After invasion of Ukraine, a reckoning on Russian influence in Austria
The Washington Post July 5, 2022
VIENNA — “Polizei!” barked the officers who stormed a third-floor apartment in the Austrian capital, moving to intercept a thickset man standing near a kitchen nook. The suspect — a long-serving official in Austria’s security services — sprang toward his cellphone and tried to break it in two, according to Austrian police reports.
The phone data from last year’s raid, along with a laptop, USB sticks and a mother lode of documents, is now proving critical to an explosive case that has gained newfound urgency in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and it is fueling questions about the extent to which Moscow’s influence came to permeate this European nation.
Egisto Ott managed undercover agents in the Austrian domestic security service and also served in Turkey and Italy as an intelligence officer, and he is suspected of having sold state secrets to Russia, as well as providing information on perceived enemies of the Kremlin in the West, according to European security officials and Austrian investigative documents.
The still-developing Ott case, security officials say, is one of many internal problems that contributed to last year’s dissolution of Austria’s domestic intelligence agency — the BVT — and has led other European agencies to curtail their links with Vienna or cut it out of intelligence sharing on some matters relating to Russia.
The 60-year-old Ott has become emblematic of Russia’s deep penetration of European Union member Austria in politics and industry as well as the intelligence field. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has accelerated a reckoning on the risks for countries that fall under Moscow’s sway. In ongoing, closed-door hearings, Austrian lawmakers have been probing Russian interference in the intelligence services and contracts that the partly state-owned gas giant OMV had with Russia. Lawmakers also are examining business links that senior Austrian political figures and parties have had with the Kremlin and Russian state-owned companies.
“Russian influence in Austria has to be investigated thoroughly,” said opposition parliament member Stephanie Krisper. “For many years, connections to Moscow permeated our political system. Now, the economic and political dependence on Russia has finally become visible to everyone as a security threat.”
This article is based on hundreds of pages of documents either obtained or reviewed by The Washington Post, as well as on interviews with more than 12 current and former Western officials and other people familiar with the Ott case and related matters. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation. Ott’s lawyer acknowledged a request from The Post to interview his client but then stopped responding.
European security officials and investigative documents suggest that Ott was forming a plan with other Austrian intelligence officers to reorganize the security services as a new department within the Foreign Ministry.
At the time, the Foreign Ministry was led by Karin Kneissl, a diplomat and academic brought into government by the far-right Freedom Party. A government coalition partner from 2017 to 2019, the Freedom Party established particularly warm ties to the Kremlin, dispatching members on a 2017 official trip to Russian-annexed Crimea. Russia seized the Ukrainian territory in 2014 in a move that the United States and the European Union have refused to recognize, instead imposing economic sanctions on Russia.
Kneissl’s 2018 wedding in Austrian wine country became the most visible symbol of the political elite’s embrace of Russia. The guest list was a who’s who of Austrian politics — including former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. The star guest, however, was Russian President Vladimir Putin. During the festivities, Kneissl waltzed with Putin and was photographed curtsying to the Russian leader as he kissed her hand.
There is no indication in the investigative documents that Kneissl was aware of the reorganization plan, which was not realized. In WhatsApp text messages to a Washington Post reporter, Kneissl said she was “not giving interviews” and had emigrated from Austria because of “death threats.” She said she had no knowledge of the plan and had “never heard of Mr. Ott.”
Jailed for three weeks last year, Ott was released and suspended from his job pending further investigation. He has publicly denied all allegations, claiming a conspiracy against him for being a whistleblower who decried department excesses and requests from “friendly” foreign intelligence agencies that he said were “illegal.” He has challenged the official account of the raid of his Vienna apartment, claiming that officers did not announce themselves as police and that he initially resisted because he mistook them for robbers. This year, a court upheld his claim that excessive force had been used during his arrest.
“They are accusing me of giving out state secrets to Russia, but I haven’t,” Ott told an Austrian website. He added, “They have seen too much TV.”
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If some nations in Europe — especially Poland and the Baltic states — viewed Russia under Putin as a strategic threat, Austria was among those that instead saw Moscow as a golden opportunity.
Partitioned after World War II into sectors occupied by the Soviets, Americans, British and French, Austria moved into the mid-1950s as an officially “neutral” nation. That neutrality — including legal codes that made espionage a crime only if directed at Austria — turned its graceful capital into a haunt for spies, a status that was accentuated by its hosting of international bodies including the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In the 2000s, the rise of a strongman — Putin — in the Kremlin was seen in pragmatic terms in Austria. Russia ranks among this nation’s top foreign investors. At the end of 2021, Russian companies held $25.5 billion worth of assets in the country, including a major hub for Moscow’s all-important European natural gas exports. Austria became a major investor in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would have doubled the flow of Russian natural gas into Europe, but Nord Stream 2 was scrapped after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine despite initial Austrian resistance to jettisoning the project.
A revolving door opened between the highest ranks of the Austrian government and major Russian state companies. Two years after leaving government, Kneissl, for instance, took a highly paid position on the board of the Russian state energy giant Rosneft. She additionally wrote opinion columns for RT, a Kremlin propaganda outlet.
Former Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern was on the board of Russian Railways. Wolfgang Schüssel, another former chancellor of Austria, was on the board of Lukoil, another Russian energy giant.
Kern and Schüssel both resigned from their positions after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. Kneissl resigned her post with Rosneft in May.
