Episode 5: Russian Meddling in Catalonia - A Playbook In Destabilization
Catalonia’s president received a shocking proposal the day before a historic vote to declare independence from Spain.
A mysterious Russian offered $500 billion and 10,000 armed soldiers to make the break with Madrid and create a cryptocurrency haven.
In this episode of Dirty Deeds…
In this episode, Nick Wallis talks with journalists Antonio Baquero, Marc Marginedas, and Lorenzo Bagnoli on how they tracked down the man pro-independence leaders called “Putin’s envoy” across Spain, Italy, and Russia — unveiling his past as a Russian diplomat with a history of representing the Kremlin.
Read the investigation:
Host Nick Wallis talks to…
Antonio Baquero - @antoniobaqueroi
Antonio is an editor for OCCRP covering Europe and played a key role in the investigation into how a man labeled “Putin’s envoy” communicated with Catalonian separatists.
Marc Marginedas - @marcmarginedas
Marc is a reporter for the Spanish newspaper El Periódico de Catalunya and was a Moscow correspondent. He collaborated closely with Antonio on this story, looking into the ties with Kremlin-allied figures and the leaders of Catalonia’s independence bid.
Lorenzo Bagnoli - @Lorenzo_Bagnoli
Lorenzo is co-director of Investigative Reporting Project Italy, an OCCRP member center. Lorenzo investigated the background of “Putin’s envoy” to Catalonia as he had been a former diplomat in Italy.
Nico de Pedro - @nicolasdepedro
Nico is a senior fellow at The Institute for Statecraft in London where he works on issues related to Russia, disinformation, and hybrid threats.
- [0:00] Introduction
- [3:40] Antonio Baquera and Marc Marginedas explain how they began investigating Russian interest in Catalonia
- [5:26] A profile of Victor Terredellas, key figure in the story
- [8:38] How “Putin’s envoy” Nikolai Sadovnikov came to reporters’ attention
- [11:52] Why are there ties between Catalonian independence leaders and the Russian government?
- [15:36] Lorenzo Bagnoli explains Sadovnikov’s past as a diplomat in Italy
- [20:41] A profile of Jordi Sardà, who accompanied Sadovnikov during his meeting with Catalonia’s separatist leader Carles Puigdemont
- [23:42] How the reporters managed to interview Sadovnikov
- [26:30] The effect of the story on the Catalonian independence movement and Carles Puigdemont
- [31:23] Nico de Pedro explains why he and others are against Catalonian independence
- [34:02] How the Catalonian independence movement is used by the Russian government to destabilize Spain
- [36:56] How do ordinary Catalans feel about Russian interference in Catalonian independence?
Check out other episodes on the Dirty Deeds main page.
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Nick Wallis: Coming up, the Russian promise to put troops on the ground in an independent Catalonia, and the man known as Putin’s envoy who met Catalan leaders the day before an illegal declaration of independence.
Marc Marginedas: There is a historical tradition of, let’s say Moscow interference in the internal affairs of Catalonia.
Antonio Baquero: No name, no identification, just: “Putin’s envoy arrives at five.”
Nico de Pedro: Russia was not intervening in Catalonia because they thought that the Catalan pro-independence movement was legitimate or not, or the claim for self-determination was right or not. That was not the case. For them, this was attractive because it had the potential to destabilize an E.U. and NATO member.
Nick Wallis: My name is Nick Wallis and this is Dirty Deeds: Tales of Global Crime and Corruption, a podcast from the global journalism network the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, or OCCRP as it’s known.
Catalonia is a former principality in northeastern Spain. Its capital, Barcelona, is a world city, perhaps more well-known than the Spanish capital, Madrid. And the region is a very important wheel in the Spanish economy. Catalonia has always had a vocal secessionist movement.
But between 2012 and 2017, the idea took hold in the political mainstream as pro-independence parties won a majority of seats in the regional parliament. A referendum was called, scheduled to take place on the 1st of October 2017, but the Spanish government declared it illegal. The referendum went ahead, with the Catalan nationalists winning by an overwhelming majority.
