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

When I was a foreign correspondent in West Berlin during the dying days of the Cold War in 1988, a British spy gave me a vivid insight into the state of Germany’s 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. ‘It’ll be on every desk in the Politburo the next morning.’

Clearly little has changed in the intervening years.

On Friday, the Russians revealed that they had eavesdropped on a discussion between the head of the Luftwaffe and three top air force colleagues about the highly contested question of donating Germany’s long-range Taurus missiles to Ukraine.

Such weaponry would help that country strike Russia’s logistics depots and supply lines, such as the Kerch Strait Bridge that links Crimea to Russia proper.

Top brass in any self-respecting country would conduct such sensitive discussions on encrypted lines using special handsets, with the participants in secure locations — an arrangement known in this country as a ‘STRAP environment’.

But the gormless Germans used Webex, a conference-call system akin to Zoom.

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky and German chancellor Olaf Scholz shake hands after signing a security deal last month

One participant dialled in from Singapore — using his bog-standard phone. So, too, did the Russian intruders. Unbelievably, nobody noticed the extra, silent participant.

Nothing was decided on the call. The missiles’ delivery remains blocked by German chancellor Olaf Scholz. But the 38-minute recording, released by the Kremlin, did reveal that he has lied to the German public.

According to the brass hats, well-trained Ukrainians could program the missiles with targeting data — something Scholz had claimed would require German specialists on the ground in Ukraine. This would be an impossibly provocative step in his view.

But the worst damage was done not to reputations but to allied security.

‘If we’re asked about delivery methods, I know how the British do this. They always transport them in Ridgeback armoured 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 on an open phone line is a sackable offence. But you cannot sack a whole country. Western allies are confronting the reality that our biggest and richest European ally is an appalling liability.

No 10 yesterday described the leak as ‘a very serious matter’ but declined to be drawn on whether there are plans to restrict our intelligence- sharing with Berlin.

But no one would blame them if they were considering just such a response. After all, Scholz is in the doghouse for other reasons, too.

Only last Monday, he let slip that British soldiers were on the ground in Ukraine assisting with the use of our Storm Shadow missile system.

This would come as no surprise to Moscow. But it is still embarrassing to have a sensitive detail blurted out by the leader of a supposedly trustworthy partner.

Chairman of the Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee, Alicia Kearns, didn’t hold back, describing the blunder as ‘wrong, irresponsible and a slap in the face’.

The bleak truth is that, in the eyes of Western allies, Germany is now regarded as worse than useless.

And no branch of its security set-up is in a more parlous state than its clueless, leaky secret services. A senior official in the German foreign intelligence service, identified only as Carsten L, and an alleged accomplice, Arthur E, went on trial in December for spying for Russia. The pair were 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’.

Yet it is no laughing matter for the Ukrainians that Scholz dithers on sending weapons. High hopes of the Zeitenwende — ‘change of eras’ — that he announced after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 have shrivelled.

Sitting on the north European plain, Germany and its supply lines would be vital in rushing aid and ammunition to the front

Sitting on the north European plain, Germany and its supply lines would be vital in rushing aid and ammunition to the front 

Germany’s puny military remains under-equipped, ill-led and cash-strapped. Berlin’s aversion to hard thinking about security lies partly in its two catastrophic defeats last century, and its role as a potential nuclear battleground during the Cold War.

This past stokes anti-Americanism and anti-militarism. ‘Even the worst peace is better than the best war,’ said a leading German thinktanker as Ukraine began its struggle for survival.

The idea that freedom might be worth dying for counts for nothing.

Greed also plays a big role. Germany has obsessively pursued lucrative deals with Russia and China.

That contributed to Germany’s blind spot when it came to its eastern neighbours such as Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Yet it was these countries that the Hitler-Stalin pact fed into the meat-grinder in 1939.

Germany owes them a huge historical debt but, instead of making strenuous efforts to boost their security, Berlin blocked Nato defence plans for these states for years.

Worse, German spymasters stole their secrets. As I revealed in my book Deception, the German BND — the counterpart to our MI6 — recruited a top defence official in Estonia, Herman Simm, in order to keep an eye on American influence there.

What the Germans did not know was that Simm was also spying for the Russians. The damage was colossal.

I am no Germanophobe. I lived and worked there for many years. I tried to alert Germans to the danger presented by nascent, and now revived, Russian imperialism. The response was patronising and incredulous.

Meanwhile, Russian spies, thugs and crooks ran riot under the noses of the bureaucracy-bound German police and security services.

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

Ultra-strict data-protection and privacy laws stop German authorities conducting the simplest security checks.

The consequences of this were recently highlighted by journalist Michael Colborne, who took only 30 minutes to track down a fugitive Left-wing terrorist, 65-year-old Daniela Klette, of the murderous Baader-Meinhof gang.

She had been living in Berlin under a false identity, despite being on Germany’s most-wanted list. A simple internet picture search led to her hasty arrest by the hitherto ignorant German police.

Germany’s policy makes it the weakest link in Europe’s defence. Suppose that Russia, boosted by success in Ukraine, tests Nato’s resolve in Poland or the Baltic states?

These states would respond with flinty and furious resistance. We and other allies will want to help them. But suppose Germany cries ‘Diplomaten statt Granaten’ — ‘Diplomats instead of grenades’ — and demands that the crisis be solved through talks not war?

Sitting, as it does, on the North European Plain, Germany and its supply lines would be vital in rushing aid and ammunition to the front. Yet Berlin might 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 slumbers as 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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