Russian president Vladimir Putin met Official IRA in the 1980s
Russian president Vladamir Putin held meetings with the Official IRA during two visits to Belfast in the 1980s.
The former KGB intelligence officer was part of two separate delegations from the Soviet Union that visited Ireland in 1986, sources linked to the Official movement have claimed.
On both occasions Mr Putin travelled north where he met with representatives of the republican paramilitary group.
Mr Putin, who rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, resigned from the KGB in 1991 to take up a career in politics.
He later served as prime minister over two spells before being elected as Russian president for a third term in 2012.
Although the Official IRA called a permanent ceasefire in 1972 it continued to be involved in sporadic paramilitary activity in the years that followed.
It emerged from a split in the IRA in 1969 along with the more militant Provisional faction.
The Officials came into conflict with other republican groups, including the Provisionals, during the 1970s.
Dominated by left wing ideology, the Official movement retained strong links with authorities in the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991.
At the time of the trip to Ireland, Mr Putin was a senior KGB officer posted to communist East Germany, which at the time was part of group eastern European countries under the direction of the Soviet Union.
It is understood some members of the Soviet delegation provided false information about their professions, with some claiming they were journalists.
However, it is claimed they did give notice to British authorities that visiting members intended to cross the border into the north.
A source, who at the time was a well-placed figure in the Official IRA, said those behind the delegation “would have understood that to enter the UK people had to give an account of themselves and their passports”.
“Putin came north, the point of contact with the Soviets would have been ourselves,” the source said.
“It was low key, it certainly was not splashed across the news media or anything like that.
“It was a learning experience for them as well as reporting back what it was like on the ground, what is actually happening there, sometimes that became confused."
The source explained that Mr Putin initially visited the north in the spring of 1986 before returning for a second visit later that summer.
On both occasions he is said to have stayed “three or four days” and met with the Official IRA.
It is understood Mr Putin, who just over two decades later would rise through political ranks to lead his country, met with different “groups and societies” while in the north.
The source explained that the Officials facilitated meetings between the delegation and other groups.
“It was all done very quietly and below the radar,” he said.
“Others…had a chance to meet the delegation.”
It is suggested that members of the Official movement acted as ‘guides’ to Mr Putin and others while they were in the north.
The delegation travelled to various part of the north including south Down and south Armagh - which at the time was a hotbed of Provisional IRA activity and heavily militarised by the British army.
“Bandit Country was on the list both times,” the republican source said.
Mr Putin and other delegates are thought to have done “a bit of sightseeing” while Putin is also said to have enjoyed the Guinness at a social club in the Lower Falls Road area.
The republican source added that if British and US intelligence agencies were monitoring the delegation’s visit “they were not noticeable”.
“They were playing it low key,” he said.
One of those who accompanied Putin and other members of the delegation as a ‘guide’, a veteran member of the Official IRA, last night said that “when we were moving about with them we were keeping an eye open”.
The Official movement source explained that while seismic change was about to grip the Soviet Union cold war style politics were still to the fore.
“Again, Britain was an ally of the US and a leading member of Nato, the Soviets would have been somewhat dogmatic in their critique of what was happening, especially here,” he said.
The fact finding trip to Ireland came as fundamental change took hold in the Eastern bloc.
In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev was selected as leader of the Soviet Union.
Although remaining a committed socialist he immediately set about a process of reform and sought to improve relations with the west.
In the years that followed he withdrew Russian troops from Afghanistan and opened talks with US president Ronald Reagan about nuclear disarmament.
His policies of perestroika, restructuring, and glasnost, which encouraged openness, hastened huge change for the region.
The Official movement source said Mr Putin’s trip to Ireland in the 1980s should to be viewed in the context of the change that was starting to take place in the Soviet Union.
“Gorbachev was like a whirlwind….there was a big charm offensive, it was not just for the optics, there was serious intent,” he said.
While the Soviets are known to have supplied weapons to the Official IRA during the late 1960s and 1970s but by the 1980s “it would have been greatly reduced”, the source said.
He confirms that when the delegation including Putin travelled to Ireland in 1986 weapons were “not top of the agenda”.
By that time, according to the source “people acting as the conduit….would have been the north Koreans”.
“They would have been front of shop,” he added.
It has previously been reported that members of the Official IRA travelled to the Asian nation in the late 1980s for training.
The communist state, and the Official movement, have been linked to the ‘super dollar’ scam, which resulted in high quality fake US dollars being distributed across the globe.
The republican source revealed that there is little relationship with the current Russian hierarchy.
“The right wing cabal running Russia would not have any sympathy with the type of politics were are engaging in,” he said.
“It is Russian ultra nationalist and when these people arrived on the scene it was a guarantee of trouble.
“At some stage in proceedings Putin has become a prisoner to them.”
However, the reform efforts made by Mr Gorbachev are still held in high regard by the Official movement.
The source added that Mr Gorbachev “always kept an interest in what was happening”.
The former Russian leader penned an article for the United Irishman, a newspaper linked to the Official movement, to mark the 200th anniversary of the 1798 rebellion.
“It was an exciting time, that whole Gorbachev era,” the source said.
“The man never relented on his socialist principles and warned the way things were going it was not good for the future of Russia or international relations.”