-Soviet times. This is an extremely favorable environment for the recruitment of agents and for propaganda work. In other countries, the main target groups for the work of intelligence services are different. But, invariably, in all countries they try to penetrate government and business circles, to influence them, to recruit their people among politicians, state apparatus, and big business. In various kinds of marginal parties, which depend heavily on outside support and are ready to cooperate with those who give them money. Right and left are equally suitable here, there is no ideological selection at all, they are ready to work with anyone. In general, the methods are the same.
Your book describes in detail how deeply the Russian secret services and agents of influence have penetrated into various spheres of German life. Is the German government aware of the danger, is it making any efforts to eradicate this contagion from its territory?
I hope that it is already aware of it. Although earlier it was paid less attention to it. The point is that the agents of influence operate in the legal field. That is, a person cannot be persecuted for his views. If a person defends Putin’s policy or goes to rallies in support of him, there is nothing to prosecute him for. He is not guilty of anything. And political contacts are not punishable.
Counterintelligence agencies of all countries deal mainly with organizations and people who pose a physical threat. So it’s espionage that violates the criminal code, bribery of government officials and the like. It’s terrorism, political or religious. And agents of influence have nothing to prosecute for. Ideally, they should be controlled, because the line between the activities of agents of influence and espionage is blurred. And what Western governments should never do is help them. Funny situations happen in Germany. For example, the Russian World Foundation was involved in financing the activities of Russian agents of influence, and it cost it very little. There are a lot of Russian-German cultural societies in Germany. This is normal, in every city there are various ethnic societies, including Russian ones. The state finances their cultural activities. But practically all these Russian societies are influenced to a greater or lesser extent by Moscow and at the same time received support from the «Russian World». The Russian World Foundation has financed various programs — pedagogical, cultural, propaganda — that are aimed at promoting Putin’s ideology. That is, it turns out that these pro-Russian societies exist at the expense of the German state, and Russian World only adds a little bit. If the governments of the German states had once realized that it was necessary to cut off state funding to those Russian organizations that at the same time use the help of «Russian World», I think it would have easily reduced Moscow’s influence many times over. But they didn’t realize it until recently. «Russian World» came under sanctions, but only in connection with the war in Ukraine. And if there had been no war, everything would have continued as before. In fact, this is how things continue, only under much more difficult conditions. For example, it has become technically more difficult to transfer money from Russia to Germany. Otherwise, it’s the same. So, it is quite easy to make their life difficult, you just have to not help them.
Recently the governmental organization «German-Russian Forum» which was created to «promote dialogue between German and Russian societies» was closed down. In reality there were many Russian agents of influence among the members of this forum on both sides.
Who was on the German side?
For example, the former Prime Minister of Brandenburg Matthias Platzeck, the former head of the forum, the executive director Martin Hoffmann, also a Russian man honored many times by Putin. In the lists of members of this organization I found, for example, Lorenz Haag, the exposed Putin’s agent of influence from former Soviet emigrants, who for many years portrayed in the Russian press as a German professor.
What has changed since last February 24? How have their lives changed?
Their lives have become very complicated. Dozens of intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover were expelled from the embassies. And this means that contacts between the intelligence services and agents and any other activities are now very difficult. Rossotrudnichestvo, Russky Mir and other organizations specializing in working with foreign agents, which have felt incredibly free until now, have also fallen under sanctions
But they have not completely shut down their activities.
No, of course not. The people are still there. They’re still being fed. In addition, there are quite a few ideological people who continue to do it voluntarily. On May 9 in Berlin in Treptow Park there was again some kind of coven. Again there were various freaks walking around with Russian banners. But nowadays you can’t really wave these banners. Anyway, their Z and V symbols are forbidden in Germany, so you can get in trouble. In fact, the good thing about Germany is that here public opinion is so sharply set against Putin’s ideology and Putin’s regime that the pro-Putin people have to hide. They are now masquerading as decent people.
Are there a lot of obvious agents of influence and special services suddenly sharply began to love Ukraine and help Ukrainians? Do you have such examples?
Organizations — yes. I think now all Russian public organizations are demonstratively in favor of Ukraine. And there are both such and such people. Different people. There are Russian propagandists who are absolutely rabid. For example, Vladimir Sergeenko is one of the most important Russian propagandists in Germany, and he does not reduce the intensity of his activities. He is incidentally the president of the Moscow Pen Club, which seems to have been thrown out of the central, worldwide Pen Club. But many have simply gone quiet.
