Wirecard’s dramatic implosion this summer has reverberated far beyond the global tech sector. The once-heralded German payment processing company, a jewel among European tech firms, folded suddenly in late June amid accusations of large-scale fraud and worse. Awkward questions have traveled from Wirecard’s Munich base to Berlin, in particular about what Chancellor Angela Merkel knew when she talked up the now-collapsed company.
Merkel’s staff, it turns out, was aware of potentially major problems with Wirecard before she promoted the firm during an official trip to China in September 2019. A cloud was already hovering over the firm thanks to reporting by the Financial Times earlier last year which raised suspicions of money-laundering and fraud at the heart of Wirecard’s operations.
Subsequent investigation established that Wirecard was not what it appeared to be and the firm collapsed on a dime in late June as more than $2 billion was discovered to be missing and Wirecard’s longtime CEO, the Austrian national Markus Braun, resigned in disgrace. German police arrested Braun within days on fraud charges, while the missing billions were nowhere to be found. Wirecard was flat broke while Germany’s finance minister pronounced the scandal “unparalleled in the financial world.”
In addition to the mystery of the missing billions there appeared the enigma of the missing man, namely Jan Marsalek, another Austrian, who had been with Wirecard for two decades and served as the firm’s COO since 2010. Marsalek was the core of Wirecard operations and when the firm suddenly went belly-up in late June, he disappeared.
Rumors circulated about his whereabouts – sketchy sightings proliferated worldwide – but reports now place him living in a villa outside Moscow under the protection of GRU, Russia’s unsavory military intelligence service. Reporting about Wirecard’s involvement with organized crime syndicates engaged in large-scale money-laundering appears credible, while the COO’s flight to Russia raises troubling questions about what Wirecard really was.
A major investigation, again by FT, exposed Marsalek as an odd 007-wannabe who was living parallel lives: one flying high in the tech sector, another enmeshed with international intrigue with a pronounced Russian flavor. He had particular interest in paramilitary adventures in Libya. Marsalek lived in a palatial house across the street from the Russian consulate in Munich, a known spy base, and he spent a lot of time in the company of Russians with connections to the “special services” (to use the Kremlin term for their spy agencies), especially his friend Andrei Chuprygin, whom Marsalek termed “the colonel.” Chuprygin is assessed by multiple Western intelligence agencies to be a longtime GRU affiliate.
Then there’s the matter of Marsalek’s shadowy Vienna connections. He dealt regularly with the Austrian-Russian Friendship Society (ORFG), a Kremlin front organization based in the Austrian capital that’s believed by Western counterintelligence to have close connections to Russia’s special services. Marsalek mixed business with his ORFG ties and it caused a ruckus in Vienna when it was revealed that the society’s finance secretary had illegally received classified documents originating with Austrian intelligence and security agencies from Marsalek. The finance secretary then passed them to Austria’s right-populist Freedom Party (FPÖ), which doesn’t hide its pro-Putin sympathies.
Given the FPÖ’s own strange, somewhat mysterious Moscow ties, which include a formal cooperation agreement with the Kremlin and caused the fall of Austria’s government last year as well as the career implosion of FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache in the so-called Ibiza affair, many questions arise here. Above all: how did Marsalek, who had no official position in Vienna, obtain classified information from the Austrian security service?
Vienna, which takes a broadly permissive attitude towards espionage perpetrated in Austria, has a decades-old problem with illicit Kremlin influence, by no means exclusively in the FPÖ’s ranks. New evidence continues to emerge regarding clandestine Russian string-pulling in Austria, including inside the country’s defense and security establishment.
Part of this mystery can be revealed. NATO intelligence sources tell me that a serving Austrian army general is at the center of this scandal. The general has unconcealed pro-Kremlin views, in fact he sits on the board of the Austrian-Russian Friendship Society as well as the controversial, Putin-friendly Berlin think-tank Dialog of Civilizations (the latter has successfully leveraged the Austrian military to push Kremlin propaganda under NATO auspices). The general is believed by Western counterintelligence to be the person who leaked Austrian classified information to Jan Marsalek. Since the Austrian military has problems with senior officers who turn out to be longtime GRU agents, this matter requires further investigation.