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Germany slams Russia for 'information war' after spy leak

Published March 3, 2024last updated March 3, 2024

Germany's Defense Minister Boris Pistorius accuses Russia of an 'information war' after a leak of sensitive military talks on Ukraine. He said Moscow is seeking to "destabilize" the country.

Picture of a Luftwaffe Eurofighter Typhoon equipped with Taurus cruise missiles
Opposition lawmakers in Germany say an inquiry is not off the table following the release of audio of senior military officers discussing possibly sending Taurus missiles to UkraineImage: MBDA/abaca/picture alliance

Moscow was waging an "information war" against Germany by intercepting and releasing a sensitive discussion among high-ranking Bundeswehr military officers concerning Ukraine, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said.

Reacting to the leak for the first time on Sunday, Pistorius accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of seeking to sow disunity and create divisions within Germany.

"It is about using this recording to destabilize and unsettle us," the German minister said, adding that he "hoped that Putin will not succeed."

Boris Pistorius
Pistorius told reporters in Berlin the audio leak was part of Russia's attempt to sow divisionImage: Matthias Schrader/AP/picture alliance

The head of Russian state broadcaster RT, Margarita Simonyan, released a 38-minute audio recording of four officers discussing the possibility of sending Taurus missiles to Ukraine late on Friday. On Saturday, the Defense Ministry in Berlin said it believed the audio was genuine and that the conversation had been wiretapped.

What else did Pistorius say?

"The incident is much more than just the interception and publication of a conversation ... It is part of an information war that Putin is waging," the defense minister said.

He added that he was yet to receive any information about further leaks that might have been intercepted by Moscow. He said the results of an internal investigation were expected early next week.

Pistorius pointed out that one of the issues being looked at was whether the right platform was chosen for the meeting. The conversation reportedly took place on the Webex communication platform. 

The minister said he would not "speculate on personnel consequences" before the investigation into the matter has been concluded. He did not rule out "disciplinary action" against those who are proven to "have acted wrongly."

German defense minister: Russia running 'information war'

Improved training for senior military officers?

Parliament's special commissioner to the military, Eva Högl from Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Social Democrats, meanwhile called for improved training on secure communication for senior military officers.

"Firstly, all those responsible at every level of the Bundeswehr must immediately receive comprehensive training on secure communications," Högl told the Funke group of newspapers on Sunday. "Secondly, the stable possibility for secure and secret information and communication transfer must be ensured." 

If this were not already possible, Högl said, then immediate upgrades were required. The parliamentarian also advocated rapid and increased engagement in counterespionage work, particularly from the Military Counterintelligence Service known by the acronym MAD.

Germany probes Russian tapping of Ukraine talks

Opposition moots parliamentary inquest

The discussion of potentially sending Taurus missiles to Ukraine had been in the news this week, with Scholz saying it would not be possible in large part because it would require German troops to be stationed in Ukraine or at the very least to cooperate directly on operating the weapons. 

"German soldiers can at no point and in no place be linked with the targets that this [Taurus] system reaches. Not even in Germany," Scholz had said. He claimed it was well known to military insiders that France and Britain, which have both sent similar weapons to Ukraine, had available solutions for target control problems that "can't be done in Germany." 

German chancellor: 'What is being reported is very serious'

These comments had instantly courted criticism, including from the head of the Bundestag parliament's defense committee, Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, who described the chancellor's claim as "false." 

Opposition politicians in Germany told the Sunday papers that their understanding of the transcripts suggested that Scholz's claim about the need for German boots on the ground to operate Taurus missiles may have been false. 

"The reports are disconcerting in two different ways," said senior Bavarian conservative CSU politician Alexander Dobrindt in an interview with Der Spiegel. "Firstly, because the Russians evidently listened in on sensitive security discussions, and also because the chancellor may have explained his refusal to send Taurus missiles with a false assertion." 

Dobrindt said these questions would require investigation. 

"The chancellor must explain himself in the Bundestag," he said. "Given this set of facts, a parliamentary inquest cannot be ruled out." 

Taurus delivery so far refused, but not ruled out entirely

A Christian Democrat (CDU) defense policy expert, Roderich Kiesewetter, said he believed Russia had leaked the intercepted communication at this point in time intentionally in a bid to "undermine a Taurus delivery by Germany."

He told public broadcaster ZDF that it showed how "deeply" Russian spy services had already investigated German communications on this matter, and also speculated that it might be a bid to "divert the public discourse away from the Wirecard revelations and the funeral of Alexei Navalny."

What is on the supposed recording of German officers?

He was referring to the death of the prominent Russian opposition leader, and the latest Russian espionage allegations concerning senior members of the online financial services provider that imploded in 2020, whose former chief sales officer Jan Marsalek is still on the run and accused of coordinating espionage for Russia in Germany and elsewhere.

The Russian leak also came during a week in which French President Emmanuel Macron had said that the stationing of NATO troops in Ukraine should not be ruled out entirely at some point in the future, given how many other red lines had already been breached in the course of the past two years amid Russia's invasion. Macron's comments prompted other NATO leaders, Scholz included, to rush to put on record that they had no intention of sending troops to Ukraine.

Although Scholz has said several times that a Taurus delivery is not currently planned, also citing the missiles' ability to reach Moscow from Ukraine, he has stopped short of ruling it out altogether. And Germany has changed its mind and sent weaponry it initially refused to send to Kyiv on multiple occasions during the conflict, with Leopard tanks arguably the best known of many such examples.

The military officials also discussed during the leak whether and how Taurus missiles could be used to destroy a bridge, seemingly referring to the Kerch bridge linking occupied Crimea to mainland Russia. Russian officials portrayed this as proof of the intent to target its territory, while NATO and most of the international community would still consider it Ukrainian territory.

What is the Taurus missile capable of?

German intelligence investigating how leak happened

The MAD military intelligence unit is trying to ascertain precisely how Russia intercepted the conversation, according to the Defense Ministry. Media reports suggest the conversation took place on the Webex communication platform and that participants may not have adequately encrypted their participation.

Meanwhile, a former special parliamentary commissioner to the Bundeswehr, Hans-Peter Bartels, said he did not expect serious personnel consequences, for instance for the most senior officer in the discussion, Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz of the Luftwaffe air force.

"The federal government will not do Putin the favor of sacking Luftwaffe generals right now," Bartles predicted, speaking to the newspaper Tagesspiegel.

msh,rmt/nm (AFP, dpa, Reuters) 

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