You were recently in Cyprus. What interesting things did you notice there? What impressions did you have from your stay on this Mediterranean island?
My impressions from my stay in Cyprus are absolutely marvelous. The island is wonderful, the sea, the mountains. Everything is very good. I would not want to live, as they say. But if we touch on our topic, as far as I can tell, Cyprus is some kind of reserve of Russian agents. And influence and special services. Because as far as I understand from the situation, the Russian community in Cyprus is absolutely pro-Putin. If in Germany, people who do not hide their pro-Putin position are rare, in Cyprus it is a norm. And on the contrary, those who oppose Putin look marginalized.
Cyprus looks like an exception in the European Union. Such close contacts with Russia and such an exchange of people with Russia as in Cyprus, there is probably no other country.
What do you mean by exchange of people?
The relocation of entire Russian firms, primarily IT companies with hundreds of employees, to Cyprus. In itself, this may be a good thing. People and firms are trying to leave Russia, where it is difficult to live and work, for the free world. On the other hand, if these firms are Russian and continue to serve Russian customers, it’s a big relief for everyone, for them and for the customers. This is a hole in the European Union, where people are being pumped in from Russia in a completely uncontrolled manner. Complex relocation of employees of any firm excludes careful control by the migration service, finding out who actually comes and why, for what purpose. And whether such a person has a real relation to the firm that brought him. If in other countries of the European Union such immigration is extremely difficult today, in Cyprus it is becoming easier and easier. For Russian security services it is a gold mine. A person arrives in an EU country under the guise of an employee of some company, and then goes anywhere, to any other country in the world. Which may not have given him a visa if he asked for one from Moscow. And from Cyprus it is probably much easier to move on. There is talk in Cyprus of granting these people citizenship on an accelerated basis. This looks rather dangerous in the current circumstances.
Considering the recent attempt to organize a Russian party and exert even more influence on Cypriot politics and political circles, a few tens of thousands of new voters could shift the scales in Moscow’s favor. Even if there is no Russian party as such, which they will all support in a very disciplined manner, because these people, as I understand it, are not loners with free will, but employees of firms that regulate their lives. They depend on them. And the firms themselves are organized into pro-Russian associations. People who will obediently vote for whoever their bosses tell them to vote for can become a powerful political force in a small Cyprus with a million people. They will tell them: tomorrow we will go to a rally or vote for the candidate we tell you to vote for, and they will follow the order. I remember it well from Soviet life.
How can it be explained that the IT sector of the Cypriot economy is largely controlled by people from Russia? In no other EU country does this happen.
We need to look into this. Right now I can only make a few not very professional assumptions, as I am far from the IT business. As far as I understand, this is the kind of business that can be moved from one country to another extremely easily. It doesn’t require anything other than the people themselves. Even people can be scattered all over the world, the main thing is that there is a possibility to finance their work. Communication with Russia is complicated by the lack of financial relations, it is impossible to transfer salaries. Naturally it is very easy to get people out where they can pay their salaries. There is no need to build any factories, warehouses, set up logistics and so on. You bring people in and they work. And who you bring, in what quantity and what they work on is the business of the head of the firm. And if the head of the firm is actually in Moscow, or works with Moscow, or serves Moscow, it is all the more easy. In Cyprus, as I understand it, the whole IT crowd is ideologically tied to Moscow. The people who organize these moves of firms, or relocations, are Russian. Maybe not by citizenship, but by the nature of their activities.
How long did it take you to write this book and when did you finish it?
The book was finally finalized this year. The basic material was collected five or six years ago. There was just no opportunity to publish it.
Why was your book published in Kiev? How did it happen that your book attracted the interest of the Kiev publishing house in the midst of the war?
I think it is because Ukraine is now particularly aware of the danger emanating from the Russian security services. These are their direct enemies. That is why the experience of fighting them, understanding what they are, is important for Ukraine in the first place. In my opinion, it is important for everyone, but I think Ukraine was one of the first to realize it.
Do you think that the methods of work of Russian special services in Germany can be useful to study in Ukraine as well?
