Alarm bells have gone off in Western capitals over an expanding probe into alleged Russian espionage within Germany’s state intelligence service, the BND, and requests have been made for a significant revamp of the organization to strengthen its defenses against Russian espionage.
The case has raised concerns about how much possible harm may have been inflicted by a senior member of the German espionage service who is accused of passing information to Russia at a vital point in the war in Ukraine when the United States and its allies are sharing intelligence with Kyiv.
Germany has historically been an easy target for Russian agents, who are suspected of orchestrating the 2019 murder of one of Moscow’s opponents in the center of Berlin. Germany is a crucial ally in the Western effort to resist the Kremlin in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine.
The information about a potential Russian spy working for the BND is simply the most recent in a long line of troubling stories about alleged Russian espionage in Germany and other parts of Europe. According to intelligence analysts, there may be further Russian spies still hiding out, and according to German legislators, there is growing agreement that Berlin needs to overhaul its security services and adopt a tougher stance against Russian espionage.
Due to the sensitivity of the situation, a member of the German parliament who spoke on condition of anonymity said, “The administration is irritated and terrified that Russia has a spy at such a high position.”
The BND’s technical division, or Abteilung Technische Aufklärung, is a crucial part of the organization that supervises sensitive eavesdropping and other information gathered through technical means rather than by human informants. The employee under investigation, identified only as “Carsten L.,” worked there.
On Thursday, German authorities confirmed the arrest of a second person in connection with the investigation. This person is a German citizen who is not a BND employee and was detained on suspicion of assisting the BND officer in providing information to the Russians.
The second suspect, who German investigators have only named Arthur E., was detained Sunday at Munich Airport when he arrived on a flight from the United States.
According to prosecutors, “Arthur E. carried the information to Russia and passed it over to the intelligence service there.” According to German authorities, the FBI helped with the probe.
The discovery of a potential traitor within the nation’s espionage agency comes at a time when Germany has undergone a significant political transformation following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. The German government has abandoned its long-standing appeasement policy toward Moscow. Commentators and some lawmakers are using the case as evidence that Berlin needs to adopt a more forceful strategy to combat Russia’s aggressive political espionage.
If the claims are true, Russia needs to be given a very clear message. Unfortunately, there haven’t been many of these indications in the past, according to Greens politician and head of the parliamentary committee that monitors intelligence agencies, Konstantin von Notz. “Other nations have responded to comparable occurrences in a much more direct manner.”
The BND employee under investigation, a colonel in the military, was employed in the technical section, although it is still unclear exactly what his role and responsibilities were. Given his position of authority, it’s likely that he “had access to not only information collected by the BND, but also information from partner services,” according to Wolfgang Krieger, a University of Marburg professor who has specialized in the intelligence services and who has testified as an expert witness in previous espionage cases.
According to him, the case could be “damaging for ties between the BND and partner services” from allies. Because a spy poses a risk to the services’ personnel and operating procedures, less information may be provided to the BND as a result, and partner services should now exercise greater caution.
A BND representative said the situation is still under investigation and declined to comment. Also declining to comment were U.S. intelligence officials. The case’s specifics were originally covered by German media.
The BND president, Bruno Kahl, warned in a statement on the case in December that keeping material from becoming public would be crucial to the investigation’s success.
“In this particular circumstance, restraint, and caution are crucial. We are dealing with a player in Russia that is dishonest and willing to use violence, and we have to consider that,” he said. Every aspect of this operation that is made public benefits this adversary’s desire to destroy Germany.
Gerhard Conrad, a former senior BND officer, said it was too soon to determine any potential consequences of the suspected eavesdropping until the particular nature of the suspect’s work at the intelligence service was made public. “We would have to know the exact job of the accused employee to have a reliable picture here,” said Conrad, who is currently a visiting professor of intelligence studies at King’s College London.
A German man was found guilty in November of leaking intelligence to Russia while serving as a reserve officer in the German military, in addition to the BND case.
According to the daily Die Zeit, German authorities are also looking into whether two employees of the federal ministry of economy in Germany were Russian spies. The officials who are under investigation handled matters relating to energy supplies, possibly putting them in the thick of crucial choices on the Russian Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline to Germany, which has since been suspended.
