To his neighbours in the quiet Salzburg suburb of Elsbethen, Martin Möller cut a low-key figure. Residents describe him as a mild-mannered, kind man who drove a second-hand Renault and had owned the same modest flat for 30 years. Asked if he led a lavish lifestyle, one neighbour recalled that he had once bought a camper van.
But in late 2018, their assumptions were challenged. Their 72-year-old neighbour was charged with selling state secrets to Russia and subsequently found guilty on three counts: of betraying state secrets, of helping a foreign intelligence organisation to Austria’s detriment, and of divulging military secrets.
Whilst the case is well-known throughout Austria, the details are not. The trial was held behind closed doors and Möller is referred to in the Austrian press as MM and pictured with a pixelated face.
He was only jailed for three years – less than a third of the maximum potential sentence – and was then released immediately in light of the time he had already spent on remand. Whilst some sceptics questioned whether the seemingly soft punishment was a favour to Russia, it prompted neighbours to conclude that the married father of three was just "a small fish" in the espionage world.
However, The Telegraph can now disclose that far from being small fry, Möller is believed to have passed information directly to the elite GRU "Unit 29155" – an organisation allegedly tasked with destabilising Europe and with foreign assassinations such as the Salisbury attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia
Credit: EAST2WEST NEWS
It is the same unit thought to have been behind two attempts to poison Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev in 2015 and an attempted coup in Montenegro a year later, which aimed to assassinate the then prime minister on election day and replace him with pro-Russia, anti-Nato leadership.
European security sources believe the potential death count linked to Möller’s espionage is considerable.
It is their working assumption that information Möller passed on to the unit informed its decision to use a Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury – a move which led to the death of Dawn Sturgess, an ordinary British citizen, and put many other members of the public in danger.
Möller’s intelligence is also thought to have played a part in its activities with the Taliban in Afghanistan, helping to plan operations near Bagram that killed hundreds of Afghans and three US marines.
Möller has admitted passing information to a contact, and receiving money from him, but his lawyer said on Friday that the retired Austrian colonel regarded allegations that he passed secret information to the Russians, or that the information could have led to the loss of lives, as "pure fiction and fantasy".
"The information given had no practical value and only had to do with the situation in Austria, which was the only point of interest to the person of contact. What he did with this information is completely unknown to the colonel but he is sure that this could not have done any harm to anyone," the lawyer, Michael Hofer, said.
Möller’s spying career spanned more than 25 years, predating Unit 29155’s presumed inception by more than a decade. But his alleged interactions with the unit are believed to have gone right to the top.
Amongst the "dozens" of GRU representatives Möller is thought to have met up were Andrei Averyanov, the unit’s commander, and Eduard Shishmakov, another notorious member who was last year convicted and sentenced to 15 years in jail in absentia for his role in the failed Montenegro coup.
According to reports, he would meet GRU operatives in all of the countries that border Austria, allegedly borrowing a car from his mistress. Now in her 70s, her testimony was key in the investigation that brought Möller to trial. Her identity has been kept secret for fear of reprisals.
Möller claimed, via his lawyer, that he had never heard the two men’s names, that he did not know anything about Unit 29155 and that he only ever met with one contact. He also denied driving to meetings in his mistress’s car.
According to Slovakian newspaper Dennik N, Möller spent days holed up in hotel suites with his handler, trading secrets over copious amounts of vodka, with staff at the Panorama Hotel in Slovakia’s High Tatras mountains reportedly removing several empty bottles at a time.
Afterwards, he was seen by hotel staff digging into a package of bank notes. On other occasions, he reportedly met GRU officials near Bratislava, once relaying stolen information over a meal at a restaurant on the banks of the Danube.
A number of GRU officials would have been required to ensure the meetings went undetected. However, they were not completely successful. Möller was eventually caught after European intelligence personnel hunting down the network behind the Skripal attack observed him accepting nearly €30,000 (£27,000) from his Russian handler, the GRU military service agent Igor Egorovich Zaytsev.
Igor Egorovich Zaytsev
British intelligence has declined to comment on reports in the Austrian press that it was the source of the original tip-off. In July, Austria’s Wochenblick news site published an interview with the convicted Möller, in which he claimed that shortly before his arrest he was invited to a café by a British official.
There, he was reportedly persuaded to hand over various pieces of apparatus in the belief that he would be helping the legal defence of a Russian friend, "Yuri", he had met in Tehran in the 1980s. Möller insisted in the interview that he did not realise he was doing anything wrong and that he now regrets "being naive".
Möller’s lawyer claimed that he had forged a friendship with a Russian military attaché which, over the years, had developed into a "sort of business relationship" where the Russian would pay Möller for information.
However, Möller’s lawyer told The Telegraph outside court that Möller had only ever shared data that was already in the public domain, in the manner of a "foreign correspondent". "The payment was not significant. It works out as roughly €930 (£835) per month – would you sell state secrets for that amount?" he added.
It is a narrative that has certainly won over residents of Möller’s apartment block.