The refusal of many people to take part and the way the referendum was run raised significant questions about the result. The independence movement declared victory, and on the 27th of October, the Catalan parliament unilaterally declared independence from Spain. The Spanish government immediately dissolved the Catalan parliament and assumed direct control over the region.
It was well known that the Kremlin had a keen interest in the outcome of the referendum. In 2020, it was revealed that a group of individuals posing as representatives of the Russian state offered the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, $500 billion and thousands of armed soldiers to make the break with Madrid.
It seemed like a fantastical tale, but journalists from OCCRP — working with other news-gathering organizations like El Periódico, Bellingcat, Investigative Reporting Project Italy, Il Fatto Quotidiano and IStories — were able to document a meeting held the day before the declaration of independence between Carles Puigdemont and Nikolai Sadovnikov, a man known as Putin’s envoy.
The go-between in this meeting was Carles Puigdemont’s colleague Victor Terradellas, and two key players are the Russian politicians, Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Sergei Markov, whose names appeared in Terradellas’ leaked notebooks.
The Catalans wanted cash and the Russians wanted an independent Catalonia to become a haven for Bitcoin.
In my first interview for this episode, I spoke to three journalists: Antonio Baquero from OCCRP; Marc Marginedas, the Moscow correspondent of El Periódico, and Lorenzo Bagnoli from the Investigative Reporting Project Italy. I started by asking Antonio when Russian interest in the 2017 referendum came to his attention.
Antonio Baquero: Basically, we were surprised that in 2017, seeing how some Twitter channels and some Twitter bots related to Russian propaganda were extremely committed to supporting independence as well as Russia Today and Sputnik. So at first sight it was not too normal to see this commitment.
Then there was a judicial investigation [into] an individual related to the Catalonian nationalist party, Victor Terradellas. He was accused of diverting public money. In that investigation, Spanish officials discovered that this guy had some travels to Russia and apparently met some influential Russian individuals. And that was then when I contacted my colleague in Moscow, Marc Marginedas.
Nick Wallis: Marc, tell me about your first conversation that you had with Antonio about what he’d noticed and the Russian connection.
Marc Marginedas: First of all, we started to use private communications because we thought the story was important. I remember he said to me: “Listen, we need to look at the role that Zhirinovsky, the ultranationalist leader [in] Russia, is playing in the Catalan process.” And I just remembered that Zhirinovsky in 2017, he organized a demonstration in front of the Spanish consulate with supporters who didn’t even know where Catalonia was. So it smelled that there was something rotten there. So the first thing Anhonio told me is: “You [should] try to interview Zhirinovsky because his name appeared in the notebook of Terradellas, and ask him about the Catalan process.”
Nick Wallis: You better explain the significance of this character, Victor Terradellas, to the Catalan independence movement and the visits that he was receiving from interesting Russian people, let’s say.
Marc Marginedas: Terradellas came to Moscow three times, twice just before the illegal referendum of independence in 2017. He met several people. He introduced himself as an advisor of President Puigdemont and he did this together with a Catalan journalist who is based in Moscow who knew their people.
Apart from Zhirinosvky, Terradellas met a person called Sergei Markov, a former MP for the official party, United Russia. He was very pro-Putin and [an] outspoken person. He’s also somebody who is very eager to speak to the press. Even with his pro-Putin views, he spoke to CNN and other channels several times. When Antonio rang me up and said: “Listen, we need to contact this person. You need to interview this person.”
I thought: “He’s not going to give me the interview.” Because, if something has happened, I presumed that he probably preferred not to talk about it. But surprisingly, he gave me the interview and I went to a restaurant in north Moscow to meet up with him, and he explained the whole entire story, basically because he’s somebody who likes to be in the media and he was not really understanding the importance of what he said to me.
