MADRID - Russian agents offered military aid to Catalan separatists at the height of their failed bid to break away from Spain in 2017, according to a judicial investigation in Spain.
These are the extraordinary allegations at the heart of an investigation launched by a judge in Barcelona who is probing alleged links between the Catalan independence movement and a Russian misinformation campaign designed to destabilize Europe.
Police arrested 21 suspects in Barcelona on Wednesday on the orders of Judge Joaquin Aguirre, including three men who were close to the former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont who fled Spain shortly after the failed declaration of independence three years ago.
In one recording presented in court documents, one of those detained by police allegedly mentions an offer by Russian agents to provide Puigdemont with 10,000 troops to help in a theoretical armed conflict with Spanish forces. The offer never materialized.
Fake news offensive
"Russian interference as a geopolitical strategy was a fact during the fall of 2017 when (the Russians) spread fake news and disinformation," Judge Aguirre said in a ruling, citing online items backing the Catalan separatists spread by Russian news platforms.
The Spanish government had accused Russia in 2017 of meddling in the Catalan conflict, a charge that Russian officials denied at the time.
In what appeared to be an ironic repost to the court allegations, the Russian Embassy in Madrid tweeted: "It is necessary to add two zeros to the number of soldiers and the most shocking thing about this conspiracy: the troops should be transported by Mosca and Chato, airplanes assembled in Catalonia during the (Spanish) Civil War and hidden in a safe place in the Catalan Sierra until they receive the order to act through encrypted publications."
Though the investigation relates to events three years ago which threatened to tear apart one of Europe's largest economies, it has ramifications in today's polarized political environment.
Spain's minority left-wing coalition government depends on the Catalan separatist party Esquerra Republicana, ERC, for support as talks are under way to pass a budget for 2021.
Spain has had no full year spending plan for the past four years and in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic this budget is crucial to finance the country's recovery.
"It is evident that the Spanish government has no appetite to find a solution to the conflict in Catalonia," said Raul Murcia, a spokesman for ERC, told VOA.
Regional elections are planned in Catalonia in February when separatist parties are likely to win a majority but not more than 50% of the vote, according to recent polls.
The Catalan separatist movement has always proclaimed non-violent beliefs, even though last year there were violent clashes with police after nine leaders were jailed for up to 13 years for their roles in the 2017 breakaway bid.
The investigation also targets the alleged misuse of public funds for the separatist movement in Spain as well as the allegedly active role of Russian-backed disinformation campaigns to discredit Madrid.
Those arrested face allegations of embezzlement and money laundering.
Investigations revealed that money intended for Barcelona's provincial government and a regional entity for promoting sports teams had been diverted illegally, the Spanish government said in a statement after the arrests.
Josep Lluis Alay, a close collaborator of Puigdemont, was one of those detained. Others included David Madi and Oriol Vendrell, two former politicians for Catalonia's major separatist parties.
In the wake of the early morning raids, Puigdemont tweeted that Alay and the others "must be immediately released. Acting against political dissidents is a huge violation of fundamental rights".
After the breakaway attempt failed, Puigdemont fled Spain hidden in the boot of a car to France then flew to Brussels, where he has campaigned to raise support for his cause internationally. Puigdemont is currently a European Parliament member.
Another suspect, Oriol Soler, is a publisher who is considered one of the top strategists of the separatist movement.
He is being investigated for allegedly meeting Russian contacts and the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange when he was seeking refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to promote the separatist cause and discredit Spain internationally.
In a court document which was made public, it said the alleged meeting between Soler and Assange in September 2017 "falls within the strategy of misinformation and destabilization in which the Kremlin has also participated as part of its general narrative that the European Union is on the brink of collapse, the principal message of the news outlets controlled by the Kremlin."
Benet Salellas, Soler's defense attorney, said that his client is innocent and "denounces that the justice system is being utilized to fight against the Catalan independence movement".
The arrests sparked several small protests across Catalonia.
The issue of independence has consistently divided the region's 7.5 million inhabitants.
In a recent poll earlier this month for the Catalan regional government, 46.3% of Catalans opposed breaking away from Spain, while 45.5% backed independence.