"Anyone can read a newspaper and give you information from it," said one neighbour, Walter Rautzenberg, brandishing a newspaper. "Here: ‘Sale starts in March’." He added: "I don’t think he made any money. He had no need to. He never spent money on anything… he lived a simple life."
But European security sources believe that even the hundreds of thousands of euros that Möller has admitted to accepting was a fraction of the money he made, and the notion that he only ever passed on public information a wild mischaracterisation.
Instead, an agent going by the code name Nyetimber claims that Möller used his army status to give Russia detailed knowledge of the inner workings of Nato, with potentially grave consequences for all of its members including Britain.
Whilst Austria is not itself a Nato member, it is part of the "Partnership for Peace" programme which aims to engender closer ties – and inter-operability – between Nato and different nations’ armed forces so that they can undertake joint operations.
Every two years, the partnership was subject to a "planning and review process" in which Möller was directly involved and for which he had security clearance up to the level of "secret" – granting him ready access to working groups, "standardisation agreements" and other key documentation.
From 2008 to his retirement in November 2013, he was involved in the programme, and from 2009 he was the main point of contact between Austria and Nato for the Counter-Improvised Explosive Devices Group.
According to European security sources, he was also the point of contact for the Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defence Capability Development Group – something he denies.
They have also speculated that Russia may have directed his career choices to manoeuvre him into that position – although Möller claims that he had always intended to remain in the tank battalion until he got orders from the Austrian army to move.
As part of the CIEDG, Möller would have had access to the technical details of the military armour Nato forces used, their security procedures, and – importantly – their capabilities when it came to tackling improvised explosive devices.
European security sources assume that he handed over all of the information to which he had access from 2008 – something Möller vehemently denies – but which would have given Russia knowledge of any potential weaknesses in the Nato forces’ defences, especially in Nato’s operations in Afghanistan, one of the main focuses of the CIEDG’s work.
At the time, the GRU is believed to have been working with the Taliban to undermine the US and Nato forces in Afghanistan. According to the New York Times, US security officials believe that Unit 29155 was paying the Taliban bounties for killing coalition troops – using a middleman in Afghanistan to send them rewards of up to $100,000 for every American or coalition soldier slain.
US intelligence agencies are reportedly investigating links to the deaths of three US marines in what appeared to be a targeted car bomb attack in April 2019. There is no evidence that Möller led the GRU directly to the three marines, but European security sources believe that the information he handed over would have fed into Russian operations that targeted US military and killed hundreds of Afghan citizens.
A European security source said: "It is highly likely that what he said would have led to the deaths of individuals. The scale of the damage he caused is unknown."
It is thought that Möller’s security breaches would have also given Russia a deep understanding of which chemical weapons Nato countries were aware of and had defences against – enabling the GRU to select poisons that were relatively unknown to carry out assassinations.
It is the working assumption of European security sources that details passed on by Möller informed Unit 29155’s planning for two attacks on Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev in 2015, with an organophosphate poison, and the attempted poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury three years later.
It is now well-established that the GRU targeted Skripal with Novichok. Both he and his daughter Yulia fell into comas but ultimately survived. Dawn Sturgess was less fortunate. She and her boyfriend came across a perfume bottle that had been thrown away, which contained Novichok poison. She sprayed it on her wrist and died eight days later.
Shortly after the attack, Sir Mark Sedwill, the former National Security Adviser, told Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, that it was “highly likely” that the Novichok family of nerve agents were first developed specifically "to prevent detection by the West and to circumvent international chemical weapons control".
They came out of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, but according to Sir Mark’s letter, modern-day Russia is known to have "produced and stockpiled small quantities" since around 2010.
European security sources point to the recent poisoning of Russian opposition candidate Alexei Navalny by a substance that German experts have reportedly identified as being part of the Novichok family.
After the Skripal incident, the British Government publicly accused Russia of attempted murder and expelled diplomats from the UK. In a show of support for Britain, 28 other EU countries followed suit.
Austria was not amongst them. Instead, the country’s chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, and the then foreign minister, Karin Kneissl, issued a statement saying that they wanted to keep the channels of communication to Russia open and to act as a "bridge" between Russia and the West.
Shortly afterwards, Ms Kneissl invited Vladimir Putin to her wedding as a guest of honour and danced with him in front of television cameras. By that point, Britain’s Western allies were deeply concerned by Austria’s closeness with Russia.
Austrian foreign minister Karin Kneissl and Russian president Vladimir Putin dance during her wedding in Styria, Austria, on August 18, 2018
Credit: Roland Schlager/AFP
Given this backdrop, Möller’s arrest by Austrian authorities stunned the European security world. It also introduced a distinct froideur into Russian-Austrian relations – such that, just a few months after her dance with Putin, Ms Kneissl cancelled a trip to Moscow.
Sources have questioned whether Möller’s short sentence indicates that Austria is eager to cosy up to Russia once more but, in European security circles, his successful conviction is regarded as a very significant win.
Additional reporting by Jörg Luyken