Top German Journalist Received Payments From Putin Ally, Leak Reveals

After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Germany went through a period of uncomfortable soul-searching about the close ties that some of its political and business leaders had to Moscow.

That self-examination spilled into the country’s journalistic establishment this week after published reports revealed that an award-winning television broadcaster and author who has extensively covered Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, had received hundreds of thousands of euros in undisclosed payments from businesses linked to a billionaire ally of Mr. Putin.

The reports, by a consortium of publishing outlets including Germany’s Der Spiegel and The Guardian of Britain, were based on what the consortium said was a leaked cache of offshore financial records. They said that the broadcaster, Hubert Seipel, had been paid about 600,000 euros (about $651,000) in installments from accounts connected to Alexei A. Mordashov, a prominent Russian businessman, who was placed under sanctions by the United States last year as a way to punish Mr. Putin for his war in Ukraine. The payments were to support Mr. Seipel’s books about Mr. Putin, the reports said.

The news that a prominent journalist in Germany has been linked to large payments from someone in Russia who is seen as a proxy of that country’s government has stirred worries in Germany that Russia has continued to use an old playbook of building relationships with high-profile pundits and thought leaders to subtly and covertly promote its interests — this time deep inside the journalistic establishment.

“He is not a singular phenomenon,” Franziska Davies, a specialist in the history of Eastern Europe at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, said of Mr. Seipel. Ms. Davies, who has been outspoken about the objectivity of Mr. Seipel and others in the past, added, “They were presented as experts but were saying what Moscow liked to hear.”

Mr. Seipel did not return requests seeking comment. But in the published reports, he denied that his impartiality was endangered. “I always set clear legal boundaries that guaranteed my independence,” he was quoted as saying in The Guardian. He also said he had always “described the world as it is, not as it should be.”

Mr. Seipel had also produced work for the German public broadcaster, NDR, including interviews with the American-born whistle-blower Edward J. Snowden as well as with Mr. Putin. In a statement, NDR said that Mr. Seipel had recently acknowledged receiving money from Mr. Mordashov through two “sponsorship contracts” in 2013 and 2018, explaining it was for two book projects.

He wrote a 2015 biography, “Putin: Inner Views of Power,” and “Putin’s Power: Why Europe Needs Russia,” published in 2021. They were seen as favorable to Mr. Putin, German observers said.

Mr. Seipel denied that his impartiality was endangered by the payments.Credit…Karlheinz Schindler/DPA, via Getty Images

In its statement, NDR said that only after he was confronted did Mr. Seipel disclose the payments, and that the broadcaster considered the payments a significant conflict of interest that cast doubt on his journalistic independence.

“There is a suspicion that we and, therefore, our audience have been deliberately deceived,” NDR’s artistic director, Joachim Knuth, said in a statement. “We are now investigating this and examining legal steps.”

In the published reports, Mr. Seipel, who also regularly appeared on German talk shows to discuss Russia and the war in Ukraine, was quoted as saying the payments were only for the books, not for films and television interviews

On Wednesday, his German publisher, Hoffmann and Campe, which said it had not known of the payments, released a statement saying it had “decided to no longer offer Hubert Seipel’s books for sale.”

Bret Schafer, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, said any Russian success in building relations with a journalist inside a country’s established news media was likely to prove effective, from Moscow’s point of view.

“This is an exceptionally bizarre arrangement for a journalist to get paid covertly by an ally of his subject matter, but it fits in nicely with Russia’s efforts to influence the West through influencers,” he said.

Mr. Schafer had investigated the work of the Russian broadcaster RT Deutsch during the last German election, in 2021, which he said was an example of successful overt Russian influence.

Mr. Mordashov, the Russian oligarch, has interests in Severstal, the steel and mining company. He was also put under European Union sanctions while a shareholder of Rossiya Bank, the bloc said. The bank, it added, “is considered the personal bank of senior officials of the Russian Federation” and had opened branches across Russian-occupied Crimea. A spokesman for Severstal did not return a request for comment.

According to the published reports, financial documents obtained by the consortium included a “deed of sponsorship” signed in 2018 by Mr. Seipel and a director of De Vere Worldwide Corporation, a company said to be registered in the British Virgin Islands and that had links to Mr. Mordashov’s empire.

Under the deed of sponsorship, the reports said, Mr. Seipel was to receive “logistical and organizational support” for research in Russia but he had “no obligation to the sponsor in relation to the project,” including the content. The documents referred to another deed signed by another company, Cavern, which, the reports said, was most likely connected to Mr. Mordashov.

Alexei A. Mordashov, a prominent Russian businessman and ally of President Vladimir Putin, was placed under sanctions by the West.Credit…Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

The revelations have spurred concern in Germany about Russian influence in the news media, and an article about the scandal in the newspaper Die Zeit bore the headline “The Russian Submarine.”

The war in Ukraine had already forced a broad reckoning in Germany about its longstanding economic and energy ties to Russia that left it deeply dependent on Russian gas and raised questions about whether Germany’s important and lucrative trade links had colored its policy approach to Moscow’s brutal invasion. The debate centered most prominently on former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who earned millions while promoting Russian energy interests and subsequently became a pariah.

Ms. Davies said that, in his public comments on German television, Mr. Seipel had been sometimes critical of Ukraine, stressing corruption and nationalism more than other commentators, and placing greater responsibility on the United States for supposedly forcing the conflict.

According to Der Spiegel, Mr. Seipel had presented a more personable face for Mr. Putin, accompanying him on deer hunts and playing billiards with the Russian leader, who was shown in one documentary by Mr. Seipel playing ice hockey alone, training for judo and swimming, and cuddling a dog.

In the 2012 documentary, “I, Putin: A Portrait,” Mr. Seipel is shown interviewing Mr. Putin in a limousine as they drive through Moscow. He asks the Russian leader where the West’s bad opinion of Russia had come from, and Mr. Putin answers “fear” of Russia, but adds this is “old thinking.”

“He was always close to Putin, and we were wondering, how was he managing this?” said Markus Ziener, a former journalist and visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.

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