Some of Austria’s major companies also became deeply entwined with Russia, particularly in its energy sector. In 2015, OMV, an Austrian energy firm partly owned by the government and currently the country’s second largest company, hired a new chief executive, Rainer Seele, a German national. In his previous position, with Wintershall Holding, a German crude oil and natural gas producer, Seele had worked with Gazprom, the Russian natural gas behemoth, and was a strong supporter of the Nord Stream pipeline.
In June, OMV’s supervisory board announced an internal inquiry into Seele’s tenure, specifically looking into contracts that made Austria increasingly dependent on Russian natural gas, as well as a $20 million sponsorship deal with Zenit St. Petersburg — a soccer club said to be Putin’s favorite. Seele, who stepped down from OMV last year, has denied any wrongdoing.
On June 15 — less than two weeks after the investigation was announced — Gazprom informed the company that the volume of gas delivered to Austria would be cut.
“Looking back, we have to conclude that the investments made in Russia after 2015 were based on too much trust in Russia and Russia’s role in the international community,” Mark Garrett, the chairman of OMV’s supervisory board, told shareholders in June.
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From 2017 to 2021, Ott is alleged to have been cooperating with a former senior Austrian intelligence official, Martin Weiss, as well as Jan Marsalek, 42, an Austrian businessman wanted in Germany and believed to be in hiding in Russia, according to security officials and investigative documents.
Weiss admitted to passing on requests for searches for background information, including personal data, on names he would submit to Ott on behalf of Marsalek. The requests contained up to 25 names at a time. Before he fled, Marsalek served as chief operating officer of Wirecard, a secretive financial processing firm. In 2019, stories in the Financial Times documented fraud and fictitious reserves at the company, which was declared insolvent in 2020.
German officials are probing possible links between Marsalek and Russian intelligence, including the question of whether Wirecard may have been used for Russian money laundering operations, or whether its client list — which included people who used the secretive service to pay for pornography, according to European security officials — could have proved useful to Moscow.
A European security official said that Marsalek — who disappeared after taking a private flight from Austria to Belarus in June 2020 — resided for a time in a Moscow apartment complex controlled by one of Russia’s intelligence agencies. That official also said Marsalek has been provided with a new Russian identity.
Lawyers for Weiss and Marsalek did not respond to interview requests.
Security officials said that Ott had been under suspicion for years before his arrest last year but that Austrian authorities were never able to bring a prosecution. As early as Nov. 22, 2017, he was stopped by police at Vienna International Airport as he arrived to board a flight to Amsterdam. Austrian officials had been warned by the CIA 10 months earlier that Ott was suspected of selling information to the Russians. The Americans renewed their warning that November and threatened to pull out of a security conference in the Netherlands if Ott was allowed to attend, according to the European security officials.
The American warnings were first reported by Austria’s Die Presse. The CIA declined to comment.
The CIA ultimatum led the Austrians to obtain a search warrant for Ott’s 3,200-square-foot home in the emerald hills of the Austrian south on the grounds of “suspicion of giving up state secrets.”
The search, however, failed to uncover key evidence, according to Austrian officials. The intelligence agency nonetheless sought to suspend him pending further investigation, but an administrative court for civil servants blocked that action. The Austrian authorities then reassigned Ott to work in a police academy, where he was supposed no longer to have access to Western intelligence databases.
Officials, however, believe Ott used his new posting to tap a network of intelligence contacts inside and outside Austria. Telling colleagues at other agencies that he was conducting official business as part of his new job, Ott requested hundreds of illegal searches in secure databases for information on people across the continent, according to the investigative documents.
In one instance, according to European officials, Ott allegedly sought information from British intelligence that could have been used to determine whether a woman previously accused of being a Russian spy was still on the radar of Western security services.
Among the queries that stood out was one he allegedly conducted in December 2020 into Christo Grozev, the executive director of the investigative outlet Bellingcat, the documents show. The outlet’s reporting had uncovered the true identity of Vadim Krasikov, the Russian national who was convicted last year of gunning down a Chechen opposition figure in Berlin in 2019 after Krasikov entered Germany on a false passport. The German authorities said Krasikov was operating on behalf of Russia’s state security agency, the FSB.
Asked by The Post whether he had knowledge of Ott’s searches, including for his home address, Grozev said he had been informed by authorities and had concluded they were done on behalf of Russia. “It could just be intimidation, it could just be keeping an eye on me, tailing me, or preparing an assassination,” he said.
In addition, a three-page analysis was discovered on Ott’s cellular phone that appeared to assess the shortcomings of the Russian operation in Berlin and offer recommendations on how Russian intelligence could do better in the future. The analysis, which Western officials believe was written by Ott, suggested a mole or defector might have provided information that compromised the plan after Krasikov failed to escape undetected.
“Immediately stop all planned operations until the mole or defector has been eliminated,” the document warned.
What comes next in the Ott case is unclear. Current and former security officials outside Austria remain skeptical that the various parliamentary and other investigations will probe deeply enough.
“These are things the Austrian government needs to question and get to the bottom of, but I personally don’t know whether the Austrians will go that far,” said Sonya Seunghye Lim, a former CIA station chief in Europe. “I think their attitude for decades, going back to the ‘40s and ‘50s, has always been that they’d rather not uncover uncomfortable truths.”
The Washington Post’s Emily Rauhala in Brussels and Shane Harris in Washington contributed to this report.