The methods are the same. The goals are the same. Besides, Ukraine is fighting against Russia and Russian special services not only on the territory of Ukraine. There is a hidden war between intelligence services everywhere, in all countries. Besides, I think Ukraine has been saturated with agents of influence and Russian spies more than any other republic of the former USSR. Putin has been preparing a war to take over Ukraine for many years. Giant sums of money were allocated to bribe, to recruit people in Ukraine. And I think it worked very well. I mean, theoretically, Putin could take Kiev. And then the whole country, or a significant part of it. Kiev survived, not miraculously, but close to it. If Kiev had been taken, or significant parts of Ukraine had been subjugated to Russia, a gigantic number of these agents of influence would have instantly formed a local administration. Where does power come from? Moscow officials are not transplanted to Kiev, they need their own. I think they have been cultivated for many years. The methods by which they were cultivated are described in my book to some extent. Working with local agents is the same everywhere. I think the Ukraine continues to fish them out. These people are no longer in the legal field there, they are enemies after all. I don’t know what the legal definition is in wartime. However, they’re probably laying low right now.
Collaborating with the enemy.
Yes. If a man spreads enemy propaganda in a war, he’s probably subject to criminal prosecution. Not in Germany.
Your book can serve as a training manual on countering Russian agents of influence and special services for the authorities of Ukraine, Germany and other European countries.
I think so. In any case, it contains experience that can be useful for those who want to fight against these agents. Or at least to understand who and what to fight with. How they are organized, what their goals are, what their methods are. How to recognize them. I know a lot of situations in which quite frank spy and semi-spy organizations came to Germany and arranged their conferences, invited important German people to them and they came, read reports without understanding what they were talking about.
In Cyprus, apart from the mass importation of Russian IT workers, have you noticed anything else interesting?
I have been studying the situation in Cyprus not so much during the two weeks I spent on the island, but over the past three years that I have been working with the Cyprus Daily News. The stories that Boris Demash and I used to write articles based on. The freedom of action of the Russian agents of influence in Cyprus is fantastic. The brazenness and lack of opposition is also fantastic. This is striking. The specificity of Cyprus is that mostly not poor emigrants come here, as in all other countries. Officials, businessmen settle here. Money is brought here. An environment is created here, which they themselves call elite. These people live their notorious elite life and subordinate everything else to it.
For example, I was struck by the fact that all high-rise buildings in Limassol, all without exception, are investments of Russians. Baturina and many others. What kind of money it must be and how easily they manage to change building regulations. I, as an architect, understand that if the whole city is maximum five or six stories, it means that the urban planning norms do not assume high-rise buildings. They didn’t. And then suddenly there are one, two, three, four, five, six rather beautiful skyscrapers built with Russian money. Question: why Cypriot businessmen do not think of investing in skyscrapers? No money?
They have. Why not?
I think it’s not so much investing in the economy as it is saving money. It’s a visualization of money. Bags of money are brought in and where do we put it? Build a house and sell apartments. Local developers probably work differently. They probably don’t have such one-off gigantic sums. It’s not very economically feasible. And it’s not good for the city. It makes sense if you need to get a lot of money out of somewhere urgently to save it. It’s an emergency investment. Maybe this is unprofessional reasoning, but I just don’t see it any other way. In Manhattan, high-rise buildings were built for obvious reasons. Land is expensive and many other reasons for skyscrapers. And why suddenly in low-rise seaside resort Limassol here and there arise high-rise buildings, it seems to me, urban planning is not explainable. It is not connected with the development of the same Limassol. It does not arise from the city’s objectives. Here it’s more like the city adapts to the needs of some group of people.
Your investigations go far beyond the scope of this book. Do you plan to write more books? Maybe about the situation with Russian agents in other countries?
Maybe about Cyprus. But everything has to be looked at carefully. I’ve been interested in your island for several years.
Do you think you can write a book about Cyprus like the one you wrote about Germany?
Yes, of course. You can write about any country, but Cyprus, in my opinion, is particularly interesting in this sense. A small country of unafraid Russian security services. In my opinion. They seem to be really unafraid here. And the recent appointment of FSB Major General Murad Zyazikov as Russian ambassador to Cyprus is a kind of demonstration. A declaration of intentions. On the other hand, all Russian diplomats are at the same time Gabeshniks. It is difficult to draw a line here. Both are brought up in the same nest — MGIMO.