I remember I was taping the conversation and I asked him what Terradellas wanted from [him]. He said to me: “These two people, the Catalan journalist and Terradellas, they wanted me to contact important people in the government in order to exchange the recognition of Crimea for the recognition of Catalonia.”
The very first moment he said that to me — and I still have it taped on my tape recorder — I said to myself: “Listen, this is going to be big, this is going to be a big story in Spain. You don’t really understand what you’re telling me and the importance of what you’re saying to the Spanish public opinion.” So basically thanks to a person like Markov and his ego, let’s put it that way, the story started to unfold for us.
Nick Wallis: Antonio, you better explain how it was that Terradellas’ notebooks have fallen into the hands of journalists. This is all to do with a court case, isn’t it?
Antonio Baquero: Yeah, it’s related to a court case, and basically it was a leak. We received the documents and we explored the documents. Then we received all transcripts of the voice messages from Terradellas and we looked at that carefully. We spent hours and hours reading this conversation. The revelations there were massive.
Nick Wallis: So the Markov name came up in these notebooks and then Marc was able to get this extraordinary interview, which obviously anyone who knows anything about Catalonia and the move for independence would find explosive, this idea that the Russians would support the Catalans if they reciprocated that support for the annexation of Crimea. And when did the name Sadovnikov come on the scene? How did he fit into this picture?
Antonio Baquero: This is the second part of the story. The issue is that in the court records of Terradellas, in the transcripts of the messages, there’s an exchange of messages the day before October 26th, the day before the declaration of independence, where Terradellas asks Puigdemont to receive, as he calls [him], “Putin’s envoy.” Just like that. No name, no identification, just “Putin’s envoy arrives at five.”
When that appeared in the Spanish press, and when that was reported at the time, the independent movement and even the Russian embassy in Madrid, they joked about it, they said that “There was nothing, imagine we would send soldiers!” So at the first moment everybody was joking about that.
But we were saying: “Well, who is that envoy? Who is that individual? Did he really meet the president the day before the declaration of independence?” It was the most extreme, tense day in the recent history of Catalonia. So if on that day the Catalonian president found room in his agenda for meeting somebody coming from Russia, this somebody should be somebody important or interesting. So we were focused on finding who that guy was. So I interviewed Terradellas, first off the record. I can say [that] now because at the end he confirmed [everything] on the record. I asked him basically: “Well, who was that Russian involved?” And he told me: “Well, I cannot recall his surname.” What a coincidence! “But,” he said, “he’s somebody called Nikolai.”
So I jumped into the court records to see if there was any mention of Nikolai, and there are several mentions of Nikolai, but no surname. But there’s only one mention where Terradellas asks to a Catalan journalist based in Russia: “Do you know a guy called Nikolai Sadovnikov?” So we had the surname. We didn’t know if it was that Nikolai or not, but basically it was like: “Who is that guy?” So I checked with my sources and we found that on 26 October, so the day that Terradellas told Puigdemont “Putin’s envoy arrives at five,” that day there was somebody called Nikolai Sadovnikov in a plane coming from Moscow to Barcelona and landing at 4:00 PM at Barcelona airport.
Nick Wallis: One thing that has struck me about this is the willingness of the Catalonian movement, the secessionist movement, to court Russian aid. Is this a long-standing relationship that the Catalonian secessionists have? Is it an ideological one that they have, or is this purely venal? Do they just want what Russia can give them in terms of cash and perhaps even more ridiculously, troops?
Marc Marginedas: There is a historical tradition of, let’s say, Moscow interference in the internal affairs of Catalonia. We [can] go back to the first president of the Generalitat [of Catalonia, the autonomous government of Catalonia established in 1931], [Francesc] Macià, who went to Moscow to seek help. We also have the example, during the Second [Spanish] Republic, [Soviet leader Joseph] Stalin had the only relations with Catalan government, but the only interest that Stalin had in the in the Spanish Civil War, and particularly in Barcelona, was actually neutralizing the Trotskyist party which was part of the government.
