'Absolutely Controlled MP'
Documents Link AfD Parliamentarian To Moscow
Political scientist Stefan Meister, an expert on Russia at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a think tank affiliated with the Green Party, argues that Moscow is exploiting a strategy of political infiltration both internationally and domestically when, for example Russian narratives are suddenly being conveyed in the Bundestag and when a member of the German parliament who has the authority of a public mandate declares the annexation of Crimea to be legitimate. "On Russian television, one gets the feeling that the AfD is the most important party in Germany."
The overall goal, Meister says, is to split the European Union, so that Russia can be in a better negotiating position with the West. "We are not talking about some planned coup," he said, "Russia views this as a security strategy."
Anyone who believes Moscow is following a firm plan is wrong, he argues. "That's not actually how modern Russia works," says Mark Garleotti of the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank. The historian describes it as being more like "controlled chaos" in which the Kremlin communicates very broad political goals. They are often conveyed via state television, whose programs suggest what is currently important to the political leadership. Then diplomats, journalists, oligarchs, PR experts and secret service agents, among others, try to implement those goals.
They embark on projects and initiatives to curry the favor of the presidential administration -- a bit of private entrepreneurship at the heart of the state. In this chaos, it is often hard to distinguish between what remains purely theoretical and what is implemented. This allows "plausible deniability": The Kremlin can deny ever having had anything to do with a proposed action, since it could purely have been a private initiative.
The bundle of emails makes it clear, however, that the AfD is especially central to one high-profile Russian project, "election observance." Foreign representatives of pro-Russian parties are often brought in, at the Russians' expense, as observers for important elections seen as controversial in the international community. The goal is to use the observers' presence to establish the legitimacy of the votes. These trips have nothing to do with the official election-monitoring mandate of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
In early 2018, former Russian attaché Bisslinger, who by that point was working at the Foreign Ministry in Moscow and had worked as Putin's personal translator during conversations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, tried to recruit politicians for these dubious missions. He approached lawmakers from the CDU, the center-left Social Democrats and the pro-business Free Democrats with whom he had established contacts during his time in Berlin to observe the Russian presidential election in March 2018.
Dubious Election Observation Missions
Bisslinger offered two versions of the trip: "Only Moscow," or a multiday package "including travel to Russian regions." The diplomat even claimed that "a meeting of the foreign election observers with Vladimir Putin is planned." Most of the people he wrote to turned down the offer, but people like the head of the "Prussian Society," a pro-Russian group, accepted it ("It was a great honor and pure pleasure for me").
The group that accepted the offer included a scholar who accuses the German media of biased reporting on Russia. In her emails, she revealed the primary purpose of these kinds of trips for Russia: For participants to claim in the media that Putin is a flawless democrat.
"I trust that my Russian friends will follow through on what they said to me," the media scholar wrote after her return, as she asked for reimbursement for the costs of her trip. "On my end, I have kept my word." As proof, she sent an interview of herself with RT Deutsch in which she had argued that it had been a clean election.
The questionable election-observation missions appear to be coordinated in Russia. Shortly before the election in March, a diplomat sent a detailed Excel worksheet with over 80 names. "Colleagues, good day!" he wrote. "As promised, I'm sending the list of the observers sorted by region. I am reminding you of the need to prepare a program so that the observers have the opportunity to give interviews to the media."
According to the email, the observers included countless right-wing populists from Italy's Lega Nord, the right-wing populist Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), France's Front National and from the AfD.
The list of 24 men and women assigned to observe elections in the annexed Crimea, apparently to create the appearance of democratic normality there as well, was particularly sensitive. These included pro-Russian AfD lawmaker Ulrich Oehme and journalist Manuel Ochsenreiter, editor-in-chief of the right-wing radical magazine "Zuerst!" who was until recently one of Markus Frohnmaier's employees in the Bundestag. A set part of the schedule: A welcome by a state media outlet at Simferopol airport.
