1. Home
  2. Politics
  3. world
  4. news
  5. Billionaire FBI informant Peter Thiel dished about two Kremlin invites to private Putin meetings

Billionaire FBI informant Peter Thiel dished about two Kremlin invites to private Putin meetings

Mattathias Schwartz,Hans-Martin Tillack   

Billionaire FBI informant Peter Thiel dished about two Kremlin invites to private Putin meetings

It was the perfect hunting ground for a Kremlin operative looking to get his hooks into Peter Thiel, one of the most powerful men in Silicon Valley: an extravagant birthday party with hundreds of guests, held at Schloss Neuwaldegg, a 17th-century palace in the suburbs of Vienna. Flawless June weather, models taking selfies beside statues of Greek gods, a troupe of acrobats, Champagne. Tech executives mingled with politicians and artists before sitting down to dinner in a flower-bedecked banquet hall.

The guest of honor was Christian Angermayer, a gregarious German entrepreneur who had forged relationships with politicians across the world. The party, held on June 23, 2018, commemorated his 40th birthday.

Thiel was already friendly with Angermayer. Over the next few years he would pour millions into Angermayer-backed ventures as a coinvestor. And despite Thiel's eccentric, far-right politics, his own companies were indispensable to the US national security establishment. He had founded Palantir, an analytics company used by the Pentagon and the CIA. He was on the board at Facebook (now Meta) and had been an early investor in prominent US defense startups including SpaceX and Anduril — access that could give the Kremlin a powerful vantage into US security networks and Silicon Valley.

As the US government was coming to depend on private companies for critical top-secret technologies, Thiel was one of the biggest beneficiaries. That fact was likely on the mind of another one of Angermayer's guests, a tall, well-coiffed diplomat named Daniil Bisslinger, who worked in Moscow at the Kremlin's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Bisslinger had previously been an attaché working at the Russian Embassy in Berlin and sometimes served as Vladimir Putin's interpreter.

It was Angermayer who introduced Bisslinger to Thiel at the party, Thiel would later tell the FBI. After some small talk, Bisslinger made a pitch to Thiel: Thiel should travel to Russia to attend the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. (Angermayer himself had attended the forum a few years back, in 2012.) If Thiel chose to attend, Bisslinger said, Bisslinger would arrange for him to meet privately with Putin. Angermayer's attorneys denied that he was present for this portion of the conversation; later, Angermayer's spokesperson said he couldn't recall having introduced the two men.

Bisslinger's invitation to Thiel was casual, delivered in the course of a brief cocktail-party conversation. It might not have seemed like much to Angermayer's other party guests — just three well-dressed men, as Thiel recalled in his conversations with the FBI, amid a crowd of hundreds, chatting for a few minutes. One of them happened to be a billionaire; one of them happened to work for the Russian president.

But from a counterintelligence perspective, this was a big moment.

"If these facts are accurate, they would be of potentially significant counterintelligence interest," Frank Figliuzzi, a former FBI assistant director, told Insider. "Anytime a Russian official is inviting someone to meet with Vladimir Putin, that has potential significance."

Thiel demurred. Bisslinger gave Thiel a business card that identified him as an employee of the Kremlin's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Thiel did not follow up. Later, Thiel would tell the FBI that he didn't think Bisslinger was bluffing; he believed Bisslinger could indeed deliver a meeting with Putin.

But the conversation at the palace in Vienna was memorable enough for Bisslinger to reach out again to Thiel more than three years later, in January 2022. He approached Thiel's office with the same invitation — he could come to the St. Petersburg conference that summer and meet with Putin. By then, Thiel, like the rest of the world, had seen the signs that Russia was about to invade Ukraine. He wondered if Bisslinger's invitation was some kind of psy-op, a plot to make it appear as though the invasion wasn't going to happen, that everything was normal. Again, he did not respond.

What Bisslinger didn't know is that something had changed between the 2018 birthday party and the 2022 follow-up. Thiel had signed up to be a confidential human source — an informant, with the official code name "Philosopher," and an identification number — for the FBI. Thiel reported Bisslinger's two approaches to his bureau handlers, along with the names of two others: a German and a Russian. All three men, Thiel told the FBI, had tried to work their way into his circle in order to push the Kremlin's interests. Thiel's account of Bisslinger's invitations was first reported by the Atlantic. Insider is first to report that the initial meeting between Thiel and Bisslinger occurred at Angermayer's birthday party, and Thiel's claim that Angermayer himself made the introduction.

A few months later, the US intelligence community circulated a secret intelligence memo relaying Bisslinger's claim that he could arrange meetings with Putin. It included Bisslinger's phone number and email, as given on Bisslinger's business card.