So my impression was that the Catalan leaders had not really understood the lessons of history because we see similar things [now]. Russia, even in 2017, unless there [was] a major catastrophe, would never [have recognized] the independence of Catalonia. But instead of that, they sent people of non-recognized, pro-Russian republics like South Ossetia. Linking that to the words of Antonio, the Catalan government was desperate to get recognition. At that particular moment, [this] was enough for them.
Nick Wallis: Okay, so let’s reset for a moment then, Antonio. You’ve got the name of this very interesting Russian, Nikolai Sadovnikov. You know, that he was in Barcelona and that there was someone called Nikolai present at a meeting with Victor Terradellas. At what point did you bring Lorenzo into your investigation, and how did he help?
Antonio Baquero: Basically, we decided then to try to discover who Nikolai Sadovnikov was, and what we discovered was that he was a former diplomat in Italy, and then that he obtained his visa to Europe in Italy. So that’s when I contacted Lorenzo. One thing that struck me a lot when I was trying to figure out “Who was Nikolai?” he was a former diplomat and he appeared in some secret service reports in a Western country where he was described as a “higher envoy.”
Nick Wallis: I was going to ask you about this Western intelligence report, because, again, getting your hands on something like this is potentially dynamite because there is now some kind of file in intelligence services on this individual. How do you get your hands on a document like that?
Antonio Baquero: Sources. There’s a part of the job [which is] having good sources, and I had the chance to ask somebody who was aware [of Sadovnikov]. So basically, I explored all my sources to get this and one of them told me: “We have this Nikolai Sadovikov somewhere. There’s a Western intelligence service who had this Nikolai on their radar years ago.” And he showed me the report, he didn’t give [it to] me, but showed me the report and I was able to take notes. And then I went to Lorenzo and said: “Hey, this guy had a connection with Italy.” And then they explored and they found the last nail for hammering the story.
Nick Wallis: Okay, Well, Lorenzo, thank you for waiting patiently during this discussion. Just take us through what happened from your perspective. When Antonio picked up the phone and said: “I want you to look into this guy.”
Lorenzo Bagnoli: First of all, there was this very big problem of trying to get some sources within the intelligence [agencies] in Italy, so trying to double-check what kind of information the other intelligence sources gave to Antonio and trying to check whether this Nikolai Sadovnikov had ever had any trace in Italy.
Nick Wallis: What was it you were trying to find out: how big a deal this guy was or just just who he was?
Lorenzo Bagnoli: At the beginning, it was simply trying to understand who he was. After that, when we were sure that this guy was really important, we were trying to verify the kind of importance he had and why he was trying to do this from Italy to Spain. Why him? What kind of purpose could he have had also in Italy? Because there are two other connections between this story and Italy that I think can be interesting.
First of all, one of the companies connected to Sadovnikov had an address in a very small town in Calabria and linked to some Italian people, and that was very strange. And the other thing that is important to say is that Russian influence is very strong in Italy, too, and is very strong to another movement that is against the centralized state in Italy, because one of the movements is the League, which was born as an independentist movement for northern Italy, and now the League shifted to a nationalist party with connections to the far-right. But still they are the only [party] with a formal contract with United Russia, so Vladimir Putin’s party.
And the Spanish saga was basically the latest one in a long series of investigations about Russian influence in European countries, and Italy was for sure one of the biggest ones involved in these kinds of operations.
Nick Wallis: Okay, so Antonio you’ve now got proof the meeting happened, you have identified Sadovnikov, you’ve seen the Western intelligence report on Sadovnikov. How did you get to the point where you were able to prove the offer, this $500 billion worth of Bitcoin, and these 10,000 troops? Or was that still so ludicrous you didn’t think it was something that the Catalonians would take seriously?
Antonio Baquero: What is true is that Sadovnikov made the offer. We confirmed that, he made the offer. But what we don’t know, and nobody will ever know, is if the offer in itself was true. If they had the money, if they had this amount of soldiers, I don’t know.