Moscow was well aware just how valuable the visit of allegedly neutral observers to the Crimea could be. Even the most pro-Russian politicians and celebrities in the West have been avoiding trips to the region, which was annexed in violation of international law. Even self-proclaimed Putin fan Gérard Depardieu, who holds a Russia passport, has thus far declined invitations to visit the Crimea.
AfD member Frohnmaier, for his part, preferred to observe the 2018 presidential election directly in the capital of Moscow and was more than satisfied with what he saw. "I had the impression that people were in good moods as they went to the polls," he told the pro-Kremlin radio broadcaster Sputnik. "A large majority of the people went to the polls to elect Vladimir Putin, which is what ultimately happened. We didn't see anything untoward."
The 'Battle Dwarf'
Why Frohnmaier is such an important parliamentarian when it comes to Russian interests can be explained by his background and by his rapid climb within his party. He was born in 1991 in Romania before being adopted out of an orphanage as a small child and growing up in rural southwestern Germany. After studying law for a few semesters in Tübingen and briefly experimenting with the right-wing extremist German Defense League, he ended up with the AfD in 2013, the year of the party's founding.
He quickly climbed the party ranks despite his tender age of just 22 and became part of the party's inner leadership circle. As head of the party's youth chapter, he was chosen by Frauke Petry to be her spokesman and protégé after she rose to become party leader in 2015. She even took to calling Frohnmaier, who is just 1.70 meters (5' 6") tall, her "battle dwarf."
When it became clear that Petry wasn't going to survive in her leadership position, Frohnmaier switched his allegiances to Alice Weidel, who was the AfD's lead candidate in German general elections at the time. Once the AfD moved into German parliament following the vote, Weidel nominated Frohnmaier for a leadership position in the AfD parliamentary group but was unsuccessful. Still today, a Weidel quote can be found on Frohnmaier's website, reading: "Despite his youth, he has a lot of experience."
AfD parliamentary group head Alice Weidel with her former spokesman Frohnmaier
The most important political lesson learned by Frohnmaier was likely that provocation is the most successful recipe available to the right-wing populists. And he quickly began outdoing most of his party colleagues with radical slogans. He enjoys, he says, "placing his middle finger on the Zeitgeist." On one occasion, he said it was the duty of German citizens to "put a stop to deadly 'knife-migration.'" Another time, he demanded the imposition of an 8 p.m. curfew on all male asylum-seekers younger than 50 as a way of protecting German women. In an interview with a right-wing magazine, he said: "Our generation will primarily suffer from the fact that Merkel has flooded this country with the lower classes from Africa and the Orient." By virtue of such statements, he earned 16 entries in the material collected by the German domestic intelligence BfV about the AfD and contributed to the agency's decision to place the party's youth chapter under observation.
A Fondness for Russia
The political up-and-comer is of particular interest to the Russians primarily because he is more open than most AfD politicians about his fondness for Russia. He has visited the separatist regions of eastern Ukraine, stopped over with right-wing groups in Belgrade and called on Putin's neo-fascist thinker Alexander Dugin in St. Petersburg. He would often bring his friend Manuel Ochsenreiter along on such trips. Early on, Frohnmaier established a relationship with then-Russian parliamentarian Robert Schlegel and with the Young Guard of United Russia, the youth wing of the pro-Putin party.
On his trips to Putin's vassals, Frohnmaier has always been able to count on being welcomed with open arms, despite his young age and limited influence. In March 2015, for example, he was a guest at the Russian Embassy in Paris, after which he posted photos on his website of the massive fireplaces, gold-framed mirrors and sparkling chandeliers -- a young politician from rural Germany surrounded by Tolstoy-esque pomp.
Frohnmaier also met with Vladimir Yakunin in Paris, who was president of the Russian railway company at the time and who has long been a confidante of Putin's. Afterward, the AfD politician gushed about his encounter with this "giant of international politics." What he didn't mention was that the U.S. placed Yakunin on its sanctions list following the annexation of the Crimea. "For the young AfD politician, things like the 'Western community of values,' the 'trans-Atlantic alliance' or other obscure phrases play no role whatsoever," enthused his right-wing radical friend Ochsenreiter in a profile for the far-right publication Zuerst!. In the article, he also told the story of how Frohnmaier's name had been misspelled at a conference in St. Petersburg to read "Frontmaier."
