Germany on the defensive after Russian spying scandal

Leaked military tape causes anger as ministers blame a WebEx security blunder

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Germany was trying to limit damage to its reputation on Tuesday after a Russian spy scandal sparked frustration within Nato.

German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius played down security fears after Russia leaked a recording of a classified military meeting on the war in Ukraine.

"Of course we are reliable," Mr Pistorius said on a visit to Stockholm.

He found an ally in soon-to-be Nato member Sweden, whose Defence Minister Pal Jonsson agreed on Germany's reliability, but others appear less satisfied.

Mr Pistorius has been calling allies to insist the leak was a one-off security mistake.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock hastily added a trip to Paris to her schedule on Tuesday, while Gewrman Chancellor Olaf Scholz met an elite commando unit to show his support for the armed forces.

Embarrassing leak

The recording leaked by Russia had something to aggravate almost everyone.

The Kremlin seized on chatter about striking a Crimean bridge to suggest Germany was a party to the war, an impression Mr Scholz has been desperate to avoid.

Talk of Britain having “people on the ground” in Ukraine was the second time in days that Germany appeared to have given that away, sparking irritation with Mr Scholz in Westminster.

At home, his argument that providing Taurus missiles would require German troops in Ukraine seemed to be contradicted by the leak, in which it was said Kyiv’s forces could operate them alone.

A further complaint in Berlin is that for all of Mr Scholz’s talk about a shift to a more robust security policy (known as the Zeitenwende, or watershed), the military’s apparent clumsiness tells a different story.

“Instead of following the arguments of his own officers, Olaf Scholz is doing exactly what Putin wants” by not sending the Taurus missiles, said conservative member Norbert Roettgen, a foreign policy specialist.

“That is disastrous as a signal to Moscow, because it shows that Russian pressure works.”

Reinhard Brandl, who sits on a defence committee in parliament, said it was time for ministers to strengthen Germany’s cyber defence after the latest Russian spy scandal.

An alleged Russian spy in Germany’s foreign intelligence service was arrested on suspicion of treason in 2022. The same year, a guard at the British embassy in Berlin admitted passing secrets to Moscow.

“Russia listened to a conversation among military officers about the deployment of Taurus in Ukraine. That shows once more that we’re still waiting for the Zeitenwende in cyber defence,” Mr Brandl said.

German response

German officials have hit back by accusing Russia of spreading propaganda and trying to sow division among Ukraine’s biggest backers.

Mr Pistorius said the leak was a one-off security mistake by a general who dialled into a WebEx call on an unsecured line from Singapore, possibly using hotel WiFi.

The call is believed to have been a “random hit” for Russian wiretappers and German military chiefs do not think they have a mole, according to Mr Pistorius.

The fact that Russia went public with its secret intelligence shows that "Putin is not interested in the information itself that he gathers", Mr Pistorius said.

"He just wanted to embarrass us, and to try to divide our unity and try to undermine our support for Ukraine."

Ms Baerbock will follow her French meeting by hosting the UK's Foreign Secretary David Cameron on Thursday.

While UK ministers have refrained from criticising Mr Scholz, leading security voices have not held back after the chancellor implied British and French troops were helping Ukraine to fire missiles.

Alicia Kearns, the head of the UK Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, last week described Mr Scholz’s comments as “wrong, irresponsible and a slap in the face to allies”.

Updated: March 06, 2024, 8:14 AM