But what is absolutely true is that they met with the Catalonian president and they told him that they could provide this amount of soldiers and this amount of money. And the issue is that after the meeting there was a lot of contact between Terradellas and a guy related to Sadovnikov where the guy related to Sadovnikov promised [Terradellas] to deliver some money.
And there was even a Bitcoin transfer that we could prove, because in the exchange of the messages we found a Bitcoin wallet, and we tracked [it] down and we saw that the day that that guy told Terradellas that he was going to send him some Bitcoins, one Bitcoin arrived in that wallet. If I had to describe how the operation was, as I told you I don’t know if the money was true, the soldiers waiting somewhere, I don’t think so.
But what I’m sure is that Russia was trying to push the Catalonian president to take a position. That’s the issue in my opinion. Russia used some informal way to send an envoy to Catalonia and to convince the Catalonian president to go ahead. I don’t know if you have this expression in English, but in Spain we say “A jump into the pool.” There’s water there. The Russians will say: “Hey, jump, don’t be afraid, jump! There’s going to be water there, we’ll put the water in the pool.” [Laughs] But finally, unfortunately, Puigdemont did jump.
Nick Wallis: So this is back in 2017 and you have got Carles Puigdemont and Victor Terradellas who’s doing his sherpa work for him, and the two are intimately connected within the movement. And of course Carles, being the president, is a significant figure in this movement. We’ve got the Russian connection. Tell me about this other chap who appears on the scene, this Jordi Sardà, who becomes a very close confidant of Victor Terradellas, promising him all sorts of things. How significant is Sardà to this story?
Antonio Baquero: Sardà is a Spaniard, he’s a Catalan. He was [on] the Russian side. He was somebody that, when you read the transcripts of the message exchange, you realize that he was working for the Russians. He was in the process since the beginning, he was the first who contacted the Catalonian side saying: “Hey, I have Russian friends who want to help the independence movement.”
He was there since the beginning and he’s an important character because he appeared in the press first around ten years ago in Ukraine, where he was in the middle of a big scandal. He impersonated the Spanish national gas company Gas Natural. He even signed a contract with Ukrainian officials for building a gasification plant and then the day after Gas Natural appears [and says] “Hey, we don’t know this guy. We don’t know of this deal.” So it was a big scandal at the time. So this guy appears in these processes, in this context, as a key player. He was like the middleman between the Catalonians and the Russians, but he was playing for the Russian side.
Marc Marginedas: All the dealings of Terradellas with Russian officials were very naive. But at the same time, the Russians understood immediately that there was an opportunity to interfere. And they kept offering, offering, offering things and Terradellas was the perfect person for such a thing because he had no understanding whatsoever of how the Russian authorities and the Russian state works.
Nick Wallis: I don’t wish to be rude about Terradellas but you reprinted some of the text messages between him and Jordi Sardà and he comes across as something of a clown. There isn’t much statesmanlike behavior going on here.
Marc Marginedas: No, the whole thing was very, very naive and very amateur. They don’t really understand who they’re dealing with. They’re not sincere. They will never keep promises. They just think that Russia is a big state and they were so desperate for support that they found this half-hearted support that they were getting from Russia.
Nick Wallis: So much is unbelievable about this story, but you’ve documented it all, and then the icing on the cake was that you got an interview with Sadovnikov.
Antonio Baquero: We need to talk to everybody. We need to document everything. We need to certify everything, because if not, we’re going to be accused of doing dirty [work] for the Spanish government or whatever. We want to tell the truth. So a colleague from IStories, a Russian investigative outlet, we contacted them, we asked them if they could help us, and we had the phone [number] of Sadovnikov, so an IStories journalist called him.
And the interview is crazy. He acknowledged that he was in Barcelona. He confirmed that “Yeah, I was in Barcelona. Well, I came to Barcelona to see a friend, and then my friend brought me to a meeting where they were talking about independence, but I don’t remember because I don’t speak Spanish.” So he confirmed that he was in that meeting.