Given his affinity for Russia, his proactive networking and the ambition he has shown within an equally ambitious right-wing party, it is hardly surprising that senior members of the Moscow power apparatus took an interest in Frohnmaier.
The milieu into which the AfD politician was slowly pulled into was striking. It is one that didn't just include verbose PR consultants, business leaders and pro-Putin politicians, but also men who had been accused of involvement in arson attacks and Russian overseas spying operations. It isn't clear whether Frohnmaier understood who he was dealing with. But even if he thought of these people as friends, it seems likely that they primarily valued him for his political utility.
One place where a particularly large number of people from Frohnmaier's circle meet is in Yalta, located on the southern coast of the Crimea Peninsula. Frohnmaier's first visit to Yalta took place in spring 2016 to attend the Yalta International Economic Forum, one of Russia's largest economic conferences. The annual event enjoys the support of Putin's office and is intended to attract investors from around the world, including from the West -- a rather difficult prospect since the levying of sanctions in 2014. That, of course, has made it even more important to ensure that Western visitors attend the conference, and the Russian state sometimes even subsidizes their entire travel costs.
The trip was worth it for Frohnmaier, and not just politically: In Yalta, he met a Russian journalist who wrote for the pro-government newspaper Izvestia. "I saw her and thought to myself, she's the one," Frohnmaier said in October 2016. And he did, in fact, go on to marry the journalist, whose name is Daria.
'Foreign Policy Activities'
A group photo that was taken in Yalta in 2016 shows Frohnmaier in a blue suit surrounded by 11 other people, including an AfD party colleague and two Russians who will later be involved with exactly those emails in which Frohnmaier was declared to be a Moscow puppet.
The decisive email arrived at the Presidential Administration in Moscow on April 3, 2017. It reads like a rather stiffly formulated business plan of the kind a start-up might use to attract investors.
"Dear Sergei Alexandrovich! I am sending you the information for possible inclusion in the report for Alexander Leonidovich," it reads.
Attached to the email was a six-page document with the title "Foreign Policy Activities." And it reads like a brochure for top-quality propaganda work.
The authors of the document were seeking to organize demonstrations in the EU as a way of discrediting persons who "stand in opposition to the foreign policy trends of the Russian Federation." Other rallies should work toward "the lifting of anti-Russian sanctions," the document notes. The idea was that of inviting 15 largely right-wing parties and groups to an "informal platform," including Lega Nord and the Five Star Movement from Italy, Front National from France, the British National Party and, from Germany, the AfD, the neo-Nazi party NPD and the Islamophobic PEGIDA movement.
The strategy also called for representing Kremlin interests in European institutions by, for example, establishing contacts with various political parties and "successfully supporting resolutions in the national parliaments of EU member states."
For German readers, the document becomes particularly interesting at the spot where four already "active measures" are presented. The heading to item four reads: "Bundestag (September 24)."
It continues in the style of a telegram:
"Candidate: Markus Frohnmaier Place: Bundestag Chances of being elected to the Bundestag: high Required: support in the election campaign."
The authors of the document promised that a precise campaign plan would be delivered the following week. The desired result of the project: "We will have our own absolutely controlled MP in the Bundestag." Another hope was that it would become easier to establish NGOs. Both the sender and the recipient of the email were civil servants in Putin's apparatus.
The mail was sent by a man named Pyotr Grigoryevich Premyak, at first glance just the staffer of a Duma backbencher from the Siberian city of Omsk who focuses on housing issues. But Premyak's resumé and his various social media accounts reveal that he is more than just a simple desk jockey. He used to be a member of the Council of the Federation, the upper house of Russian parliament. Before that, he served on the Kamchatka Peninsula, where he is from, as the head of counterespionage for a fleet stationed there. In other words, he is a former secret service agent.
