Reporters shed light on pro-Putin activists working in Germany to end support for Ukraine. Many of them not only have contacts with the Russian government, but also with the AFD and other right-wing groups.
The majority of Germans are still in favor of supporting Ukraine in the war against the invading Russian forces. But approval is falling, especially for arms deliveries. In a survey conducted by the Bertelsmann Foundation in September, only 48 percent of Germans were in favor. In June it was still 56 percent. This puts Germany below the EU average, and given the high energy prices, solidarity with Ukraine could crumble further.
Pro-Putin activists want to take advantage of this fact and make propaganda for the federal government to change course. Reuters reporters have shed light on the backgrounds of some of the leaders in the anti-Ukraine movement, uncovering revealing links to Moscow and far-right parties and groups.
Through interviews and the evaluation of posts in social networks, the journalists came across Rostislav Teslyuk, a former Russian air force officer. He has lived in Germany since 2012 and has since renamed himself Maxim Schlund. According to Reuters research, he has traveled to Russia-controlled eastern Ukraine in recent months. Also recently, a Russian government agency paid for Schlund's plane ticket to a conference with Putin as the keynote speaker.
The agency is Rossotrudnichestvo. According to Wikipedia, their official task is to promote knowledge of the Russian language abroad, to cultivate "international cultural cooperation" and to convey a "comprehensive, up-to-date picture of Russia". In addition, she is supposed to represent the interests of the Russian government in "nearby foreign countries".
Rossotrudnichestvo is sanctioned in the EU. It consolidates the activities of pro-Russian actors and disseminates the Kremlin's narratives, including historical revisionism, the statement said. Rossotrudnichestvo bears responsibility for supporting or implementing any actions or policies which undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, or the stability or security of Ukraine.
Schlund, alias Teslyuk, caught the eye of the reporters at a rally against support for Ukraine in Cologne. Also present was Andrei Kharkovsky, a member of a Cossack society supporting Moscow's invasion. Both Putin supporters did not respond to inquiries from Reuters reporters. Schlund only responded to Whatsapp with "F... off!" and "Glory to Russia!"
While Schlund stayed in the background at the demo in Cologne, his partner Elena Kolbasnikova heated up the rally with slogans like "Peace, freedom, self-determination!" on. Using flyers and social media, the couple organized the Cologne rally and a number of other pro-Russian events.
According to Reuters, the Ukrainian-born has been a celebrity in some anti-establishment circles since last year she claimed she lost her job as a nurse over alleged "Russophobia". It does not engage in propaganda by taking a clear stand in favor of the Russian invasion, but by exploiting German concerns about rising heating costs.
According to the profile on the Russian network VKontakte, Schlund studied at the Zhukovsky Military Academy, best known for training Russian cosmonauts. In photos, he occasionally poses in uniform. Kolbasnikova's brother told Reuters that Schlund served as a first lieutenant in the Russian Air Force. However, the reporters could not independently verify these details.
As of 2007, Schlund had worked for private security companies, and in 2010 a person with the same name and date of birth was given a suspended sentence in Moscow for assault. Last year he bought an apartment in Moscow.
You can see what kind of spirit Schlund and Kolbasnikova are at an event to which they invited "like-minded people" to a "day full of music, food and sport" in a banquet hall in Düsseldorf in June. The hall was decorated with flags of the Chechen leader and Putin loyalist Ramzan Kadyrov. His press minister, Akhmed Dudayev, published pictures of this on Telegram and praised the couple as "ambassadors of goodwill" who are "on the side of truth". Reuters told the ministry it had nothing to do with organizing the event.
That Schlund and Kolbasnikova aren't just worried about Germany's energy supply was demonstrated last fall by a trip to the Russian-occupied part of the Donbass to distribute aid to civilians and fighters. According to The Insider, the trip was organized by the All-Russian Popular Front (ONF) founded by Putin. A video of the trip was also shared on Facebook by Rossotrudnichestvo.