And then the reporter asked him: “Okay, can we send you a picture of Puigdemont so you can confirm if you met him.” And then Sadovnikov said: “Well, no, better not because I’ve got a really, really hard Covid so I’ve lost almost all my memory.” It’s quite crazy, but it’s great because he confirmed that he was in Spain that day and in a meeting.
Nick Wallis: And you’re all smiling and shaking your heads at the ludicrousness of this meeting, the ludicrousness of the promises that were made and as you say, Marc, that naivety of the Catalonian secessionists in believing that any of this was going to materialize, let alone 10,000 troops on the streets. And yet it is a very, very serious matter, isn’t it? This is about Russian interference in Western democracies and Western states.
Antonio Baquero: The key issue is that, with thanks to Marc and thanks to Lorenzo, we knew that at that time Sadovnikov was an advisor of the Russian foreign affairs ministry and that’s extremely important because this was not just only an individual who worked at the ministry in the past. It was an individual who at that time was advising [Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey] Lavrov on European matters. So when you see that the guy who met with them the day before was somebody who is close to the foreign affairs minister.
Nick Wallis: Putin’s envoy.
Antonio Baquero: Exactly, you see it’s a Putin envoy. So that’s super serious, even though you can joke with the 10,000 soldiers and the amount of money and the naivete of Terradellas, they were playing with fire and with the life of Catalonian people.
Nick Wallis: What impact has it had and what would you assess as its long-term effect or even short-term effect on the Catalonian independence movement? Marc.
Marc Marginedas: I think that when we first broke the first stories about Terradellas, nobody was believing us. There was a lot of skepticism from the pro-independence movement. Puigdemont remained deliberately silent, even though before the story broke out he had already given several interviews to the Russian press.
And now we see that some parts of the pro-independence movement, they don’t laugh anymore about the story and they admit that these are serious things and they understand that, even though it is legitimate to have pro-independence views, aligning yourselves with somebody like Russia, it damages your cause.
Nick Wallis: Lorenzo, what’s your takeaway from all of this? Because obviously you came at it from a slightly different angle.
Lorenzo Bagnoli: Yeah. I think that this is one of the stories that present in the most comprehensive way how Russian state agents are basically a mixture between diplomacy and fraudster or criminal organization. Sadovnikov basically embraced both of these things. He’s somehow a diplomatic career figure, but on the other side he also has connections with this sort of underworld.
Nick Wallis: Antonio, as a result of the publication of this story, there must now be serious questions about Carles Puigdemont’s judgment. Is he ever going to get taken seriously again?
Antonio Baquero: First, he was forced the day after publication to recognize that the meeting took place. And that was a major break because two weeks before he said that he never met with any Russians, in an article, and he never talked about independence with any Russians. There’s an article in a Barcelona newspaper.
Then the day after he said to the Catalonian news agency, he recognized basically that the meeting took place. But he said: “The meeting took place, but we didn’t take them seriously.” But he recognized that the meeting took place. So that’s the first important thing that happened after we broke the story.
Then it’s important that nobody else is laughing anymore about the Russian interference in Catalonia. Everybody took it extremely seriously after that. And apparently in the European Commission there’s a committee about foreign interference, and they are taking this extremely seriously, and they think they’re going to call some of the journalists who took part in the investigation. So it has damaged his international picture? I don’t know.
It’s not a crime to meet with Russians, it’s not a crime. From a legal point of view, I don’t see it as a crime. But I see this as something extremely dangerous for Catalonian people. And what I see, or what was my obsession since the beginning, is that as a Catalan, I want this to be known. I want to know what happened [during] these days. I think it’s extremely important to know as much as possible. For the sake of history, as a journalist, as a citizen. I want to know what happened. And if there are some Russians trying to mix things up here, I want to know.