The recipient of his email was a high-ranking official in the foreign policy section of the Presidential Administration. Premyak requested that he send the information from the document to a higher level of the hierarchy, to a man named Alexander Leonidovich Manzhosin.
At that time, Manzhosin had been head of foreign policy for the Presidential Administration for 13 years and was, in 2017, still an important foreign policy adviser to Putin, along with the foreign minister and Putin's own team of advisers. In other words, the mail was moving from one important decision-maker to the next. But who actually wrote the strategy paper and the assessment of Frohnmaier?
When asked by a reporter from ZDF, Pyotr Premyak admitted to having sent the email, but said the attached document did not originate with him. He said he often forwards communication onward without spending much time studying their content.
The document mentions a company called Hemingway Partners, and a company by this name is registered to the mother of a well-known Moscow political PR consultant. And there is a connection to Frohnmaier through her son Sargis Mirzakhanian: Both are in the group photo made in Crimea and both Frohnmaier and his wife Daria can be seen in Mirzakhanian's wedding photos. But Mirzakhanian denies having written the strategy paper.
There is also an additional connection from the document to Frohnmaier: Another Russian who was mentioned in the email to the Presidential Administration is a friend of Mirzakhanian from his university days who is also in the photo taken in Yalta. In a meeting in Moscow, the man, who is just starting a career in diplomacy, said that he had heard of the document and had met Frohnmaier. But his answers became vague and contradictory once the questions became more detailed. He said that he doesn't believe that the Kremlin had accepted the strategy paper.
A Disastrous Document
The document is nevertheless disastrous for Frohnmaier. According to the German constitution, members of the Bundestag are "not bound by orders or instructions" and are "responsible only to their conscience." Yet Frohnmaier is apparently seen as being under the complete control of foreign actors.
It isn't the first time that Frohnmaier has come under suspicion of being dependent on the Russians. Indeed, he himself has fed such suspicions. In April 2016, back when he was still studying law, he told the German daily Die Welt that he earns his living as a "political analyst." He declined to say who he worked for, adding that his employer valued discretion. Then, when a reporter from DER SPIEGEL accompanied him to Moscow in 2016, Frohnmaier spoke of a planned meeting with a representative of Putin's Presidential Administration. However, that meeting got cancelled.
Just recently, the German public broadcaster ARD and the news website T-online.de reported that Frohnmaier had been named to the organizational committee of the Yalta forum. It is a body that also includes two high-ranking members of the Russian secret service FSB. Could Frohnmaier's link to the Kremlin be closer than he wants to admit?
A second document hints that it might be. In the strategy paper that was sent to the Presidential Administration on April 3, 2017, it was promised that a "detailed campaign program will be received at the end of next week." And indeed, such a document was created eight days after the email with the strategy paper attached. It was called "Frohnmaier election campaign / action plan (draft)."
DER SPIEGEL is in possession of the one-and-a-half-page Word document. It was not part of the trove of documents provided by the Dossier Center. Rather, a high-ranking secret service agent from an EU member state provided the document to the BBC, which then shared it with DER SPIEGEL and other partners.
The author of the "Action Plan" to assist Frohnmaier makes no effort to conceal what the effort is about. "For the election campaign, we urgently would need some support," the document states. "Besides material support, we would need media support as well to put Frohnmaier in 'pole position' for foreign policy in the future party faction," it says. "Any type of interviews, reports and opportunities to appear in the Russian media is helpful for us."
If things really did play out as the documents seem to indicate, the effort alone would be extremely dubious. But if money changed hands and that money was spent by Frohnmaier's campaign, it would likely violate German campaign law. Through his lawyer, Markus Frohnmaier has vehemently denied such suspicions. He says he neither requested nor received such assistance. The lawyer said that his client "knew nothing" about the "alleged document."
Quid Pro Quo
The document can be interpreted such that the Russians were expecting quid pro quo, a potpourri of political activities advancing Kremlin interests. During the campaign, the candidate would promote "good relations with the Russian Federation," the document promised, and he would criticize "EU interference in Russian domestic politics." Frohnmaier would also, the document stated, emphasize his anti-LGBT position.
