Katerina Tikhonova and Igor Zelensky (archive images)-Lina Moreno / DER SPIEGEL
Over the course of several years, Katerina Tikhonova made numerous trips to Bavaria together with an entourage of bodyguards. DER SPIEGEL reporting has revealed that the German authorities knew nothing of the excursions.
A “superior double room” in one of Munich’s most exclusive hotels was reserved for the woman from Russia. The Mandarin Oriental boasts a five-star rating along with a swanky rooftop bar, and promises guest “timeless, sophisticated charm” combined with “the highest levels of personalized service.” It is the kind of ambience in which even the daughter of the most powerful man in Russia can feel right at home.
Katerina Tikhonova, whose father is Russian President Vladimir Putin, apparently stayed in the Mandarin Oriental on the night of Dec. 22, 2016, a Thursday. That information comes from booking records obtained by DER SPIEGEL and the Russian investigative portal IStories. In combination with passenger data, passport copies and internal emails from the Russian security apparatus, these documents indicate that Tikhonova has traveled to Germany more than 20 times in recent years – unnoticed by German officials. And she has invariably been accompanied by bodyguards – likely armed – from the Federal Guard Service (FSO), which is in charge of keeping the Russian president and other senior officials safe.
The frequent travels of Putin’s daughter and her entourage raises significant diplomatic and security questions. Contrary to common international practice, the Russians didn’t consider it necessary to inform the German government of the peregrinations of Tikhonova and her bodyguards. That’s not just a courtesy violation, it also demonstrates just how little consideration the Kremlin has for Germany’s security and oversight interests.
It is also alarming that German intelligence services were unaware of virtually all of the trips taken to Germany by Putin’s daughter and her retinue. “We would really like to have known about them,” says a German official, who holds a senior post. John Sipher, former head of Russian operations for the CIA, isn’t particularly surprised. “All intelligence services work at the behest of their political leaders,” he says. “The policy of the (German) government as it relates to Russia has been: ‘No waves.’ No one in power seemingly wanted to find out things about Russia because it might cause an unwanted confrontation. So, why should anyone scrutinize Putin’s daughter?”
The myopia of German intelligence is consistent with the larger picture: For many years, hardly anybody in Germany showed much interest in the activities of influential Russians. The real estate they bought and the business deals they engaged in were seen as their own private business. Now, the consequences of that indifference are becoming clear. It is extremely difficult to enforce sanctions on Putin’s allies and patrons since officials don’t have a clear understanding of their networks.
In any case, Katerina Tikhonova, 35, and her entourage traveled to a favorite destination for wealthy Russians looking for Bavarian hospitality. They apparently booked rooms in the Munich city center and on Tegernsee lake, in the foothills of the Alps south of Munich.
There is plenty to indicate that Tikhonova and her child, along with her bodyguards, traveled to the Bavarian Alps in December 2019. Records show that she arrived in Munich on Aeroflot Flight SU2594, while her daughter, two years old at the time, was brought to the city three days prior on a private jet from Air Hamburg. A bodyguard from FSO reserved a room for himself on Tegernsee lake.
It wasn’t a long trip. Tikhonova returned to Moscow after a week. A different bodyguard apparently flew to Bavaria from Russia to escort her back home. But the back-and-forth flights continued.
The reason for her frequent travels is likely the man with whom Tikhonova has long been in a relationship: Igor Zelensky, 53. The Russian artist, who is not related to the Ukrainian president despite their similar last names, was director of the Bavarian State Ballet until April of this year and is the presumed father of Tikhonova’s daughter, who is now four years old. A copy of Zelensky’s passport, issued in 2013, is also among the documents DER SPIEGEL has obtained, likely because Tikhonova’s bodyguard booked flights for Zelensky. In May, DER SPIEGEL and IStories revealed Tikhonova’s relationship with Zelensky.
Vladimir Putin protects details about his family as though they were state secrets. Even today, he still has never released the names of his two conjugal daughters. The only information he has provided in interviews is that they live in Russia and speak three foreign languages, and that he is very proud of them. Frequent flyer Tikhonova, the younger of the two, is thought to lead an institute for innovation and intellectual development at Moscow State University.
While reporting this story, journalists from DER SPIEGEL and IStories spoke with numerous hotel operators and staff – such as at the Hotel Leeberghof on the banks of Tegernsee lake. The suites in which Putin’s daughter is thought to have stayed have names like “Sissi’s Lodge,” a reference to Empress Elizabeth of Austria from the Bavarian royal Wittelsbach family, and the “Duke’s Residence.” They cost around 300 euros per night. The hotelier emphasizes that all guests enjoy “absolute anonymity.”
Perhaps it was faith in German discretion, perhaps it was just laziness, but Katerina apparently expended no effort to conceal her trips to Munich. She flew using her real name using an Italian-issued EU visa with the number ITA031963667.
Upon arrival, she would have shown her passport and visa to federal police officers at the airport, though it is impossible to reconstruct her border crossings in any detail. Entry data is never recorded in Germany, and there is also likely no federal police memo regarding Tikhonova’s arrivals. The German federal police are focused on preventing illegal border crossings and not on reporting the arrival of prominent personalities.
“We haven’t developed a strategy for responding to Russian agents and their activities. We cannot continue like that.”
