Russian espionage sparks memories of Cold War Berlin

The arrest of a military officer accused of passing information to Moscow adds to fears of a wider infiltration of Germany by the Kremlin’s secret services

Russia Cold War
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius during a visit to Bad Reichenhall on August 3.DPA vía Europa Press (DPA vía Europa Press)

When Berlin was divided by its infamous wall, the city was reputed to be the spy capital of the Eastern communist bloc and also of the democratic and capitalist West. This appeared to be condemned to history when the Iron Curtain came down, marking the end of the Cold War. However, the city, which later became the capital of reunified Germany, did not lose its appeal to the secret services. Indeed, eight years ago, the then head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), the country’s counterintelligence services, Hans-Georg Maassen, referred to the city as a modern, active and thriving “espionage capital of Europe.”

The city continues to draw agents, most of whom come from Russia. President Vladimir Putin — who in his youth served as a KGB officer in the now defunct German Democratic Republic (GDR) — and his government are keen to understand everything about the assistance Germany has been providing to Ukraine since the Kremlin-ordered invasion on February 24, 2022.

Last Wednesday, the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Koblenz announced the arrest of Thomas H., a captain who worked for the German Army’s Office of Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service Support, the agency in charge of the procurement of armaments and equipment for the Armed Forces. Thomas H., a supporter of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and a sworn friend of Russia, was spotted several times in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin and in the vicinity. “He seemed insecure, like a shy deer,” said a state security official from the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), which is investigating the case in conjunction with the BfV and the Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD).

According to the German Prosecutor’s Office, last May Thomas H. supplied information to the Russian Consulate in Bonn and the Moscow Embassy in Berlin. “On one occasion, he transmitted information obtained in the course of his professional activity, with the purpose of having it transferred to a Russian secret service,” the institution reported.

The arrest of the German captain triggered a wave of reactions among politicians and intelligence services in Germany, where it is believed that Russian espionage has infiltrated many places.

These concerns are not misplaced. A few weeks after the attack on Ukraine began, the Berlin city-state government announced that spies from at least three Russian secret services were operating out of the Russian embassy on the city’s Unter den Linden avenue. These were the successor to the KGB, the Federal Security Service (FSB); the Foreign Intelligence Service (SWR), whose agents passed themselves off as diplomats or journalists; and the Russia’s military intelligence service (GRU).

“There must be over 100 spies with diplomatic cover, and a year ago there were almost 150,″ said a Foreign Ministry official, pointing out that his department expelled 40 foreign agents in April 2022. “The entrances to the Russian Embassy in Berlin and the Russian Consulates General in Bonn, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Leipzig and Munich are filmed and monitored 24 hours a day by cameras of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution [German counterintelligence].”

Disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks

“This case [the arrest of Thomas H.] shows that our security forces are closely monitoring Russian espionage in Germany and are taking appropriate measures against it,” said the Minister of the Interior, Nancy Faeser. “As a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the threat posed by espionage, disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks has taken on a new dimension,” she warned.

The threat had previously been reported at the beginning of July by the Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD), which warned of heightened attention from Russian and Chinese espionage services on the German military. “The intelligence services of both countries have been identified as the most active espionage operators,” said the MAD in its annual report, in recalling that the war in Ukraine is playing a central role in the intensity of the intelligence services. Germany has supplied arms, ammunition and equipment to Kyiv, and provides training to members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

“Supplies of equipment and weaponry to Ukraine, the training of Ukrainian soldiers in Germany and the increased military presence on NATO’s eastern flank have led to a growing interest of foreign intelligence services, particularly from Russia, in the activities, intentions and actions carried out by the army,” said the president of the MAD, Martina Rosenberg, in a report from the agency. “The huge number of Russian intelligence service employees deployed here confirms Germany’s outstanding value,” warn the MAD, which now claims that in view of the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, “the reinforcement of counterintelligence and the fight against espionage and possible sabotage is more urgent than ever.”

Growing hybrid threat

The arrest of Thomas H. was labelled as “a success” by the Defense Minister, Boris Pistorius. “We are quick and alert. We must continue to reinforce the personnel of the military counterintelligence service on an ongoing basis,” he said. “In times of war in Ukraine, we have to adapt to the growing hybrid threat. But one thing is clear: we are wide awake and will do our absolute best to prosecute every case vigorously.”

The chairman of the Bundestag [the German federal parliament] secret services control committee, Konstantin von Notz (The Greens), also described the arrest as a “success for counterintelligence,” but he said the arrest dramatically showed how Germany had become the focus of attention of intelligence services of autocracies such as Russia or China. “We are not in a James Bond movie or the Cold War, but these agencies have become more relevant than ever,” said the politician.

The arrest of Captain Thomas H. was not the first to impact the country, and it may not be the last. In December last year, an agent of the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) was arrested for allegedly providing information to a Russian intelligence service. Unlike the current case, the officer and an alleged accomplice arrested in January are also being investigated for treason for disclosing state secrets. In November 2022, a reserve officer of the Armed Forces was handed a sentence of one year and nine months for spying for Russia. Between 2014 and 2020 he leaked documents and information to Russian secret services using contacts at the Russian Embassy in Berlin.

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