Upon being elected to the Bundestag, the document indicated that he would "immediately start operating in the foreign policy field," including accompanying delegations to Crimea and Donbass. Furthermore, he would frequently make himself available to the Russian media.
The campaign "action plan" isn't signed, isn't dated and is not printed on letterhead. But intelligence experts confirm that a lack of such identifying features is quite standard for comparable documents. The document's authenticity is supported by the fact that many of the activities described did in fact take place as described or in a similar manner. One major event described in the document, for example, was an appearance with Johann Gudenus, who at the time was the deputy mayor of Vienna for the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). The plan called for it to take place in the community center in Jettingen, located just southwest of Stuttgart. Frohnmaier himself helped publicize the event, and it ultimately took place -- though without the participation of Gudenus.
Frohnmaier also continued his trips to the east as an election observer and his rhetoric remained staunchly pro-Russia. As a parliamentarian, he has continually criticized the sanctions on Russia and has defended Putin's activities in Crimea, in Ukraine and in Syria. He did not, however, end up with a slot on the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Bundestag, with members of the AfD parliamentary group ultimately choosing someone else.
What is missing is a Russian response to the request for assistance. But the document's metadata is telling. In addition to the date on which the document was last saved -- April 11, 2017 -- there is a name listed next to the word "author." The name is Manuel Ochsenreiter.
And it his here were the connection between Frohnmaier, his friend Mirzakhanian and his friend Ochsenreiter is established. Just a few days after the document was written, the two men met in Yalta, as a joint photo clearly shows. Frohnmaier himself didn't participate in the event that year.
Extremely Good Connections
The right-wing extremist commentator Ochsenreiter has extremely good connections in Russia and he isn't just a friend to Frohnmaier's. Until recently, he was also on his parliamentary staff in the Bundestag and likely exerted influence on the political positions held by the young representative. Both Frohnmaier and Ochsenreiter insist that they know nothing about the document. But how credible is that denial? Just like Sargis Mirzakhanian, Ochsenreiter could also have given in to the temptation of taking advantage of his "friendship" with the AfD representative for political gain -- even if his lawyer insisted that his client had "never sought foreign support of any kind" for Frohnmaier or any other politician. Still, it is clear that Ochsenreiter is driven by motivations that go beyond a mere German election campaign.
For Ochsenreiter, the empire of evil is to be found in the United States. His ideological mentor is the Russian neo-fascist Alexander Dugin, who the German refers to as a "fatherly friend." Dugin has a narrow face, a bushy gray beard and an extremely anti-liberal worldview. Dugin's dream is that of a Eurasian empire stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok, and he says things like: "We strengthen those forces that refuse to support this ultra-liberalism and this Americanization and this society of gays, lesbians, trans-genders and bisexuals who have lost their roots and their identities."
As early as 2015, a meeting took place between Dugin, Frohnmaier and AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland in St. Petersburg, likely arranged by Ochsenreiter. Frohnmaier insists, however, that he only held a "brief, chance exchange" with Dugin.
At the time, the Russian told German broadcaster ZDF why he was interested in the German right-wing populists: "The AfD will ascend to power in Germany; that is why they are of interest to me."
The AfD visit to Dugin could, in fact, have taken place by chance. But in April 2016, Ochsenreiter openly turned to his friend to support his interests: In Berlin, the two founded a group called the "German Center for Eurasian Studies." According to the group's official registration, the organization's goals include "election observations," precisely the project that is a central component of Russian foreign policy.
For Frohnmaier, it is compromising enough that he has attached his name to an organization that has openly dedicated itself to promulgating Kremlin propaganda. But Ochsenreiter has done his friend an even greater disservice. The organization's founding document wasn't just signed by Frohnmaier, but also by a Polish friend of Ochsenreiter's named Mateusz P., the head of a pro-Russian splinter party who has been in investigative custody in his home country for almost three years. Public prosecutors accuse him of activities as a foreign agent on behalf of the secret services of Russia and China.
