Nato diplomats confirm report of Russian plot to assassinate Europe’s top defence boss

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Nato diplomats have confirmed a report that Russia plotted to assassinate the head of Europe’s largest arms manufacturer over his company’s support for Ukraine as concern rises about the Kremlin’s sabotage campaign.

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.

Papperger told the Financial Times that the German government had established a “great level of security around my person”, as he indicated he believed a CNN report that US intelligence had discovered a Russian plot to kill him.

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

A source 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.

But there was limited discussion of the case at the Washington Nato summit, the diplomats said, with Berlin keen to play it down among alliance officials.

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

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.

According to the report, US intelligence agents warned their German counterparts of a Russian plan to kill Papperger. The German side reacted by increasing protection of the arms chief.

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

A spokesperson for Scholz said they were unable to comment. Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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 also confirmed to 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 warplane will 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, who declined to comment specifically on the CNN report, said: “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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