Russian Spies Visited Spain in Possible Efforts to Interfere in Catalan Independence Vote

By: Joseph Lyttleton

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Multiple members of a secretive Russian military group visited Spain in 2016 and 2017 in the lead up to the October 2017 vote for Catalan independence. It is believed that these Russian spies were spreading disinformation and stirring up discord ahead of an already divisive referendum in the region. 

If verified, this would represent a campaign similar to that of other Russian efforts in Western elections, including in the United States and the United Kingdom.

The GRU in Spain

As reported by El País, at least three people with possible ties to Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (commonly referred to as the GRU) entered Spain on multiple occasions from November 2016 to December 2017. The three Russian operatives traveled to Barcelona, the capital of the autonomous community of Catalonia.

The report found that the three men – Denis Sergeev, Alexey Kalinin, and Mikhail Opryshko – all have links to Unit 29155, a subunit of the GRU. Multiple intelligence agencies around the world believe Unit 29155 is responsible for political assassinations and attempting to destabilize European alliances.

While the precise activities of these men are not known, the Spanish government has long believed that Russia has made efforts to manipulate politics in the country. Specifically, it is believed that Russian agents sought to spread disinformation leading up to the Catalan independence referendum of 2017.

The Catalan separatist movement

Spain is made up of 17 autonomous communities which operate under both a national constitution and their respective regional laws. Catalonia, in northeast Spain, is one of the wealthiest communities in the country and includes Barcelona, the country’s second largest city and a major draw for tourists from around the world. The region is also home to one of Spain’s four official languages, Catalan.

In the last decade, a discussion about Catalan independence has grown increasingly louder as the nation has faced a slow recovery from the economic collapse of 2008. Many in Catalonia feel their taxes are too high and that the wealth they bring in is used to subsidize Spain’s poorer regions.

In 2014, a symbolic referendum for independence was held, only to be outlawed by Spain’s central government. An actual referendum followed in October 2017, but this too was outlawed by the constitutional court of Spain. Despite this, organizers claimed 90% support for Catalonian independence and the region’s parliament then declared Catalonia to be independent.

In response, Spain’s federal government dissolved Catalonia’s parliament, nullifying the vote, and arrested some of the region’s leaders. In response, the president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, fled the country for Belgium. In October 2019, after Spain’s supreme court sentenced nine leaders of the Catalan separatist movement to 13 years in prison, violent protests broke out in the region.

There is evidence that the Spanish government’s response to the unrest in Catalonia has damaged the nation’s standing as a democracy.

Russian operatives in global elections

Russia has been suspected of interfering in the elections or political movements of countries across Asia, Europe, and North America.

In February 2018, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian operatives for interfering in the 2016 US presidential election. Mueller’s indictment alleged that the operatives were working to help President Donald Trump’s ultimately successful bid to win the election while hurting his opponent, Hillary Clinton. This was done largely through a disinformation campaign perpetrated through social media platforms.

In a similar manner, an investigation by The Times in Britain determined that 150,000 Russian-based Twitter accounts were mobilized to increase tension around the nation’s 2016 Brexit referendum. The accounts spread more than 45,000 individual messages on the day of and the day after the vote. Before the referendum, the accounts were found to have been focused on issues directly related to Russia and Ukraine.

A report by the UK’s intelligence community about Russia’s involvement in the referendum was withheld by Prime Minister Boris Johnson prior to the nation’s general election in December 2019. This act has led to accusations that Johnson was covering up information that might be damaging to his Conservative Party.

Russian motives

According to experts, Russia’s efforts in foreign countries is largely about ensuring its own interests in other regions. This has involved working with or supporting fringe groups on both the right and left side of the political spectrum. The efforts have been seen in neighboring countries like Ukraine and Georgia as well as major Western nations.

While the FBI and CIA concluded Russia’s efforts in the US election were designed to help Trump win, their motives for interfering aren’t always about achieving a specific outcome. Instead, Russia’s goal often appears to be spreading misinformation and stirring up discord.

A report by the Atlantic Council found that Russia, under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, has been ramping up efforts to influence global politics since 2012. The tactics involved include disinformation campaigns, coercion, and forming strategic alliances.