German intelligence agents began monitoring Mateusz P.'s activities in Germany five years ago and they consider him to be a pro-Russian agitator who is, they believe, well paid for his activities by the Russian state. He, too, can be seen with Frohnmaier in photos from Crimea.
Extremely Dubious Circles
It is safe to say, in other words, that the AfD parliamentarian is involved in extremely dubious circles. But his friend Ochsenreiter, in the meantime, has a much larger problem: He is suspected of being behind an arson attack on a cultural center in the Ukrainian town of Uzhhorod -- an attack that was designed to create tensions of the kind welcomed by Russian foreign policy.
The cultural center in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, (in the background) after the arson attack and far-right commentator Manuel Ochsenreiter
According to the case file in a Krakow court, the defendant in the case is thought to have received money for the attack from Ochsenreiter: 500 euros in advance hidden in a book that was sent through the mail, and then 1000 euros in cash handed over later during a meeting at Tegel Airport in Berlin.
Berlin prosecutors have begun their own investigation as well on suspicions of abetment to aggravated arson and have requested judicial assistance from Poland. Ochsenreiter refuses to reply to questions about these accusations, but on Facebook, he wrote of an "absurd suspicion triggered by an obvious secret service campaign."
Through his lawyer, Ochsenreiter claimed that his friend Mateusz P., the espionage suspect, is the victim of "political oppression." The espionage accusations, the lawyer claimed on Ochsenreiter's behalf, are "completely fabricated and politically motivated." The lawyer also commented on the establishment of the Center for Eurasian Studies, noting that it was dissolved on Nov. 8, 2018. "There is no petty cash account or cash assets. As such, the organization remained idle throughout its existence."
Early last week, Markus Frohnmaier agreed to an off-the-record interview with DER SPIEGEL. But he insisted that nothing from that discussion be published. All answers to questions posed to Frohnmaier come from his lawyer.
According to that lawyer, Frohnmaier knows nothing about the email from the Kremlin or the strategy paper attached. He also said through his lawyer that he has no idea why he is referred to in the document as an "absolutely controlled MP in the Bundestag." He insisted that "at no time" has he been "under the control of any third party."
Frohnmaier also denied knowing the university friend of Mirzakhanian who was mentioned in the email, even though there is a photo showing them together. He said he was photographed with the man "by chance" during a trip to Crimea. Frohnmaier's lawyer also said the photo showing the AfD parliamentarian together with espionage suspect Mateusz P. was also taken "by chance." When the accusations against Mateusz P. became known, Frohnmaier said through his lawyer, he insisted that the German Center for Eurasian Studies -- of which both he and Mateusz P. are listed as founders -- be liquidated.
Frohnmaier's lawyer said his client was at no time engaged in political activities with Sargis Mirzakhanian, the PR consultant with ties to Putin. He said Frohnmaier never requested nor received financial support from either of the men.
Frohnmaier said through his lawyer that he also has no knowledge of the second document, the "action plan" for his election campaign. He also claimed not to know who might have penned the document. On Frohmaier's behalf, his lawyer said his client "had not requested financial or media support in this or comparable form from Russian politics, business or society."
Frohnmaier confirmed that he attended the Yalta International Economic Forum in Crimea last year and gave a speech. He said that he was reimbursed for lodging and a share of his travel costs.
After his appearance, he said he was asked if he wanted to become a member of the organizational committee. He said he expressed interest, but then heard nothing more about it. He said he wasn't aware that secret service agents were also part of the organizational committee. When he learned of these "dubious other persons," he said, he requested that forum organizers remove his name from the list.
But last week, just before this story went to print, his name could still be found on the website.
By Melanie Amann, Stephan Heffner, Martin Knobbe, Ann-Katrin Müller, Jan Puhl, Marcel Rosenbach, Alexander Sarovic, Jörg Schmitt, Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt and Anika Zeller