The chairwoman of the association, Kilinc, was a former member of the Left Party, from which she left in 2019. Now she takes part in activities of the German Communist Party, according to "The Insider". On May 9, she was arrested because she and the Russian ambassador unfurled a flag of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic at a wreath-laying ceremony in front of the Berlin memorial in Treptower Park.
After taking part in another demonstration in Cologne, Schlund and Kolbasnikova wanted to take part in a forum for civil society activists in Moscow co-organized by the Russian government. However, they allegedly missed their flight, which was sponsored by Russky Dom, which belongs to Rossotrudnichestvo.
A spokesman for the organization told Reuters it had been given tickets for two people to travel to the Moscow event, but declined to give their names. Schlund responded to a question on Whatsapp with "It's better for you, stupid cow, if you stay out of my sight."
Using photos on social media, Reuters also identified three security guards at the pro-Putin demonstrations in Cologne. They belong to Cossack organizations that are loyal to Putin and also send fighters to Ukraine.
One of the three security guards is Andrei Kharkovsky, who lives in Troisdorf near Cologne. Photos show an eight-pointed tattoo on his left arm, which is popular with right-wing extremists in Russia, among others. According to Reuters, the three men also have ties to the Union of Cossack Warriors of Russia, which is under EU and US sanctions. Kharkovsky can also be seen in photos in front of the flag of the Great Don Army, a Cossack organization involved in recruiting soldiers and fighting in Russia's military campaign in Ukraine.
The German-Russian real estate agent Oleg Eremenko is one of the pro-Putin propagandists in Germany. At an event hosted by the German Communist Party in Berlin at the end of August, he said that young Ukrainians were being taught to hate Russia.
The grandson of a Soviet war hero, who was a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union until 1981, sits on the board of the "Desant" organization, which is made up of former Russian soldiers. In April 2021, Eremenko took part in a commemoration event in Greifswald at the end of World War II together with the Russian Ambassador Sergei Nechayev and the Prime Minister of Schleswig-Holstein Manuela Schwesig (SPD).
On VKontakte, Eremenko can be seen in a 2016 photo next to Igor Girkin. He is a former Russian intelligence officer who was recently convicted in absentia by a Dutch court of involvement in the downing of Malaysian airliner MH17 over Ukraine.
Eremko confirmed to Reuters that he worked for the Russian secret service. But now he is a "civilian", promoting Russian culture and promoting the commemoration of those who died in World War II. He did not want to give any further details. "Too much information will not do the pro-Russian side any favors," he told Reuters. "The more names there are, the more information we have about our activities here, which will do very little for our reputation here, especially with the German authorities."
According to Reuters, Putin fan clubs are also important for pro-Russian propaganda. During an analysis, Reuters found at least 27 German Telegram channels with a total of 1.5 million subscribers that spread Kremlin messages.
One channel is actually called "Putin Fanclub" and is run by a Vyacheslav Seewald in Bavaria. Seewald is also active on YouTube, where he makes videos with titles like "Why do you want to destroy the Germans?" or "Putin's New World Order - Invitation to the Webinar". A year ago, he also filmed himself at an AFD anti-corona rally in Nuremberg, and in 2017 he posted a selfie with far-right party member Björn Höcke.
Seewald wrote on Telegram three days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, "The Reichstag must be retaken." The Bavarian Office for the Protection of the Constitution writes about Seewald that he publicly advocates anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and influences extremists who threaten democracy.
Jan Riedel, a motorcycle enthusiast from East Germany, is President of the German-Russian Souls group. Almost every day, Riedel and his group post images on their social media channels showing what they believe are the consequences of Ukrainian artillery strikes on homes and civilian infrastructure in the Donbass region.
The group also works with the organization Patriots of New Russia, according to Reuters. Russian nationalists call an area in southern and eastern Ukraine "New Russia" ("Novorossiya"). At public events, Riedel wears a robe next to Novorossiya with the number 1423. It stands for the Russian nationalist biker club "Night Wolves". The club is under US sanctions for supporting Russia's takeover of Crimea in 2014. Riedel himself was in the Donbass several times and also donated a small sum to the local department of the "Night Wolves".