Exclusive: US and Germany foiled Russian plot to assassinate CEO of arms manufacturer

In World




CNN
 — 

US intelligence discovered earlier this year that the Russian government planned to assassinate the chief executive of a powerful German arms manufacturer that has been producing artillery shells and military vehicles for Ukraine, according to five US and western officials familiar with the episode.

The plot was one of a series of Russian plans to assassinate defense industry executives across Europe who were supporting Ukraine’s war effort, these sources said. The plan to kill Armin Papperger, a white-haired goliath who has led the German manufacturing charge in support of Kyiv, was the most mature.

When the Americans learned of the effort, they informed Germany, whose security services were then able to protect Papperger and foil the plot. A high-level German government official confirmed that Berlin was warned about the plot by the US.

For more than six months, Russia has been carrying out a sabotage campaign across Europe, largely by proxy. It has recruited local amateurs for everything from arson attacks on warehouses linked to arms for Ukraine to petty acts of vandalism — all designed to stymie the flow of weapons from the West to Ukraine and blunt public support for Kyiv.

But the intelligence suggesting that Russia was willing to assassinate private citizens underlined to Western officials just how far Moscow was willing to go in a parallel shadow war it is waging across the west.

Papperger was an obvious target: His company, Rheinmetall, is the largest and most successful German manufacturer of the vital 155mm artillery shells that have become the make-or-break weapon in Ukraine’s grinding war of attrition. The company is opening an armored vehicle plant inside of Ukraine in the coming weeks, an effort that one source familiar with the intelligence said was deeply concerning to Russia. After a series of gains earlier this year, Moscow’s war effort has once again stalled amid redoubled Ukrainian defenses and punishing losses in personnel.

Employees work at a production line as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Defence Minister Boris Pistorius attend the groundbreaking ceremony for a new munitions factory of German defense contractor Rheinmetall on February 12 in Unterluess, Germany.

The series of plots, not previously reported, helps explain the increasingly strident warnings from NATO officials about the seriousness of the sabotage campaign — one that some senior officials believe risks crossing the threshold into armed conflict in eastern Europe.

“We’re seeing sabotage, we’re seeing assassination plots, we’re seeing arson. We’re seeing things that have a cost in human lives,” a senior NATO official told reporters on Tuesday. “I believe very much that we’re seeing a campaign of covert sabotage activities from Russia that have strategic consequences.”

The National Security Council declined to comment on the existence of the Russian plot and the US warning to Germany. But, NSC spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement, “Russia’s intensifying campaign of subversion is something that we are taking extremely seriously and have been intently focused on over the past few months.

“The United States has been discussing this issue with our NATO Allies, and we are actively working together to expose and disrupt these activities,” she said. “We have also been clear that Russia’s actions will not deter Allies from continuing to support Ukraine.”

The Germany Embassy in Washington declined to comment.

CNN has also asked the Russian embassy in Washington for comment.

A spokesman for Rheinmetall, Oliver Hoffman, declined to comment.

“The necessary measures are always taken in regular consultation with the security authorities,” Hoffman said.

Russia’s sabotage campaign has been a major point of discussion among NATO officials gathered in Washington for the bloc’s 75th anniversary summit. NATO has sought to improve intelligence sharing across the alliance so that the nations will be able to connect the dots between what otherwise might appear to be disparate criminal activities unique to their own country.

But the campaign — and in particular Russia’s willingness to take lethal action against European citizens on foreign soil — has raised difficult questions about how the alliance should respond. In theory under Article 5, an armed attack on a NATO member state is an attack on all.

Russia’s sabotage campaign has, at times, smacked of a shotgun approach carried out by amateurs. Some of the crimes linked to the campaign have not had obvious links to the conflict in Ukraine; Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk publicly suggested that a fire at an IKEA in Lithuania could have been the work of Russia, for example. In Poland, CNN has reported, a Ukrainian man was recruited over Telegram by a Russian handler he never met in person and was paid just $7 to spray anti-war graffiti. Later, he was asked to plant surveillance cameras and burn down the fence of a Ukrainian-owned transportation company.

Some analysts have referred to the effort as a “hybrid” campaign, one that uses non-military tools like propaganda, deception and sabotage. But US and European officials are gradually hardening against defining Russia’s sabotage efforts that way.

“I fundamentally reject the idea that what we’re seeing is a hybrid campaign from Russia. There are hybrid elements of it. When I think of ‘hybrid’, I think of … defacing monuments,” the senior NATO official said. “Things that meet that traditional definition of ‘below the threshold of armed conflict.’”

Because Russia is recruiting operatives to carry out arson and plotting assassinations — lethal action — “I’m not as confident that those all fall below this threshold that ‘hybrid’ implies,” the official said.

It was not clear whether the intelligence related to Rheinmetall suggested Russia intended to kill Papperger directly or hire a local proxy.

Other Russian efforts have been far more serious than spraying a little graffiti or vandalizing a diplomat’s car: US military bases across Europe were placed on a heightened state of alert last week for the first time in a decade after the US received intelligence that Russian-backed actors were considering carrying out sabotage attacks against US military personnel and facilities, multiple sources familiar with the matter told CNN.

In April, two German-Russian nationals were arrested for allegedly plotting bomb and arson attacks on targets including US military facilities on behalf of Russia.

In London in March, several men were charged with working with Russian intelligence services to set fire to a Ukrainian-linked warehouse. Poland is investigating whether an arson attack that destroyed Warsaw’s largest mall in May was connected to Russia and has arrested nine people in connection with Russia-linked acts of sabotage, the prime minister said in May. And French authorities last month detained a Russian-Ukrainian man who was allegedly building bombs as part of a sabotage campaign orchestrated by Moscow.

Drone view of the Marywilska 44 shopping centre burning during a massive fire in Warsaw, Poland, on May 12, 2024.

“They’re doing it now because they believe that as there are a number of elections happening throughout the west, that this is a prime opportunity to try to undermine public support for Ukraine,” the senior NATO official said.

The official also said that Russia sees a window of opportunity before additional weapons and ammunition promised by the west arrive on the battlefield in Ukraine.

For Russia, this “is a prime time to target the west in these types of operations to try to undermine support and prevent the flow of weapons there.”

CNN’s Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.



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