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Russia believed to be behind plot to assassinate Europe’s top defence boss

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Russia is believed to be behind a foiled plot to assassinate the head of Europe’s largest arms manufacturer over his company’s support for Ukraine, according to Nato diplomats.

Two senior alliance diplomats said the alleged conspiracy against Armin Papperger, chief executive of Düsseldorf-based Rheinmetall, was being treated as part of Russia’s wider sabotage and hybrid attack campaign against European Nato states. The plot was first reported by CNN.

A personal familiar with Papperger’s security said that the measures around the defence boss were “at the highest level” — similar to the protection of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

A spokesperson for Scholz declined to comment, but Papperger told the Financial Times that Berlin had established a “great level of security around my person”.

Although Papperger said he could not confirm details of the plot, he said he believed the outline contained the original CNN report, which said that US intelligence uncovered the effort and alerted German authorities, who were then able to foil the plot.

“I think CNN is not just looking up at the sky,” he said when asked about the validity of the US broadcaster’s story.

Papperger drew the Kremlin’s ire in 2023 when he announced plans to build a Panther tank factory in Ukraine, which the Russian foreign ministry threatened to destroy, according to a ministry spokesperson.

Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegations.

Western intelligence services in recent months have warned of Russia’s increased sabotage attempts in Europe, including plots targeting military bases in Germany.

Despite the increasing gravity of the allied intelligence warnings, diplomats said the German government was keen to play down the Papperger developments at the Nato summit in Washington.

Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, declined to comment on the specific assassination report when asked on Thursday, but added: “What I can say is there is a pattern, a Russian campaign organised by the [Kremlin] security services to conduct hostile actions against Nato allies . . . with different types of hostile actions.”

CNN reported the plot was one of a series of Russian plans to assassinate defence industry executives across Europe who were supporting Ukraine’s war effort.

Stoltenberg added: “These are not standalone incidents but part of a campaign. And the purpose of the campaign is to intimidate Nato allies from supporting Ukraine.”

Rheinmetall, which manufactures artillery shells, infantry fighting vehicles, military drones and the gun that sits atop the Leopard 2 tank, has rapidly expanded its production capacity in response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The company will produce about 700,000 rounds of artillery next year, compared with just 70,000 in 2022.

Papperger told the FT that Rheinmetall would begin producing 155mm shells in western Ukraine “very soon”, while new production sites in Germany to produce ammunition and components for the F-35 fighter jet would come online next year.

When asked about the alleged threat to his life, Papperger said: “I always feel safe. I am a very happy man.”

A spokesperson for the US National Security Council declined to comment specifically on the Papperger case, but added: “Russia’s intensifying campaign of subversion is something that we are taking extremely seriously and have been intently focused on over the past few months.

“With our Nato allies . . . we are actively working together to expose and disrupt these activities,” the spokesperson added. “Russia’s actions will not deter allies from continuing to support Ukraine.”

Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Washington, Guy Chazan in Berlin and Philip Georgiadis in London

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