In 2018, the Consul General of Russia in Strasbourg was expelled from France for espionage.
Recently, this story has gained wide resonance in the French, as well as Ukrainian and even Russian media and social networks. A technical employee of the Consulate General of the Russian Federation in Strasbourg was caught red-handed because of a police operation while selling a bicycle.
A “pet” for half price
This is the elite model Vendredi 28.1 electric bicycle of the Moustache brand worth up to 3,000 euros, offered by a representative of the Consulate General of the Russian Federation, which was snatched from the former deputy mayor of Strasbourg Alain Fontanel. In early February, the politician left his recently purchased vehicle near the building of the Permanent Representation of France to the Council of Europe and went to meet with his wife, who actually serves as an ambassador there.
When Fontanel left the embassy, he discovered that his bicycle had disappeared and that some thieves had destroyed the padlock with a jigsaw.
Not giving up hope of returning the bicycle, to which, according to the politician, you become attached just like to a pet, Fontanel began to monitor actively the websites with advertisements on the sales of bicycles. The twelfth day of his searches has finally brought some good luck. The victim found offers of several electric bicycles of the same model on one popular website. They were offered for 1,400 euros, which is twice lower than the actual price.
Fontanel reported immediately the results of his investigation to the police who organized a special operation.
The stolen bicycle was found… at the Consulate General of the Russian Federation
It was such a surprise (or maybe not) when the seller arranged a meeting in the square near the building of the Consulate General of Russia in Strasbourg.
Fontanel, who was accompanied by an undercover police officer, noticed his bicycle on the territory of the Russian diplomatic mission. Then a Russian came out, accompanied by another employee of the diplomatic mission, who was acting as a translator. The seller was a 44-year-old driver of the consul-general of the Russian Federation in Strasbourg. The person presented a financial document, certified by the Consulate General, in order to confirm the alleged legal purchase of the bicycle. However, when Fontanel checked the serial number, which confirmed that this was his bike, there was no other doubt left. Two other police officers, who were in an ambush, detained the employee of the Consulate General after a special signal. The other Russian, who was accompanying the seller, presented a diplomatic passport, which ensured immunity from being delivered to the police station.
“My bicycle, which was stolen in front of the Permanent Mission of France to the Council of Europe, was found at the Russian consulate!” said the French politician, whose story had a happy ending instead.
During the interrogation, the employee of the Russian diplomatic mission denied everything, but his explanations were not convincing. Instead, on the prosecutor’s decision, he was released in 24 hours.
From Russia with love or where the “moustache” grows
And when the investigators summoned the suspect for questioning, the Consulate General declared that he had left for Russia because of health problems. Strasbourg law enforcement is currently investigating the Russian national’s involvement in a large-scale plot of stealing and selling at least 300 luxury bicycles for a total of more than 100,000 euros. And this happened in just one year!
The former employee of the Consulate General of the Russian Federation has been declared as wanted in France. The trial may take place in absentia if he will not be detained on French territory.
In fact, the French politician Fontanel described the whole story in detail on the social network, marking the post with the tag “Bons baisers de Russie #Moustache007“. This means something like a “hello from Russia with love,” plus the name of the bike’s brand (“Moustache”) and the code “007” with an indication of other, not diplomatic, activities of Russian consuls in Strasbourg.
Will the police break through the Russian “roof”?
Taking the scale and the number of offers to sell bicycles of doubting origins into account, the French police aim to identify and prove the existence of an organised theft scheme, of a subsequent sale of these popular vehicles and of the involvement of an employee of the Russian Consulate General.
In this regard, the following questions and considerations arise.
It is unlikely that a representative of the Russian diplomatic mission was personally stealing these bicycles; this was done by other thieves involved in illegal activities.
By the way, in Strasbourg alone, about 4,500 bicycles are stolen every year. On the national level, this number reaches up to several millions.
Could the attacker carry out illegal activities by offering stolen bicycles, which were physically stored on the territory of the Consulate General of the Russian Federation, without the participation of other employees of this institution, i.e. under the Russian diplomatic “roof?” Therefore, it is unlikely that the driver has been personally keeping hundreds of thousands of euros in cash, earned from sales of the property stolen from citizens in France, and possibly even in neighbouring Germany and other European countries.
What was the purpose of these funds, did they serve only for the personal enrichment of the participants of this project in France or were they transferred to Moscow? Considering that Russian diplomats have evacuated their former employee back to Russia and that the Consulate General itself and its diplomatic staff enjoy immunity, French law enforcement officers have a minimum of opportunities to prosecute those involved in this theft placed under the “roof” of Russian diplomacy.
However, the bicycle story is not the first high-profile scandal surrounding the Russian Consulate General in Strasbourg. Back in April 2018, the French counterintelligence completed the disclosure of the ex-consul general of the Russian Federation in Strasbourg Valery Levitsky. He was exposed as an officer of the Russian GRU secret service, therefore, was expelled from France for activities incompatible with the status of a diplomat. At the same time, Levitsky was not a simple spy, but a resident, i.e., the chief among the Russian military intelligence in the region. Therefore, the answer to the question of who really his subordinate diplomats were at the Consulate General were rhetorical.
Obviously, Strasbourg can be the subject of the direct interest of Russia’s intelligence services, as the city where the Council of Europe and partially the European Parliament has its headquarters. As for the Council of Europe, this organisation is not that influential in shaping the policies of national governments that could counter Russia’s aggressive interests.
Nevertheless, the capital of Alsace opens great opportunities for gathering information and establishing useful contacts in diplomatic circles of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe and beyond.
The potential network of Russian intelligence informants in Strasbourg is considerable. This is about 2,300 officials of the Council of Europe and about 1,000 diplomats in the permanent representations of its member States and observer States.
In addition, Russian special services can conduct reconnaissance from the territory of France against other European countries, take measures in order to weaken the EU and NATO, blackmail the Council of Europe, promote attempts to legalise the consequences of international law violations by the Kremlin, and commit international crimes.
Such large-scale special operations have a strategic dimension in the context of Russia’s unleashed hybrid war against the West, which receives millions of euros and dollars in funding from Moscow. Against this background, several hundred stolen bicycles, may seem trivial, but once again confirm the dirty thieving nature of Russian diplomacy in the service of the aggressor State.
Andrii Lavreniuk, Strasbourg.