Senior Austrian defence official ‘removed over links to fugitive Wirecard executive’

One of Austria’s most senior military officials has been removed from a sensitive government position amid concerns over his links to Jan Marsalek, the former chief operating officer of fraudulent payment company Wirecard.

Brigadier Gustav Gustenau was until recently head of the office of security policy within the Austrian ministry of defence — which provides strategic advice for the military leadership and defence minister. He is now undertaking an unspecified research role at the national defence academy.

Four senior ministry and political sources with close knowledge of the decision told the FT the reasons for Gustenau’s removal included concerns over his connections with Marsalek and Russia.

Gustenau, however, has said he transferred to his new post at his own request. He also said he moved because of personnel changes by the new government.

Marsalek has been on the run since the German electronic payments company Wirecard crashed into insolvency last year after admitting that €1.9bn of cash and half of its revenues did not exist.

Following the company’s bankruptcy, the Financial Times revealed that the 41-year old Austrian had, beside his corporate responsibilities, been at the centre of a web of geopolitical interests, encompassing Middle Eastern conflict zones and far-right European politics.

Marsalek is being investigated by European intelligence agencies over his connections to Russian spymasters.

The FT has seen documents that, for example, show Gustenau directed government funding to projects Marsalek was involved in. Gustenau has also been a guest of Marsalek in Munich, and met him on several occasions, an Austrian parliamentary investigation stated last year.

Gustenau did not comment on his relationship with Marsalek but said: “At no point did the ministry of defence have any concerns about my contacts with Russia. Contacts with Russia were entirely official and were carried out according to orders.”

His assignment to the defence academy had been planned since the new Austrian government took office at the beginning of 2020, he said, “and was at my own request for personal reasons. It would be gratifying if the completely unfounded public debate about my person could cease”.

A spokesperson for the ministry of defence confirmed Gustenau’s transfer to the defence academy but declined to comment further. The brigadier, 61, is approaching retirement. He has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

Marsalek cultivated strong ties within the Austrian intelligence community and among influential Austrian politicians and officials linked to the far-right Austrian Freedom Party.

His escape from Austria in June last year on a private jet to Minsk — after his central role in the Wirecard fraud became clear — was allegedly facilitated by an Austrian intelligence official, working for Austria’s spy agency whom Marsalek was close to. The intelligence official was arrested in January by Austrian police.

Concerns over Gustenau’s connections to Marsalek come just days after the disclosure that one of Austria’s most senior diplomats was also embroiled with the fraudster.

Austrian media widely reported last month, citing prosecutor’s warrants, that Johannes Peterlik — who between 2018 and 2020 was the top civil servant at the Austrian ministry of foreign affairs — was alleged to be responsible for leaking classified government documents about the nerve agent novichok that ended up in Marsalek’s possession.

Copies of the documents, a collection of reports and minutes from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — including the precise formula for the deadly nerve agent used to try to kill Russian defector Sergei Skripal in the UK in 2018 — were touted by Marsalek in London shortly after Peterlik allegedly passed them to a retired Austrian intelligence officer, who photographed them at his Vienna apartment.

The documents in Marsalek’s possession were identifiable as copies of the same set allegedly leaked by Peterlik because of a unique barcode on each.

Peterlik was suspended from his post as Austria’s ambassador to Indonesia in mid-October and has been recalled to Vienna. He could not be reached for comment. He has previously denied having ever met Marsalek and being the source of the OPCW dossiers. A spokesperson for the ministry of foreign affairs confirmed Peterlik’s suspension and formal disciplinary proceedings against him. “All other matters are a question for the investigating authorities and respectively the courts,” they said.

Concerns over Gustenau’s connections to Marsalek, Russia, and other possible conflicts of interest have been swirling within the Austrian security establishment for months, according to those familiar with a probe into his activities.

The brigadier and his wife own an Austrian company that specialises in security and defence technology, and consultancy.

He was also a key figure — alongside Marsalek and Peterlik — in the now defunct Austrian-Russian Friendship Society, an NGO that appears to have been the focus of Marsalek’s social and political network in Austria, sponsored by the Russian embassy, and with deep connections to the Austrian far right.

An Austrian special parliamentary investigatory committee submitted extensive questions to the ministry of defence last year concerning Gustenau and his connections to Marsalek and Russia, including questions about possible business trips the brigadier had made to Moscow.

In a written response, the ministry of defence confirmed Gustenau had travelled to Russia on ministry business and to attend security conferences, but declined to answer questions about his own personal business interests.

In recent months, the Austrian government has been at pains to try to restore its reputation with other EU allies in regard to trustworthiness as a security and intelligence partner.

Last year, in a headline-grabbing espionage case, a retired Austrian colonel was revealed to have spent years leaking military documents to Russian intelligence agents.

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