By Maria Tsvetkova and Mari Saito
(Reuters) - A group of pro-Russian activists in Germany donated funds to a Russian army division fighting in Ukraine, and the money was used to purchase walkie-talkie radios, headphones and telephones, according to an officer in the division and messages from the group's organisers seen by Reuters.
The couple at the centre of the group, Elena Kolbasnikova and Max Schlund, handed the sum of 500 euros ($540) to the officer in person late last year. Their messages show they knew the money paid for telecommunications equipment - despite European Union sanctions which restrict the supply of such gear to Russia's military.
A Jan. 3 Reuters Special Report revealed that Kolbasnikova and Schlund were among a number of individuals in Germany who promote a pro-Moscow stance while maintaining undisclosed ties to the Russian state, sanctioned Russian entities or the far-right.
That report showed Kolbasnikova and Schlund received tickets from the Berlin arm of a Russian state cultural promotion agency, Rossotrudnichestvo, to travel to Moscow for a conference addressed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Berlin prosecutors have since said they are investigating the agency's Berlin office.
The new evidence gathered by Reuters indicates the couple are more actively involved in the Kremlin's military campaign in Ukraine than previously thought.
In a message sent in October to supporters in a private WhatsApp group, seen by Reuters, Kolbasnikova wrote: "We transferred 500 euros for the 42nd Motorised Rifle Division of the Russian Federation to buy radios, headphones and radio telephones."
"We spoke with them in Donetsk. They are deployed to the frontline. My husband served with one of these guys," She posted the message in capital letters beneath a dozen red exclamation marks.
An EU regulation from Feb. 25, 2022 bans supplying or financing the purchase of certain goods for the Russian military. The list of goods covered includes "radio equipment (e.g., transmitters, receivers and transceivers)."
Under German law, the criminal penalty for anyone found to have violated sanctions is up to five years in prison.
Kolbasnikova and Schlund gave the money, which they said they raised from supporters, to Russian officer Dmitry Tkachev in Rostov-on-Don, a city in the south of Russia, on their way back from a trip to Ukraine's Donbas, Tkachev told Reuters. The Donbas region is largely controlled by Russia.
At the request of his commander, Tkachev used the money to buy the communication equipment and sent it to the division, which is deployed on the frontline in eastern Ukraine, he said. Tkachev said he serves in the 42nd division and is responsible for signals and communications.
Asked to comment, Kolbasnikova said: "Our lawyer will give you an answer. And also, you will answer for your lies and provocations." She did not identify the lawyer.
In response to Reuters questions Schlund messaged a reporter: "Fuck you, idiot," and added a laughing emoji.
The Russian Defence Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. Oleg Silkin, the acting communications chief of the 42nd division, confirmed that Tkachev is in charge of purchasing equipment but said that the permanent communications chief, Nikolai Sitnikov, is on the frontline in Ukraine and only reachable through special military channels. Reuters was unable to contact him. Asked about details of the purchase, Silkin referred Reuters back to Tkachev. Germany's interior ministry, customs, justice ministry and economy ministry all declined to comment on the activities of the group led by Kolbasnikova and Schlund. The German government's press service did not respond.
The Office for the Protection of the Constitution in North Rhine Westphalia, the region where Schlund and Kolbasnikova live, said the couple's group tries to promote Moscow's official narrative regarding its aggression against Ukraine, but no personal information about them can be shared due to German data protection laws. The office did not reply to a question about Schlund and Kolbasnikova helping buy gear for the Russian military.
Schlund, who studied in a Russian military academy, moved to Germany in 2012. He later began a relationship with Kolbasnikova, who is originally from Ukraine and has worked in Germany as a nurse.
Since Moscow's Feb. 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the couple have organised protests in the city of Cologne, urging the German government to stop arming Ukraine and to make peace with Moscow.
As part of their activities, they have previously publicized how they gathered donations in Germany and used the money to bring humanitarian aid, including medicines, to people in the Donbas region during their visit last year.
The help for the 42nd division was disclosed to a circle of supporters in the WhatsApp group, to which Schlund and Kolbasnikova only admit people they have vetted, according to a person familiar with the group.
In her post about the radios and other gear, Kolbasnikova said she was sharing the information to show to supporters how their contributions had been spent. She and Schlund shared photos, voice notes and receipts relating to the transaction.
In one photo she posted, two unidentified men in camouflage gear are pictured next to open boxes of equipment laid out on the trunk of a Soviet-designed Lada car with a Donetsk licence plate. A telephone receiver, a Baofeng-branded radio, and a box of headphones can be seen. Baofeng is a Chinese firm.
Schlund posted in the WhatsApp group screenshots of receipts for the goods. The receipts are for purchases of five walkie-talkie radios, worth a total of 9,000 roubles ($125), and five Yealink SIP-T30P IP telephones. The devices, bought for around 3,000 roubles each, allow users to make phone calls via the Internet. Yealink too is China-based company.
The purchases were made on Oct. 3 and Oct. 4 in Rostov-on-Don, according to the receipts.
Kolbasnikova posted voice notes which she said were from one of the people serving in the 42nd division. In some of the voice notes, an unidentified man talks about arrangements for receiving the equipment his unit needs.
In the final voice note, the same man can be heard saying: "Hi brother, the order you gave money for was just handed over... We bought Baofeng radios, headphones for radio stations...not the built-in ones but the ones that come separately, IP telephones with modems, they are in boxes. It's a very useful thing, classified communications go through them, too. Huge thank you from the 42nd division, from the communications chief. You can say you supplied us with comms."
((Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova in New York and Mari Saito in Berlin; editing by Christian Lowe and Janet McBride))