Home Australia EDWARD LUCAS: If you want to leak a secret to the Kremlin, tell the Germans. Why Berlin is NATO’s weakest link

EDWARD LUCAS: If you want to leak a secret to the Kremlin, tell the Germans. Why Berlin is NATO’s weakest link

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz shake hands after signing a security agreement last month.

When I was a foreign correspondent in West Berlin during the final days of the Cold War in 1988, a British spy gave me a vivid insight into the state of the German intelligence services.

“If you want the Kremlin to take something seriously, give it to the Germans and tell them it’s a secret,” he said. The next morning he will be on every desk in the Politburo.

It is evident that little has changed in the intervening years.

On Friday, the Russians revealed that they had eavesdropped on a discussion between the Luftwaffe chief and three senior air force colleagues over the highly controversial issue of Germany’s donation of long-range Taurus missiles to Ukraine.

That type of weaponry would help that country attack Russia’s logistics warehouses and supply lines, such as the Kerch Strait bridge that links Crimea with Russia proper.

The top brass of any country worth its salt would conduct such sensitive discussions over encrypted lines using special phones, with participants in secure locations, an arrangement known in this country as the “STRAP environment.”

But the German fools used Webex, a Zoom-like conference calling system.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz shake hands after signing a security agreement last month.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz shake hands after signing a security agreement last month.

One participant dialed from Singapore, using his standard telephone. The Russian intruders did the same. Incredibly, no one noticed the quietest participant.

Nothing was decided at the call. The launch of the missiles remains blocked by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. But the 38-minute recording, released by the Kremlin, revealed that he lied to the German public.

According to top brass, well-trained Ukrainians could program the missiles with targeting data, something Scholz had claimed would require German specialists on the ground in Ukraine. In his opinion, this would be an incredibly provocative step.

But the greatest damage was not to the reputation but to the security of the allies.

‘If you ask us about delivery methods, I know how the British do it. They are always transported in Ridgeback armored vehicles. They have several people on the ground,” said the head of the German air force, Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz, referring to the Storm Shadow missiles that we have donated to Ukraine.

Discussing military secrets over an open telephone line is a fireable offense. But you can’t loot an entire country. Western allies face the reality that our largest and richest European ally is an awful burden.

No 10 yesterday described the leak as “a very serious matter” but declined to know whether there are plans to restrict our intelligence sharing with Berlin.

But no one would blame them if they were considering that answer. After all, Scholz is also in the doghouse for other reasons.

Last Monday he let slip that there were British soldiers in Ukraine helping with the use of our Storm Shadow missile system.

This would not surprise Moscow. But it is still embarrassing for the leader of a supposedly trustworthy partner to reveal a sensitive detail.

House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee chair Alicia Kearns did not hold back, describing the mistake as “wrong, irresponsible and a slap in the face”.

The grim truth is that, in the eyes of the Western Allies, Germany is now considered worse than useless.

And no branch of its security system is in a more sorry state than its clueless and leaking secret services. A senior German foreign intelligence service official, identified only as Carsten L, and an alleged accomplice, Arthur E, were tried in December for spying for Russia. The couple was arrested, not thanks to German diligence, but thanks to a tip from the FBI.

Former CIA officer John Sipher describes German spies as: “Arrogant, incompetent, bureaucratic, useless.”

However, for Ukrainians it is no laughing matter that Scholz hesitates to send weapons. The high hopes for the Zeitenwende (the “change of eras”) that he announced after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 have been dashed.

Located on the Northern European Plain, Germany and its supply lines would be vital in sending aid and ammunition to the front.

Located on the Northern European Plain, Germany and its supply lines would be vital in sending aid and ammunition to the front.

Located on the Northern European Plain, Germany and its supply lines would be vital in sending aid and ammunition to the front.

The weak German army remains ill-equipped, poorly led and cash-strapped. Berlin’s aversion to thinking seriously about security is due in part to its two catastrophic defeats last century and its role as a potential nuclear battleground during the Cold War.

This past fuels anti-Americanism and antimilitarism. “Even the worst peace is better than the best war,” said a leading German think tank as Ukraine began its fight for survival.

The idea that freedom is worth dying for counts for nothing.

Greed also plays an important role. Germany has obsessively pursued lucrative deals with Russia and China.

That contributed to Germany’s blind spot relative to its eastern neighbors, such as Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. However, it was these countries that the Hitler-Stalin pact put into the meat grinder in 1939.

Germany owes them an enormous historical debt but, instead of making strenuous efforts to improve its security, Berlin blocked NATO defense plans for these states for years.

Worse still, German spymasters stole their secrets. As I revealed in my book Deception, the German BND (our MI6 counterpart) recruited a senior defense official in Estonia, Herman Simm, to monitor American influence there.

What the Germans didn’t know was that Simm was also spying for the Russians. The damage was colossal.

I’m not a Germanophobe. I lived and worked there for many years. I tried to warn the Germans about the danger posed by the nascent and now revived Russian imperialism. The response was condescending and incredulous.

Meanwhile, Russian spies, thugs and criminals ran rampant under the noses of the German police and security services, tied to bureaucracy.

That reflects another legacy of the past: a resistance to state surveillance, thanks to the long shadows cast by Hitler’s Gestapo and later by the Stasi, East Germany’s communist secret police.

Ultra-strict data protection and privacy laws prevent German authorities from carrying out even the simplest security checks.

The consequences of this were recently highlighted by journalist Michael Colborne, who took just 30 minutes to track down a fugitive left-wing terrorist, Daniela Klette, 65, from the Baader-Meinhof murder gang.

He had been living in Berlin under a false identity, despite being on Germany’s most wanted list. A simple Internet photo search led to his hasty arrest by the previously ignorant German police.

Germany’s policy makes it the weakest link in Europe’s defense. Suppose Russia, buoyed by success in Ukraine, tests NATO’s resolve in Poland or the Baltic States?

These states would respond with tough and furious resistance. We and other allies will want to help you. But suppose Germany shouts ‘Diplomaten statt Granaten’ (‘Diplomats instead of grenades’) and demands that the crisis be resolved through talks and not war?

Situated as it is on the North European Plain, Germany and its supply lines would be vital in sending aid and ammunition to the front. However, Berlin could bristle at direct involvement and close its borders and airspace to Allied reinforcements.

This nightmarish prospect is not fiction. Germany closed its airspace to reinforcement flights at the start of the Ukraine war. The uncomfortable truth is that Germany sleeps while Europe burns, and that means sleepless nights for the rest of us.

Edward Lucas is the author of The New Cold War: Putin’s Threat to Russia and the West.

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