The Kremlin’s Football Hooligans – Another Face of Putin’s Special War

This year’s UEFA European Championship has been rocked by violence. While football hooliganism is nothing new, what happened this year appears organized as well as political. Moreover, the worst hooligans involved are Russian. Given the difficult relations at present between Moscow and the European Union, questions have arisen about what’s really going on.

First, the facts. Although UEFA expected some violence this year, what has happened exceeded all expectations. The worst incident was the England-Russia match at Marseille on June 11, which featured pre-game combat between fans. Russian “ultras” charged at English fans, injuring several, some seriously. Bottles and bar chairs were among the improvised weapons employed. The Russians seemed well prepared, with some of the “ultras” wearing mouth-guards for protection while others sported England shirts – a case of deception to assist their attack.

Then, right at the end of the match, 150 determined Russians charged the England section of the stadium, sending hundreds of fans fleeing for their lives. Police were slow to restore order, and by the time the melée ended, 35 attendees were injured, four of them seriously, including two England fans left comatose.

As shocking as the conduct of Russian “ultras” was in Marseille, the comments that followed their brawling made matters even worse. Although Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s sports minister, allowed that the “ultras” had behaved badly and had “shamed” their country, others were less willing to back down.

Some Kremlin officials greeted the Battle of Marseille with glee. A senior Russian MP tweeted his support for the rioters: “Don’t see anything wrong with the fight fans. On the contrary, well done our boys. Keep it up!”

Some Russians have found fault with allegedly effeminate French police, including this memorable jibe from a senior Kremlin police official: “A normal man, as a man should be, surprises them. They are used to seeing ‘men’ at gay parades.”

Even Vladimir Putin got in the act. Several days after the Marseille riot, Russia’s president commented at the Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, “Do you know when the football cup started there was a fight of Russian fans with the British ones, but I don’t know how 200 Russian fans could fight several thousand of the British.” Although Mr. Putin has criticized the actions of his fellow countrymen at Marseille, this statement was an unsubtle dig at England fans.

UEFA has reacted promptly to Russian misconduct. Two days after the Marseille riot, it fined Russia 150,000 Euros and issued a suspended disqualification for violence by “ultras,” adding that a repeat of such events would result in the team’s expulsion from the tournament.

However, the violence has continued, albeit not at the scale witnessed in Marseille. There have been numerous scuffles between Russian fans and others. Most seriously, Russian hooligans attacked and injured several tourists outside the famous Cologne Cathedral. Six Russians were arrested for the attack. The men were on their way to Cologne Airport to catch a flight back to Moscow. Although the attack appeared to be spontaneous, the hooligans had gloves and wore balaclavas – hardly normal attire in June.

In response to these assaults, French authorities have expelled 20 Russians on national security grounds. In addition, three Russians who participated in the Marseille riot received jail terms from a French court for their role in the violence: Aleksei Yerunov, the head of the fan club for Moscow’s Lokomotiv team, was handed two years, while Sergei Gorbachev received 1.5 years and Nikolai Morozov one year in prison.

Among the Russians deported from France is Aleksandr Shprygin, leader of the All-Russian Football Supporters Union, who is a notorious far-right thug with neo-Nazi views.  Infamous for showing off in public, sometimes with a Hitler salute – on occasion brandishing it alongside topless women for the cameras – the 38-year-old Shprygin is no stranger to Russia’s political elite and he is popular among ultranationalists for his combative antics.

There are widespread suspicions that Russian football hooliganism exported to Western Europe may be no accident. In the first place, the “ultras” do not resemble the drunken Russians who usually show up at UEFA events, sometimes causing trouble. The younger generation is fitter, seemingly preferring weightlifting to vodka, and much better trained and organized for street combat. They are also markedly more aggressive than the previous generation of Russian football hooligans.

Several of the “ultras” have boasted of military service in Eastern Ukraine in Russia’s undeclared two-year-old war in the Donbas, leading Western security services to wonder if they are connected with the Kremlin, particularly the General Staff’s Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU, which was responsible for the appearance of “Little Green Men” in Crimea in March 2014.

British intelligence suspects that GRU is indeed behind the “ultras” and that they are part of what some call Kremlin “hybrid warfare,” which I have termed Special War. This is a new generation of intelligence-led attacks on Western countries, encompassing espionage, propaganda, subversion, and even terrorism, with the presence of Kremlin operatives being camouflaged. The intent of Special War is to clandestinely influence politics in Moscow’s favor – and to send a message that Russia is not to be trifled with.

Evidence for GRU involvement is circumstantial but important. Those in the know have noted that Mr. Shprygin got his start as a fan for Dynamo, the Moscow sports club that was founded by the KGB and continues to be run by its successors. Then there’s the fact that the Russian Football Union arranged for a special charter flight to get 230 hardcore fans to the June 11 game in Marseille.

Not to mention that several of the “ultras” who reached France sported large GRU tattoos. These are distinctive, featuring the black bat which is the GRU logo. Some of the tattoos, clearly obtained as a souvenir of service, included specific unit designations while others even include the letters GRU (ГРУ in Russian).

A French intelligence official told me that several of the “ultras” were “definitely GRU, whether past or present we don’t yet know.” A BfV official added that he had “little doubt that Marseille got a visit from GRU” and that it was no accident. “So a company of SPETSNAZ [Russian military special forces, controlled by GRU] ‘suddenly’ appears in France for a football match and we’re supposed to believe it’s all by chance?” he asked.