Nick Wallis: My thanks to Antonio, Marc and Lorenzo. Now, let’s get another perspective on this. Nico de Pedro is a senior fellow at the Institute for Statecraft, a nonpartisan, U.K.-based think tank. Nico is Spanish and describes himself as not sympathetic to the independence movement. So before we began to discuss the OCCRP article and the relationship between the Kremlin and the Catalan secessionists, I asked him why he personally thought Catalonia should remain part of Spain.
Nico de Pedro: Well, I’ve lived in Barcelona for the last 10 years with my family. We are a, let’s say, a multiethnic family. My wife is from India, so we are always in a very international environment, so it’s not an issue related to prejudices or things like that. But basically the group which is facing a difficult situation, an adverse situation here in Catalonia is clearly those who are non-nationalist because the Catalan thing is purely a political thing. It’s not an ethnic thing.
It’s difficult to trace ethnic borders between Spanish and Catalans, that’s not really, really easy. There are some cultural differences, Catalan is a different language, although it’s very, very close to Spanish. I have no problem speaking in Catalan fluently and understanding everything, so it’s not a big deal from that perspective. And there are many purely Catalan people, let’s say, whose family background is clearly rooted here from centuries [ago] and who are not in favor of independence, while you may find also many people who are second generation sons or daughters of those people who came into the region in the ‘60s as a cheap labor force from the south of Spain, because Catalonia is one of the richest areas, or used to be one of the richest areas in Spain.
Now it’s not doing that well after 10 years of this political crisis. But historically and traditionally it’s one of the richest areas of the country. So there were many migrants coming from the south and many of their kids are now supporting independence. It’s very divided. So it’s a purely political thing.
And in general terms, I’m not very sympathetic to any kind of nationalism, so I’m not [into] Spanish nationalism, although I feel fine with the fact that I am Spanish, so I don’t have any issue related to that. But I think that nationalism and this kind of nationalistic trend in Catalonia, which is almost everywhere in every context, so is always around you in your everyday life, and particularly if you have family and if you have kids, it’s exhausting. So that is what makes me non-sympathetic to this.
Nick Wallis: So obviously the Catalonian movement is being used by the Russian government to basically do what it can to destabilize Spain.
Nico de Pedro: Yeah, well initially my hypothesis, and I think the general view back then in 2017, — which the most tense moment from a political point of view here in Catalonia — was that basically the Russians are trying to take advantage of this crisis to multiply their outrage and also to reinforce its domestic narrative, saying that: “You see, Europe is full of crises and permanently on the verge of collapse.”
So that was more or less the general impression. And it was very visceral because it was massive and there were thousands and thousands of people in the streets protesting, claiming for independence, etc. So it was something very visceral. So they were trying to take advantage of the situation. That was our impression.
But when we started to look into more detail because something attracting a lot of attention [was] the fact that they were really active online, on social media in particular. So over those days, the biggest nodes of activity were located in Russia. So the traffic was going through Russia or through Russian proxies or people that we know that are very well connected to Russian activity like Edward Snowden, who is based in Russia, or Julian Assange, or others. So that was a little bit, really surprising.
And over those days, actually, the Russian media were more relevant in terms of traffic on Twitter than Spanish local media. And that was really strange for a local crisis or for something taking place in the territory of Spain. So that was strange and raising some eyebrows. But then we started, me and a few other people, we started to look at it in more detail.
And what we found out and realized is that there was much more than meets the eye. There were a lot of different activities and a lot of, let’s say, in-person involvement of individuals connected to the Kremlin that were coming to Catalonia, and there were people from the pro-independence movement very actively searching for this support.
Nick Wallis: It’s really interesting, isn’t it, because you expect the Russians to try and interfere in the activities of Western nations, but the Catalonian politicians essentially opened the door to them, welcomed them in and tried to cut deals with them. Have they broken any laws?
Nico de Pedro: Well, that’s a very important question. It’s unclear. For that we need more like a judicial investigation. The penal code of Spain says that if you meet with foreign services in order to destabilize Spain or attack the Spanish constitution, etc., that can be considered as treason. So, yes, there is a high possibility that they committed treason, those local Catalan pro-independence leaders.