Sebastian Fiedler, domestic policy expert for Germany’s Social Democratic Party
When it comes to the activities of foreign agents in Germany, the rather modestly sized counterespionage department at the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, is responsible. And their mission is narrowly defined: They are to uncover, and ideally prevent, spying efforts by foreign powers. The Russian secret service agencies GRU, FSB and SVR are all a focus of such efforts, but members of the presidential security service FSO generally are not. “We really have enough to do with real agents,” says one official.
As such, quite some time passed before German security agencies learned of one of Tikhonova’s trips – and that discovery was by accident. In fall 2019, they learned that Putin’s daughter was planning a trip to Munich and that she would be escorted by four FSO bodyguards. Officials grew wary because of inconsistencies discovered with the travel documents of her entourage. One of them had applied for an EU-wide tourist visa, which was the easiest route, to be sure, but not officially proper. After all, he wasn’t traveling to Germany on vacation, it was a work trip for him.
Another bodyguard possessed two diplomatic passports. The name was identical on the documents, but different birthdays were listed. Was it a trick, the German officials wondered? Did the bodyguard have two identities for spying purposes?
A reconnaissance operation in January 2020 merely found that Tikhonova was driven around in Bavaria in heavy limousines. Still, experts were able to identify one of the bodyguards as Alexey S., apparently the team leader. He was accompanied by Dmitry D., Alexander K. and an additional Russian. German officials believe that these men are also part of the FSO, likely because both D. and K. play for the Moscow ice hockey club Feniks. The club’s homepage notes that they are “active and reserve employees” of the FSO. The fact that Dmitry D. has direct links to Russian leadership can be seen from a 2015 press photo, in which he is standing in a dark suit next to Putin as the Russian president speaks to the press.
The police, though, never received the information, even if it would have been important for Bavarian officials to know about Tikhonova’s arrival – on the one hand to protect the guests from abroad, and on the other to protect German citizens. “Tikhonova could easily have become the target of an attack, without officials being able to evaluate the dimensions of such an attack,” says a security official, adding that it would also have been interesting from an intelligence perspective to examine additional trips. In Germany, though, says the official, there is no “established procedure” for observing the scions of foreign potentates.
Moscow, for its part, should have reported the trip of the Tikhonova retinue to the German authorities so that bodyguards could legally carry weapons. But no such report was ever made, not for any of her trips. Officials in Berlin say that it is thus extremely likely that repeated violations of German weapons laws were committed. Experts reject the possibility that the Russian bodyguards were unarmed while in Germany.
“Armed bodyguards from the Russian presidential protective services are traveling unnoticed through Bavaria and nobody cares,” complains Sebastian Fiedler, a domestic policy expert from Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD) and a member of German parliament, the Bundestag. The case, he says, is “a prime example” for the fact that “in the past decades, we haven’t developed a strategy for responding to Russian agents and their activities. We cannot continue like that.” A regime that launches a war of aggression in Europe, Fiedler says, must trigger “a significant boost to the operative abilities of security agencies.”
“A Visa Ban Is a Question of Our Security Interests”
Roderich Kiesewetter, a foreign policy expert for the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) in the Bundestag, is demanding an end to the “liberal visa policies” for Russia. Tikhonova’s trips demonstrate, he says, that “a policy change is urgently needed.” Kiesewetter would like to see the Schengen border-free travel zone cease issuing tourist visas to Russians. In any case, he adds, the only Russians still traveling to the West are Putin sycophants or those who profit from his system. “As such, a visa ban isn’t just a moral question, but a question of our security interests.”
Tikhonova’s trips to Munich seem to have begun in 2015, as the flight data shows. The following year, Igor Zelensky – one of Russia’s most successful ballet dancers – became the director of the Bavarian State Ballet. It was at about this time that Tikhonova is thought to have separated from her husband, the oligarch scion Kirill Shamalov.
At the Bavarian State Ballet, it is no secret that Zelensky has powerful friends in Russia. Well before he became the target of criticism in spring 2022 for his refusal to distance himself from the invasion of Ukraine, he made a sanguine appearance in Crimea at Putin’s side. He was also appointed to the supervisory board of Russia’s National Cultural Heritage Foundation. His proximity to the regime was never particularly hidden. Nor was it a problem until the beginning of the war.
Milan, London, Kitzbühel
Tikhonova’s pleasure trips weren’t only to Bavaria. According to flight bookings and hotel reservations, Putin’s daughter and her entourage visited additional destinations popular among the international jet set: Granada, Milan, London, Bologna and Kitzbühel.
It remains unclear, however, who paid for it all. Hotel stays just in Bavaria during the years 2018 to 2020 cost around 50,000 euros. On top of that are the more than 300 flights revealed by the leaked data. Most of those trips were operated by Russian flagship carrier Aeroflot, but there are a few private jet bookings as well. And this despite the fact that the Russian president is fond of fulminating in public about the alleged decadence of the West. The Kremlin declined to comment on Tikhonova’s trips and how they were paid for. Katerina Tikhonova and Igor Zelensky did not respond to attempts by DER SPIEGEL to contact them.
One of the stranger elements of this story is the fact that the data also includes a fake passport belonging to Tikhonova, issued under the name Ekaterina Kusnetsova, apparently an alias that German officials were unaware of. The passport with Tikhonova’s real name, meanwhile, has a different birthdate and birthplace than those listed for her in European databases. It is unclear what the inconsistencies might mean.
Such techniques and tricks could become more important for Katerina Tikhonova in the future. In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the European Union has slapped sanctions and travel bans on numerous people in Putin’s orbit. Tikhonova, the woman who loves Bavaria so much, has been included on that list since the beginning of April.
With Reporting by Roman Anin