It’s been a while since we have had an update about the collapse of Wirecard, the German fintech giant that collapsed amid revelations that billions of dollars in earnings had been falsified via an elaborate shell game of moving money around Southeast Asia. As some might remember, short sellers and reporters had been warning about potential fraud at Wirecard for years – but instead of investigating these claims, the German government investigated the reporters and short-sellers instead.
Before its collapse, Wirecard was declared a fintech darling and added to Germany’s benchmark DAX index. But an audit eventually revealed that fraudsters, including management, had looted $1 billion from the company, leaving creditors on the hook for billions of dollars. After the collapse, the former CEO Markus Braun was arrested by German authorities (although he quickly made bail).
But it was soon revealed that another senior executive, Wirecard COO Jan Marsalek, had managed to flee Austria on a private jet to Minsk ahead of Wirecard’s collapse. He has evaded authorities ever since. It was eventually revealed that Marsalek wasn’t exactly who he claimed to be. Not only that, but he apparently had close ties to foreign intelligence agencies, including – of course – the spooky, scary Russians. German authorities quietly cleaned up one of Europe’s biggest financial messes in recent memory, although many of the country’s top regulators remain in their positions despite failing to detect the fraud earlier.
Marsalek hasn’t been seen or heard from since June 2020. But rumors that he might be hiding in Russia, or some other country outside the reach of European authorities, have circulated virtually ever since. And on Thursday, the FT reported that a senior Austrian defense official was “removed” from his government position over “concerns” about his ties to Marsalek.
The official, Brigadier Gustav Gustenau, recently left his position at Austria’s office of security policy, which helps devise national security strategy and provides advice to civilian and military leadership for the Austrian ministry of defense. Per the FT, Gustenau has taken on “an unspecified research role at the national defence academy.” Gustenau says he made the decision to leave for personal reasons. But four senior sources within the ministry of defense told the FT he was pushed out due to unspecified unsavory ties to Marsalek. For instance, the FT says it has seen “documents” confirming that Gustenau steered government funding to projects Marsalek was involved in.
Gustenau insists that at no point was anybody at the ministry of defense concerned about his contacts with “Russians”. Austria’s Ministry of Defense and Defense Academy (where Gustenau was reportedly transferred) refused to comment.
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.
The reports about Gustenau may not seem important to Americans, but the Austrian press reported just a few days ago that other senior government officials had been busted for allegedly leaking “classified documents” about the “nerve agent novichok”, which purportedly ended up in Marsalek’s possession.
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.
For those who don’t know enough to gasp at the mention of novichok, the chemical is a powerful poison allegedly developed by the KGB. It has allegedly been used by Russian spies to poison dissidents including Alexei Navalny and the Skripals in the UK. The Russian government has denied involvement in both incidents and the UK government – which accused Russian spies of masterminding the poisoning of the Skripals on British soil – actually has little in the way of proof to justify its claims. No European governments have evidence of what many have described as hoaxes engineered to scapegoat Russia and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
The whole thing sounds pretty suspicious. But it’s unclear how all this fits together. If the Russians developed and used novichok, then why are Austrian government officials purportedly leaking classified documents about the chemical to an alleged Russian spy?
It just gets curiouser and curiouser.