Wirecard fugitive helped run Russian spy operations across Europe

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Fugitive Wirecard COO Jan Marsalek used compromised intelligence officials in Vienna to spy on European citizens and plot break-ins and assassinations by elite Russian hit squads. He also obtained a Nato government’s cutting-edge cryptography machine and smuggled stolen senior Austrian civil servants’ phones to Moscow.

The allegations — based on new evidence obtained by British intelligence — are contained in an Austrian police warrant for the arrest of a former Austrian police and intelligence official, Egisto Ott.

Ott was taken into custody last Friday.

A copy of the warrant was seen by the Financial Times. Its contents were first reported by Austria’s Der Standard newspaper. 

They are the most extensive official allegations to date that Marsalek, 44, was not only compromised by Russia, but may have been one of the Kremlin’s most powerful European intelligence assets, using his position as chief operating officer at the top of a Dax-listed company that almost took over Deutsche Bank, to facilitate violent clandestine operations across the continent and in Africa.

Egisto Ott was taken into custody last week © YouTube

The 86-page warrant claims Marsalek commissioned Ott, and another senior security official, Martin Weiss, the head of Austrian intelligence operations, to facilitate undercover work for Russia’s military intelligence (GRU) and domestic intelligence (FSB) on European soil over a period of at least five years from 2017. Weiss has since fled Austria and now lives in Dubai. He could not be immediately reached for comment.

The revelations add to the concerns that Wirecard itself, a payment processing company that was once the darling of Europe’s fintech scene before being exposed as a fraud by the FT, may for years have been used as a shadow financial network to pay and facilitate Russian undercover operations beyond the detection of Nato security services. 

Marsalek’s shadowy connections to Russia, and the suspicions of three European intelligence agencies that he was a Russian spy, were first revealed by the FT in 2020, shortly after Wirecard’s collapse.

Further details of Marsalek’s links to Moscow — where he now lives, having fled Europe with the help of his Austrian network — have slowly emerged over the past few years as investigators and journalists have pored over Wirecard’s wreckage. 

Last month, a report by a consortium of European news outlets, including Der Spiegel, ZDF, The Insider and Der Standard, claimed that Marsalek had been recruited as early as 2014 by Kremlin agents. The group reported in detail on Marsalek’s long-standing relationships with Russian intelligence operatives. 

The warrant against Ott contains significant new information and indicates that Austria — a country with deep ties to Moscow, permissive espionage laws and a political establishment dogged by corruption and scandal in recent years — was at the heart of Marsalek’s own network. 

It claims, based largely on evidence supplied to Austria by Britain’s MI5 in recent weeks, that:

  • Ott used his security clearance to request confidential police information from other European police authorities, including those in Britain and Italy, on people the Russian government was interested in tracking. Ott also used the Schengen Information System — a database of visitors entering and leaving Europe’s border-free area — to track individuals’ movements. Those people included Russian dissidents, as well as Russia’s own agents.

  • Ott prepared a “lessons learned” analysis for Russian intelligence, following the GRU’s assassination of a Chechen dissident in central Berlin in August 2019. The Russian assassin, Vadim Krasikov, was captured and sentenced in Germany. He was floated in a tentative prisoner swap that fell apart when Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny died in a Russian prison earlier this year. Ott’s analysis used his knowledge of police and intelligence-sharing practices to suggest ways Russian agents could avoid capture or detection for future murders in Europe.

  • Ott supplied information to Marsalek on the address and security arrangements of Christo Grozev, an investigative journalist resident in Vienna who exposed Russia’s attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and other GRU operations. Marsalek used the information to co-ordinate an elite “seal” squad of FSB agents who broke into Grozev’s apartment and stole a laptop and USB sticks. Grozev left Vienna in 2023 after being told by intelligence authorities that Russia might be plotting an attempt on his life.

  • Ott helped Marsalek smuggle a stolen SINA computer to Moscow. It is unclear how Marsalek obtained the computer. Much like a modern enigma machine, the laptop-like device is one of the most advanced cryptographic tools used by western governments to transmit classified information. The SINA computer was sent to “the Lubyanka”, Marsalek wrote in a text message, referencing the headquarters of the FSB.

  • Ott gave Marsalek the full content of the mobile phones of three top officials in Austria’s interior ministry, including the ministry chief with responsibility for all Austrian policing and intelligence. The phones fell into Ott’s hands after they were dropped in the Danube by accident during a boat trip. The officials believed police experts might be able to recover data from them. Instead, Ott mirrored their contents and passed them to Marsalek, who had the sensitive information “transferred to Moscow for further analysis”. Several highly politically embarrassing stories based on the contents of WhatsApp messages on the phones later appeared in the Austrian press.

Ott’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment. Ott has previously insisted on his innocence, and dismissed evidence against him as “games”. He had admitted his relationship with Marsalek but denied knowing he might have been compromised by Russia.

Austria’s justice minister, the Green party’s Alma Zadić, promised on Thursday to urgently review Austrian espionage legislation in response to the revelations.

The debate about changing Austria’s spying laws — which permit foreign agents to operate at liberty in the country, provided they do not spy on the Austrian state itself — has already dragged on for months, however, with no legislation yet proposed despite mounting pressure from allies and opposition politicians.

Vienna is one of Europe’s major centres of political espionage as a result. One-third of the 180 accredited Russian diplomats stationed there are undercover intelligence agents, western officials believe.

Via

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