Accused German Linked to Spy Flap

A German man charged with selling sensitive technology information to Russia is a key figure in a mysterious spy case involving a former Federal Space Agency official that jarred Russian-Austrian relations last year.

German prosecutors said in a statement last week that they had charged a 44-year-old native of Bavaria with passing sensitive documents to “a member of a Russian intelligence service.”

The statement gave few specifics, but interviews with officials familiar with the case made it clear that the Russian intelligence officer referred to by German prosecutors is former Federal Space Agency official Vladimir Vozhzhov, who was arrested on spy charges in Austria last year and released after it turned out he had diplomatic immunity.

Vozhzhov’s arrest in June disrupted otherwise cordial ties between Vienna and Moscow, prompting the Foreign Ministry to accuse Austria of violating international law. At the time of his arrest for purportedly trying to buy classified information, Vozhzhov was in Vienna for a United Nations conference on the peaceful use of outer space. He was released and allowed to return to Moscow a week later after a UN inquiry found he had diplomatic status.

While German prosecutors identified the suspect only as Werner G., a member of the Austrian parliament said the accused is Werner Greipl, a former employee of Eurocopter, the helicopter subsidiary of European aerospace giant EADS.

Sonja Heine, a spokeswoman for Germany’s Federal Prosecutor’s Office, said by telephone from Karlsruhe that the Austrian case and the recent spy charges “are part of the same investigation complex.” She refused to elaborate.

But Austrian lawmaker Manfred Haimbuchner said Greipl had known Vozhzhov since 1997, when they met at Eurocopter’s factory outside Munich during Vozhzhov’s visit together with Austrian military officials. Haimbuchner said he had been briefed on the case by a “reliable” source in the Austrian military.

German prosecutors said in the statement that the accused German had met the Russian agent several times in Germany and abroad and that communication between the two had been conducted mainly via anonymous e-mail accounts, “a common practice in intelligence circles.” The documents obtained by the Russian could be used both for civilian and military purposes, the statement said.

According to media reports, Vozhzhov purchased classified information about the French-German combat helicopter Tiger, produced by Eurocopter. He paid up to 20,000 euros ($26,600) for information at each meeting with his contact, the Austrian magazine Profil reported in January.

“Greipl approached the Russian because he planned to set up his own business selling civilian helicopters,” Haimbuchner said.

Greipl, a helicopter pilot and engineer, was detained by German police in April 2007 and later admitted to divulging company documents, Profil reported. Reached on his cell phone Wednesday in Germany, Greipl refused to comment.

Haimbuchner, a member of the right-wing Freedom Party, said Greipl’s statements to police were crucial in leading Austrian authorities to Vozhzhov, suggesting that the Russian official’s arrest at the Salzburg train station in June was a sting operation.

The arresting Austrian authorities were acting on their own investigation and detained an Austrian warrant officer on spying charges along with Vozhzhov. But they were also acting on a European arrest warrant issued by German prosecutors.

Gerhard Jarosch, a spokesman for Austrian prosecutors, said the case against Vozhzhov and the warrant officer was ongoing. He refused to elaborate.

Heine, the German Prosecutor’s Office spokeswoman, declined to say whether German authorities still had a warrant out for Vozhzhov’s arrest.

Vozhzhov’s current whereabouts were unclear. A woman who answered the phone at the Federal Space Agency’s foreign relations department, where Vozhzhov had been a deputy head, said he no longer worked there and that she did not know when he left the agency or where he is currently employed. “It was quite long ago,” she said.

Georg Mader, an Austrian freelance aviation journalist who says he had met Vozhzhov on several occasions, said the Russian struck him as highly ambitious and difficult. “He was a very useful contact, but he would ring me up at 10 p.m. and demand to meet immediately,” Mader said in a telephone interview from Vienna.

He said Vozhzhov, a former trade attache at the Russian Embassy in Vienna, had told him over a beer in a Viennese restaurant two or three years ago that he had been to Germany on a trip related to helicopters. “Only later, when the spy story broke, did I think twice,” Mader said.

Mader said he had not heard from Vozhzhov since seeing him briefly at the MAKS air show outside Moscow last summer.

Eurocopter dismissed the suggestion that it was involved in a spy case.

Company spokeswoman Christina Gotzhein said Greipl had worked as an engineer for Eurocopter before 2000. “Yes he did used to work here. But Eurocopter has not been involved in this case so far,” she said by phone from Ottobrunn. She declined further comment.

Eurocopter is a subsidiary of European aerospace conglomerate EADS, in which Russia holds a stake. State-controlled bank VTB in December sold its 5 percent stake in the company for about $1.43 billion to state-owned Development Bank.