In Moscow, There’s No Longer Any Line Between Spies, Lies & Terrorists

Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. MAXIM MARMUR/AFP/Getty Images

These days there’s no term more likely to attract the nut fringe than “false flag.” Citing it is a surefire way to rally online monomaniacs who believe that nothing in the world is as it seems to be. The belief that nefarious secret forces pull the strings behind events is for some as addictive as opioids.

This is unfortunate, since false flag is a perfectly legitimate term in the espionage world, and it’s far from new. Spies have masqueraded as someone else during their secret operations for as long as there have been spies. In extreme cases, intelligence services have undertaken terrorist attacks under a false flag to smear opponents and fool the public. Such cases, while rare, do occur.

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They still happen today. A fair amount of the time, these incidents involve Russians, since the Kremlin perfected this dark art over a century ago, when professional provocateurs ran the tsar’s terrorism problem bloodily into the ground. A recent case of false flag terrorism illustrates that not much has changed in the last 120 years.

On February 4, 2018, unidentified assailants fire-bombed a Hungarian cultural center in Uzhhorod, the capital of Ukraine’s westernmost region. There were no casualties, but the attack raised worries among the 100,000 Hungarians who live around Uzhhorod, on the border with Hungary, their ancestral homeland. The status of Ukraine’s Hungarian minority has become a hot-button issue between Kiev and Budapest, and the terrorist incident made the touchy situation worse.

From the outset, Ukrainian security mavens smelled a rat. Since Russia stole Crimea and started its unprovoked war on their country five years ago this month, Ukraine has been beset by waves of Russian espionage, propaganda and even terrorism designed to destabilize the country. The notion that Moscow would engage in false flag attacks on Ukrainian soil appeared anything but far-fetched in Kiev.

Before long, three Polish right-wingers were in custody for the Uzhhorod attack, a development which did not surprise, given the Kremlin’s track record of using Polish hotheads to destabilize Ukraine—and vice versa—as I’ve previously elaborated. The suspects were exactly the sort of suspicious far-right activists employed by Russian intelligence in many European countries as vehicles for espionage and worse.

Poland’s loud but politically marginal extreme right is openly Russophile—never a mainstream view among Poles—and it doesn’t try very hard to hide its Kremlin connections. Typical is the case of Mateusz Piskorski, a far-right activist who for years has taken blatantly pro-Moscow positions, which tend to stick out in Warsaw. Piskorski’s ebullient siding with Russia in its aggression against Ukraine was the tell, compounded by his regular appearances in Kremlin propaganda outlets, including a visit to occupied Crimea. Piskoski betrays the now-routine profile: a neo-Nazi intellectual manqué who develops an affection for Aleksandr Dugin, the Kremlin’s ambassador-at-large to the far-right, then winds up in bed with Moscow. In May 2016, Polish authorities detained him on charges of working for Russian intelligence against Poland.

Piskorski’s clandestine activities lurk on the fringes of the Uzhhorod trial, which commenced last month in Kraków. The three Poles before the court are facing terrorism-related charges which could lead to substantial prison terms. Things got interesting fast when one of the three accused fire-bombers, Michał Prokopowicz, fingered the individual whom he asserted ordered and funded the Uzhhorod attack.

Prokopowicz claimed he was paid 1,500 euros by a friend and partner of Pisorski’s, a German national named Manuel Ochsenreiter. That name will be familiar to observers of Germany’s fascistoid scene, since Ochsenreiter for years has been a fixture on Central Europe’s pro-Kremlin right-wing and something of a media gadfly.

Although Ochsenreiter is careful not to overtly espouse Nazi views, which are illegal in Germany, his ideology hews close to Nazism. He has public linkages with the whole range of Russian far-right personalities, including the ubiquitous Dugin, and he has worked for Katehon, the right-wing “think tank” (no more than a website in reality) which possesses links to Russian intelligence. Above all, for years Ochsenreiter was a frequent face on Russia Today (since rebranded as RT), serving as their go-to guy on German affairs. Something of a star in the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus, in the eyes of Western counterintelligence Ochsenreiter is at a minimum an agent of influence of Russian intelligence.

The Uzhhorod trial reveals he may be more than that. As Germany’s far-right has seen its political fortunes rise, embodied in the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which is now the third-largest party in Berlin’s parliament, Ochsenreiter inched towards the mainstream. At the time of the Uzhhorod attack, he was serving on the staff of Markus Frohnmaier, an AfD parliamentarian and one of the strongest Russophile voices in a notably pro-Moscow party.

Frohnmaier has spoken in defense of his now-cashiered staffer, who has denied any wrongdoing. However, new evidence has emerged that Ochsenreiter has known Prokopowicz since 2015, and the two men were in contact via text messages, while the latter has provided a detailed account of Ochsenreiter’s funding and operational planning of the firebombing in Uzhhorod. Polish counterintelligence is reported to possess all text messages between Ochsenreiter and Prokopowicz before and after the terrorist attack, and they offer clear evidence of the German’s role behind the incident.

The Kraków trial will resume in March, and although Ochsenreiter has not been charged with any crime, that may change. Regardless, it’s worth asking what was going on here, given the German’s pronounced public role as a Kremlin propagandist. While it cannot be ruled out that Ochsenreiter was acting on his own initiative, perhaps to curry favor with the Kremlin, it should be noted that Russian intelligence frowns on freelancing, especially when it involves terrorism. It seems more likely that somebody told Ochsenreiter to make the Uzhhorod attack happen – and paid for it.

Who stands behind the shadowy February 4, 2018 attack is a question which authorities in Poland and Ukraine are eager to resolve. The answer may not be edifying for Moscow or Berlin, while the AfD ought to be asked on the record what its relationship with the Kremlin really is. Troubling questions stretch beyond Germany here, given Ochsenreiter’s ties to far-right activists in many Western countries, including the United States.

Under Vladimir Putin, Moscow has assembled an army of foreign propagandists willing to do the Kremlin’s bidding, spreading disinformation designed to influence gullible Western audiences. There’s nothing new here, Russian spies have employed active measures against the West for a century, but if this liars’ legion now includes terrorists, as the Uzhhorod case indicates it does, that’s something all Western countries need to worry about.

In Moscow, There’s No Longer Any Line Between Spies, Lies & Terrorists