The FBI-like Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, or BfV, in Germany, refuses to comment on the situation.
Although the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action stated that it works closely with federal law enforcement agencies, it could not directly comment on any individual case. To lessen Germany’s reliance on Russian natural gas, the ministry stated it has “totally changed the previous government’s Russia-friendly strategy.”
Before stepping down in 2021, Angela Merkel, a Christian Democrat who was seen as fearful of conflict with Russia, had held the position for 16 years. She was followed as Germany’s leader by Olaf Scholz of the left-leaning Social Democrats, who formed a coalition with the Greens and the Free Democrats.
The Russian security services are tenacious.
According to former U.S. intelligence personnel, current Western officials, and members of Germany’s parliament, Russia has engaged in an ongoing and frequently effective campaign of surveillance and political warfare against Germany by infiltrating the country’s political elites and security agencies.
“The Russians have expended a great deal of time and energy breaking into German institutions at all levels.” According to John Sipher, a former CIA intelligence officer who served for 28 years in the agency’s clandestine division and has assignments in Europe, Asia, and other locations, the Russian services are tenacious and have profited from a lax counterintelligence environment in Germany.
So, he continued, “you can expect that there are many sources inside the German government and corporate elite that are doing Moscow’s bidding when you have a poor defense coupled with a concentrated and relentless offense.”
A former Chechen separatist fighter was shot and killed in Berlin’s Tiergarten park in 2019. A Russian resident, who police claimed was an operative of the Russian FSB domestic intelligence organization operating on Moscow’s orders, was ultimately found guilty by a German court.
Russia refuted the claims. Vadim Kraskikov, the convicted assassin, asserted during his trial that he was not carrying out Moscow’s orders.
A member of the German parliament stated that the murder at the Tiergarten “shows that Russia has the perception that Germany is so weak that they can perform a contract killing in broad daylight in the government quarter in Berlin.” “That reveals something to you.”
Experts and Western officials claimed that Germany has previously undervalued the Russian threat and given counterintelligence operations a low priority, but that is now changing in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
We must also handle counterintelligence entirely differently than we have in the past, von Notz remarked. “We have been bringing this to your notice for a while. We must take very decisive action in light of the dramatic rise in security threats following Russia’s illegal war of aggression in Ukraine.
Conrad, a former BND official, claimed that German decision-makers disregarded security agencies’ repeated warnings regarding Berlin’s previous relations with Russia, notably its reliance on Russian natural gas imports.
Conrad said, “The services have been the silent critics here for years.”
To offer the intelligence service additional funds and clearer legal power to carry out its task, the German government has announced ideas to restructure it.
According to Conrad and other experts, the BND has been constrained by a lack of funding, a technological gap with many of its allies, and a complex legal system that makes dealing with enemies inside Germany very challenging.
Krieger stated that “the BND law does not fulfill the current needs.”
Politicians have been reluctant to give the German security services more authority due to the nation’s Nazi background and the totalitarian heritage of East Germany under Soviet rule. Instead, they have pushed for strict privacy and civil liberties protections. German officials have likewise attempted to avoid conflict and hoped that stronger economic connections would ease tensions, as they are acutely aware that Germany attacked Russia during World War II. However, the invasion of Ukraine has brought about a political paradigm shift, with Berlin now supporting economic sanctions against Russia while supplying artillery and tanks to Kyiv.
40 staffers of the Russian Embassy were expelled from Berlin in April of last year for allegedly working for Russian espionage services. The employees, according to German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, “have worked every day against our freedom and the cohesion of our community here in Germany,” she said in announcing the decision.
The expulsions and the ongoing investigation of the BND employee were hailed by Western diplomats and veteran U.S. intelligence agents as signs that Berlin’s attitude has changed.
According to a Western diplomat who is familiar with the situation, “this government is serious about dealing with it.”
The inability of Germany’s intelligence services to foresee Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not yet been the subject of any publicly publicized “lessons learned” review. A study of this nature would demonstrate Germany’s commitment to changing its strategy, the Western diplomat claimed.
“There has changed, without a doubt. How far will they go with it is the question.