Last month, Insider exclusively reported that Thiel was an FBI informant. He was recruited by another informant — Charles Johnson — and had regular meetings with Johnson's handler, an FBI special agent named Johnathan Buma. This account of what Thiel told the FBI about Angermayer and Bisslinger, a joint investigation by Insider and Welt, is based on the same three sources who provided that previous account. (These sources are the longtime Thiel associate Johnson plus two additional sources with knowledge of what Thiel reported to the FBI.) Insider and Welt also confirmed with a fourth source the details of the 2018 introduction by Angermayer, the 2018 conversation with Bisslinger, and the 2022 follow-up by Bisslinger.

In a letter to Insider, two attorneys representing Angermayer acknowledged that Thiel had indeed met Bisslinger at Angermayer's birthday party. Bisslinger, they wrote, "worked in Berlin in the Russian embassy and was pre-war a regular part of Berlin diplomatic circles."

"Even if Mr. Angermayer did introduce Mr. Thiel and Mr. Bisslinger," the lawyers wrote in another letter, "Mr. Angermayer is not—and cannot be—responsible for whatever Mr. Bisslinger and Mr. Thiel may or may not have discussed."

Later, a spokesperson for Angermayer wrote that Angermayer is "very confident that he did not make any such introduction," adding, "And, either way, Christian is not privy to anything that Mr. Thiel and Mr. Bisslinger may (or may not) have discussed."

Insider and Welt asked Angermayer how he knew Bisslinger, why he invited him to his 40th birthday party, and why (as Thiel recalls) he introduced Bisslinger to Thiel. Neither Angermayer nor his representatives gave a direct response to these questions. "More than 1,200 people were invited to the party and more than 500 attended," one of the representatives wrote. "It was a very broad invite list."

Thiel, a lawyer representing Johnathan Buma, and the FBI's national press office all declined to comment. Bisslinger and the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov did not respond to requests for comment. Angermayer declined to respond directly.

One can understand why Putin might have thought Thiel would be interested in meeting. The two men had a few things in common. Both had cultivated ties to conservative politicians in central Europe. Both favored CEO-style government where power is concentrated in the hands of wise decision-makers who surf the fickle currents of democratic whim. And both men worked to make Donald Trump the 45th president — Thiel through his political donations and Putin through a state-backed hack-and-leak operation.

The attempt to court fits in with two broader efforts.

First, Putin was using Germany, historically the NATO power with the least hostility toward Russia, as an outpost for winning over hearts and minds elsewhere. Putin was in the process of completing a second Nord Stream pipeline that would directly supply Germany with cheap Russian natural gas, bypassing Ukraine. Bisslinger's role in this effort was much more than a socialite who attended diplomatic events. An investigation by Der Spiegel, drawing on thousands of Bisslinger's emails, detailed how Bisslinger cultivated pro-Russia sentiment both in public and in private. Some of his greatest successes were members of the right-wing Alternative for Germany party, or AfD. Der Spiegel called those politicians "Putin's pawns."

Second, Putin perceived correctly that the same carrot-and-stick techniques he'd used to such political advantage on Russia's oligarchs could be deployed on a global scale to push Russia's interests with Western billionaires. He had some success with Elon Musk, who has reportedly spoken about phone calls with the Russian leader. Musk told his biographer about conversations with Russian diplomats that led him to deprive Ukrainian forces of Starlink internet access along the coast of occupied Crimea. That decision, in turn, scuttled a planned Ukrainian naval attack on Russian forces at Sevastopol.

If Putin had succeeded in forging a meaningful relationship with Thiel — and there is no evidence to suggest he succeeded — the biggest intelligence prize for Russia would have been Thiel's influence at Palantir, where he's served as chairman of the board since 2003. The CIA, the NSA, and the FBI have all reportedly used its software. Palantir recently won a $250 million contract to develop artificial intelligence for the Pentagon; another contract, worth as much as $463 million, is for battlefield-ready software to be used by US Special Operations Command. A proposed partnership between Palantir and Britain's National Health Service brings it closer to the NHS-supported UK Biobank, one of the world's largest troves of genetic data; however, a UK Biobank representative said only vetted researchers can get access to their data.

But even just a handshake with Thiel could have benefited Putin. "This could be another case of 'Look at me, I'm czar of Russia. I can reach anyone, anywhere,'" said an experienced Washington insider with connections to decision-makers in national security and international finance. "Plus, there's the external optics. A Putin-Thiel meeting would obviously cause an enormous frisson in Western intelligence circles."