Nick Wallis: How do ordinary Catalans feel about the exposure of Russian interference in what they believed was a pretty straightforward independence process, especially given what’s been happening in Ukraine and Russia? Russia is now clearly and very visibly an enemy of the West.
Nico de Pedro: This issue has raised more reaction outside of Spain than in Spain itself. So in Brussels, both at the E.U. level and NATO level, and in the main NATO capitals, I know for sure that this issue has raised significant attention and concern.
So here inside Spain and in Catalonia in particular, initially public opinion was in denial. Everyone thought that this was too far-fetched and people were basically not thinking this could be because there was one big misunderstanding since the very beginning, and still today some people don’t get it. They were basically wondering: “But why [would] the Russians support Catalan independence?”
And many people were thinking they also have some problems inside Russia similar to this in Chechnya or others, some regions that want to detach from the Russian Federation. And that’s a mistake because Russia was not intervening in Catalonia because they were thinking this is a normative thing, a normative intervention, or because they thought that the Catalan pro-independence movement is legitimate or not, or the claim for self-determination is right or not.
That was not the case. For them this was attractive because it had the potential to destabilize an E.U. and NATO member. So they were looking at it with interest as a crisis that could potentially break up one important country of the E.U. and NATO alliance. So that was attractive to them. But in principle, public opinion in Spain and in Catalonia in particular were more or less in denial or taking this as a joke and basically mocking those like me researching and saying that: “Hey, guys, this is happening and this might be serious.”
Nick Wallis: That’s really interesting, especially in the light of the invasion of Ukraine.
Nico de Pedro: Yeah, that changed a bit later on with time and some people started to realize that we have seen that the Russians are aggressive now, maybe there was some reality [to the Russian interference in Catalonia]. And then it’s interesting because those who are in the pro-independence media, academia, think tanks, etc., they moved very quickly from taking this as a joke or laughing at those like me and researching and raising the issue publicly, to saying things like: “Everyone talks to the Russians. That’s what we have to do. Because if you are aspiring to have an independent state, once we have an independent state, we will talk to everyone, and Russia is a member of the United Nations as a state, so what’s the problem?”
And at the same time, Russia is investing in far-right groups and all kinds of groups across Spain. So like elsewhere, they’re investing or nurturing relations with many different and confronting actors. And then the people get confused. So how come Russia can be supporting the pro-independence [groups] while at the same time they have such strong links with certain people from the far-right groups? And for those who are familiar with how Russia operates. It’s not surprising.
Nick Wallis: My thanks to Nico de Pedro, senior research fellow at the Institute for Statecraft. Thanks also before him to Antonio Baquero, Marc Marginedas and Lorenzo Bagnoli. If you want to read their OCCRP investigation into the relationship between Catalan leaders and the Russian state, it’s called: “Fuelling Secession, Promising Bitcoins: How a Russian Operator Urged Catalonian Leaders to Break with Madrid.”
When asked to comment, Sadovnikov strongly denied having any connection to the Russian government or any intelligence agencies, or offering anything to the Catalonians. He acknowledged that he had traveled to Barcelona in late October 2017 and had been taken to a meeting by a friend, but said he didn’t really know who was present because he doesn’t speak Spanish.
Regarding this alleged corrupt plot, Terradellas denied that the foundations that received the subsidies from the Diputación served as a way of diverting public funds. Carles Puigdemont did not respond to our request for comment about the contents of this podcast and we were unable to make contact with Jordi Sardà Bonvehí about the points raised.
Dirty Deeds: Tales of Global Crime and Corruption was produced by Lindsay Riley, with research by Phoebe Adler-Ryan and Riham Moussa at Rethink Audio. The series is a Little Gem production for OCCRP. Please don’t forget to like, follow. and subscribe. My name is Nick Wallis. Goodbye.