Shooting exercises and knife fight: Sanctioned Kremlin fighters train Russian fans in Bern, Zurich, and Lugano. A secret NDB document shows that Moscow’s goal is to build an unrecognized commando force in Switzerland.
It is the nightmare of every Western government: Russian fighters in their own country. Saboteurs, provocateurs, spies. What sounds like science fiction is a reality in Switzerland.
For years, the Russian state has been building targeted hostile sleeper cells in this country. Moscow uses sports schools in Zurich, Bern, and Lugano, where the Russian martial art Systema is trained. Former elite fighters of the Russian secret service fly to Switzerland for so-called “seminars”. In gymnasiums, they educate those interested in street fighting and give knife and shooting training.
How acute the danger from the East is, show excerpts from a secret document, which has created the intelligence service of the federation (NDB). Accordingly, the Systema network serves among other things to “multiply the force outside the regular disarmament agreements by an unrecognized command group”. Goal: “causing unrest and uncertainty in the target area”, as well as recruiting “future elites”. The NDB writes of a financial and ideological influence by Russian authorities. Vladimir Putin’s fifth column in Switzerland.
The central link is a fight club from Zurich
In recent years, Systema cells have emerged throughout Europe. In Switzerland, activities are concentrated in Zurich, Bern and Lugano TI.
The central link is a fight club from Zurich. Its members meet regularly in a training center in Regensdorf. Video footage shows the lessons: military drill, choke, learn to kill.
The logo of the club: a wolf’s head, the sign of the Wolf-Holding from Moscow. The holding company is a mixture of security company and martial arts club, which repeatedly sends high-ranking Systema instructors to Western Europe.
They also travel to Switzerland. One of them is Denis Ryauzov, Wolf’s Holding Combat Trainer Leader. He regularly gives combat courses in Zurich and Lugano, mostly in uniform, with a flag of Russia stitched to his sleeve. The school in Regensdorf lists it on their website as a «chief instructor».
Ryauzov was an elite fighter in the Speznas, a special unit of the Russian Military Intelligence Service (GRU). What’s more, the US has sanctioned Ryauzov for separatist activity in eastern Ukraine.
Connections to the Russian secret service
Also at Systema schools in Bern trained in recent years, some highly decorated ex-fighters of Russian special forces command, including Vladimir Vasiliev and Mikhail Ryabko. The latter is said to be a close adviser to the Russian Minister of Justice today – and thus directly subordinate to Putin. In earlier years he trained fighters for the Speznas troops.
It is unclear who pulls the strings in the Swiss Systema scene. There are hints though. The name DZ appears in the NDB document. He heads the martial arts club in Regensdorf and is considered a central figure. There are photos available on the SonntagsBlick showing his contacts with Russian top military personnel. So he met in German singing with Gennady Nikulov, the head of the Russian Wolf Holding. Nikulov was also sanctioned by the USA. He too because of separatist activities in eastern Ukraine. At present, he is vice-president of the Russian separatists in the city of Sevastopol in the Crimean peninsula.
All Systema schools in Switzerland have connections with the Russian secret service far from themselves. Some interviewees say this with malicious comments: “I am now approving a glass of vodka with Putin and staging terror attacks.” Others threaten with lawyers if their name appears in the paper. The Systema Verein Regensdorf takes its website from the network shortly after the request of the SonntagsBlicks.
In Moscow, they learn how to handle explosives
German journalists and Russia expert Boris Reitschuster are not surprised by the reactions. He was the first to publicly address the danger of the Systema network in Europe. In his book published in 2016 entitled “Putin’s Covert War: How Moscow destabilizes the West,” he describes how these clubs recruit Russia’s friends, such as policemen or security guards.
In the crowd, normal athletes would train in schools. Some of them are recruited in the end. They travel to Moscow and learn how to deal with explosives and weapons. In Germany alone, around 300 people are said to have completed this training. Reitschuster says, “These combat troops in the West are a mainstay in Putin’s covert war.”
Intelligence expert Dmitry Khmelnitsky agrees. “There are now several hundred Systema branches all over the world,” he says. And warns: “The schools must be better controlled by the authorities.” The tactics to build enemy troops in the West, was well established and go back to Soviet times. “These groups should remain disguised until they receive an order for active measures.” Specifically means to incite riots, perform sabotage.
That the activities of the Russians go beyond planning games, show the information of the NDB. In the secret document, he mentions military spoor maneuvers in the Swiss high mountains. The intelligence service does not want to comment on this. Spokeswoman Caroline Bohren says only that you have the combat schools on the radar. Any espionage activities would be fought with their own resources.