Angermayer had long been known as a masterful networker, someone who knew how to fill a room with big names. He's shared a stage with Uma Thurman and rubbed shoulders with Robbie Williams and Queen Latifah. He's repeatedly invested in emerging and even speculative sectors — cryptocurrency, psychedelics, antiaging tech. He's long been an advisor to Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda. "Money Men" by Dan McCrum, a book about the Wirecard scandal, calls Angermayer "a business wunderkind with a mixed record and a very successful knack for attaching himself to voguey trends." A program for a private forum that Angermayer organized in 2020 on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference promised attendees face time with John Kerry, the heads of several Eastern European and Baltic countries, and the foreign ministers of Belarus and Iran. Richard Grenell, the former US intel chief who was then serving under Trump as US ambassador to Germany, spoke at Angermayer's private forum. A Twitter account run by the State Department posted a picture of his presentation, with Grenell standing in front of the logo of Apeiron Investment Group, Angermayer's Malta-domiciled family office. (Neither Grenell nor spokespeople for Kerry responded to requests for comment.)

Thiel was among the shiniest trophies in Angermayer's contact list. The two men had known each other for years. In February 2017, Angermayer invited business partners to a roundtable talk with Thiel in Munich. The invitation referred to Thiel as his "close friend."

But Angermayer's personal fortune was far smaller than Thiel's, and he'd never hit a home run anywhere near the scale of PayPal or Facebook. In 2021, Angermayer helped take two companies public on Nasdaq. The first, Sensei Biotherapeutics, was supposed to help with cancer therapies. The second, Atai Life Sciences, intends to make psychedelic drugs, with Angermayer as founder and chairman. Today, both companies are trading for a fraction of their initial value.

Angermayer has shown some sympathy for Trump but otherwise expressed his view that he felt "very comfortable in the center." The German investor had shown at least some interest in Russian politics as well. In 2012, one of his companies prepared a trip for business partners and friends to Germany, China, and Russia, where a meeting with Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia's prime minister, was planned, according to a draft program. The trip never wound up happening. (Angermayer "does not know Medvedev, and has never communicated with Medvedev in any way," his spokesperson wrote.) After Trump won the presidential election in November 2016, Angermayer sent an analysis to business partners and friends in which he wrote: "Better relations with Russia and less intervention globally will definitely make the world a more peaceful place."

Thiel seems to have felt the same way at the time, asking Maureen Dowd of The New York Times if the West would be better off with Russia in its corner, or in China's. "There are these really bad dictators in the Middle East, and we got rid of them and in many cases there's even worse chaos," he said.

The host of Angermayer's birthday party and owner of the palace in Vienna was the Austrian investor Alexander Schütz, who joined the supervisory board of Deutsche Bank in 2017 when Chinese company HNA, which had business ties with him, became a major shareholder in the bank. In 2021 he stepped down from the board. His wife, Eva Schütz, is the majority owner of a media outlet called Exxpress. It has sometimes been criticized as being Russia-friendly. In an interview with the Russian ambassador to Austria in July 2022, Exxpress itself used the Kremlin propaganda phrase "special operation" to describe Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Schütz declined to comment about the meeting between Thiel and Bisslinger.

Also among the guests at the party on June 23, 2018, was — according to his calendar and to reports — Heinz-Christian Strache. At the time, he was the Austrian vice chancellor and chairman of the right-wing party FPÖ, known for its Russia-friendly views.

Yet another invitee was Markus Braun, then the CEO of the German company Wirecard, which collapsed in 2020 — Germany's biggest fraud scandal in years. Jan Marsalek, a former Wirecard board member, is now on Interpol's most-wanted list and believed to be hiding in Russia. British authorities alleged that he had collaborated with five people suspected of being Russian spies. Marsalek was also an acquaintance of Angermayer and took part in the roundtable talks he organized with Grenell and other leaders in Munich in February 2020. The previous year, Angermayer received a 13 million euro payout, about $14 million, for arranging for an infusion of $1.1 billion from SoftBank into Wirecard. He has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Angermayer's view of Russia appears to have changed after Putin's 2022 invasion of Ukraine. He encouraged his Twitter followers to "send our love to Ukraine and a big f..k you to Putin" and called the Russian leader a "sad example" of how COVID-19-related isolation can lead to deteriorating mental health.

Caroline Haskins, Katherine Long, and Jack Newsham contributed reporting.

Mattathias Schwartz is chief national security correspondent at Insider. He can be reached at

Hans-Martin Tillack is chief reporter on the investigative team of Welt and Welt am Sonntag. He can be reached a

Popular Right Now