A former GRU officer who now lives in the West agreed with that assessment, pointing out that sport was controlled by the Kremlin during Soviet times, and this is just one more aspect of life in the USSR that Vladimir Putin has resurrected. “Putin seeks to cause fear in Western Europe, and what better way than to send hardened fighters to disrupt high-profile matches?” “I remember the look that these ‘ultras’ have – lean, mean, and eager to fight – from my own time with GRU. I have no doubt who these young men are,” he added.

The worst of the Russian troublemakers have been sent home now but it appears that this is just one more secret front that Mr. Putin has opened against the West under the rubric of Special War. European football hardly needs more hooligans, but Moscow seems eager to supply them. We have likely not seen the last of GRU’s “Little Green Men” masquerading as football fans.

Edward Snowden is a Russian Agent

Three years after Edward Snowden, the American IT contractor turned global celebrity, made his media debut in Hong Kong, the truth of what really happened in this sensational affair remains elusive. The outline is clear. Snowden left his job in Hawaii with the National Security Agency in May 2013 and appeared at Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel on June 1, having made off with more than a million classified intelligence documents belonging to the American government. A few days later, Snowden appeared on camera to announce that he was lifting the top secret mask off NSA, America’s biggest and most secretive intelligence service.

Yet significant questions remain. Where was Snowden from 21 to 31 May 2013? His whereabouts in that period are unknown. Why did he choose to repeatedly visit the Russian consulate in Hong Kong, even celebrating his 30th birthday there? What did those visits have to do with his departure for Moscow on June 23rd? Last, why has Snowden never left Russia, three years after his arrival?

These issues have taken center stage in the German parliament’s special committee of inquiry into NSA activities. Is Snowden really the whistleblower he claims to be? It is odd that anyone who claims to support press freedom and personal liberty would take extended refuge in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where the population is much more tightly watched by the intelligence services than in any Western country, and where journalists who oppose the regime are harassed and even murdered.

Hans-Georg Maassen, director of Germany’s domestic intelligence service (the mouthful Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution or BfV), has waded into this controversy by stating that Snowden is likely not who he pretends to be. “This would be an espionage operation joined with an operation for disinformation and influence,” he stated: “In order to drive a wedge between the USA and its closest allies, especially Germany.” That Snowden is in fact a Russian agent “has a high degree of plausibility,” Maassen added.

Predictably, Snowden’s defenders have pretended outrage at the BfV director’s statements, although he has made them before. Two months ago, in an interview alongside Gerhard Schindler, director of Germany’s Foreign Intelligence Service or BND, Maassen explained that it was likely that the American “whistleblower” was  in reality a Kremlin agent whose actual agenda was harming his own country’s worldwide security partnerships – including with Germany — for Putin’s benefit. That the Snowden Operation has been very effective as disinformation against Western democracies goes without saying.

Such statements, taken as heresy by Snowden’s ardent fans, are uncontroversial among anyone who understands the secret world of espionage. To anybody acquainted with how Russia’s powerful intelligence services actually operate, the idea that Snowden is their collaborator is no more controversial than stating that the sun rises in the east every morning.

The proper espionage term for Edward Snowden is defector, meaning an employee of an intelligence service who takes up residence in another country whose spies are not friends. Since 1917, every single Western intelligence defector to Moscow has cooperated with the Kremlin, on grounds of quid pro quo. There is no known case of a defector not collaborating with the KGB or its successors. If you want sanctuary, you will tell the Russians everything you know. That is how the spy game works.

Any Russian intelligence officer who wants sanctuary in the United States will be required to collaborate with American spy services, including extended debriefings by multiple intelligence agencies. Are we really supposed to believe that Vladimir Putin, former KGB colonel, is more charitable?

“Of course” Snowden is collaborating with Russian intelligence, explained Oleg Kalugin more than two years ago. A legend in global spy circles, Major General Kalugin is the former head of foreign counterintelligence for the KGB’s elite First Chief Directorate. In the Cold War, Kalugin recruited moles inside American intelligence just like Edward Snowden. He is an expert witness here. Kalugin made clear that Snowden’s new life revolves around the Federal Security Service, Putin’s powerful FSB. “The FSB are now his hosts, and they are taking care of him,” he explained: “Whatever he had access to in his former days at NSA, I believe he shared all of it with the Russians, and they are very grateful.”

To anybody familiar with how Russia works, there can be no doubt that Snowden has been an agent of the Kremlin at least beginning with his arrival in Moscow three years ago. Whether he was recruited by the Russian intelligence before that is likely – as I’ve explained before, it would be highly abnormal for the FSB to grant sanctuary to an American defector they have never met – yet it remains an open question, and a very important one. Whether Snowden has collaborated with the Kremlin since June 2013, however, is not an open question.

Since joining Twitter last year, Snowden has pontificated from Moscow on a wide range of issues. In rare form, he entered the debate regarding the NSA special committee, sending out this remarkable tweet yesterday. (It says: “Whether Maassen is an agent of the SVR or FSB” – that is, Russian intelligence – “cannot currently be verified.”) Challenging the BfV director head-on with a mocking tweet is a strange turn of events in the Snowden saga. Moreover, when did Snowden learn such good German? He’s never spoken it before, much less flawlessly.

All of this leads to obvious questions among anybody familiar with Putin’s Kremlin. Western security experts have suspected that Snowden’s tweets, at least on intelligence matters, are tightly vetted by the FSB. Which would be normal for any high-priority defector. Living under what Russians call a protective “roof” (krysha) provided by the FSB means a loss of personal freedom of the kind Snowden claims he cherishes above all else.

Either Edward Snowden suddenly learned excellent German or someone in Moscow is writing “his” tweets for him. Vladimir Putin himself speaks excellent German from his time with the KGB in Dresden in the 1980s and perhaps he does not wish to see the language mangled in public.

(This article appeared in the newspaper BILD in German, you can read that version here.)