Diplomatic missions: Putin’s spies under pressure

Status: 04/04/2023 06:00 a.m

The Russian embassy in Berlin is considered the center of espionage. A year ago, Germany expelled 40 Russian secret service agents in one fell swoop. More could follow soon.

Manuel Bewarder and Florian Flade, WDR/NDR

The first rockets had landed in Ukraine just a few hours earlier, when police officers set up barriers around the Russian embassy in Berlin. The police protection for the gigantic building directly on Unter Den Linden had been massively increased – as provided for in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. And yet: Germany’s handling of the embassy and its employees has changed significantly since then.

Manuel Warder

Florian Flade

It is now almost exactly a year since Germany officially branded the embassy as the center of Moscow’s espionage in this country. In April 2022, 40 Russian diplomats were asked to leave the Federal Republic. They are said to have been secret service agents who used diplomatic status to disguise themselves.

Increased willingness to take risks

Politicians carried out what the security authorities had prepared: Germany has discarded its naivety towards Russia. Many of Putin’s spies are no longer there, and the Russian services now have to adapt their activities.

According to information from WDR and NDR According to security circles, espionage activities from the Russian embassy in Berlin have decreased significantly since last year. At the same time, given the war, the Kremlin urgently needs information, so espionage is increasingly being continued with other means. The Russian secret service agents were becoming increasingly willing to take risks, while at the same time making mistakes more often. And the pressure may be even greater in the near future.

Fewer diplomats

Because on the German side there are probably concrete considerations to fundamentally reduce the number of accredited diplomats. Namely in Berlin and in Moscow. In doing so, the German government probably wants to prevent the Kremlin from simply replacing the expelled spies – and at the same time forestall Russian reactions, i.e. the expulsion of German diplomats from Moscow.

In the future, Russia would have fewer opportunities to send spies disguised as diplomats to Germany. In addition, more people would probably have to leave the embassy. The Foreign Office did not deny a request to do so. It was only stated that such a measure was not currently planned. Since the attack on Ukraine, the house of Annalena Baerbock (Greens) had summoned the Russian ambassador several times.

Informer busted

Gone seems to be the time when embassy members could spy for their country or exert influence quite unabashedly. Numerous cases prove this: There was the employee Daniil B., who networked primarily with young German politicians and campaigned for a Russia course with the AfD. The former business representative of the embassy was one of the founders of the Ostinstitut, which became a playground for Russia lobbyists in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

Two recent cases show the importance of Moscow’s embassy in Berlin for espionage operations in this country. Like that of the German ex-reserve officer Ralph G. He is said to have provided information to the Russian military intelligence service GRU for several years. G. had met the Air Force and Navy Attaché at the Embassy at the Air Force Ball in Bonn, of all places. At the end of 2022, G. was sentenced to a suspended sentence of one year and nine months.

In February, a former employee of the British Embassy in Berlin was sentenced to 13 years and two months in prison. He is said to have passed a “significant amount” of sensitive information to Russia for years. The embassies of both countries are only a few hundred meters apart in Berlin. He is said to have given the material to the defense attaché of the Russian embassy.

400 diplomats expelled from Europe

A year ago, the German security authorities apparently had no problem naming 40 spies disguised as diplomats. In fact, more than 100 names are said to have been on a list. At first, however, those who acted too ruthlessly were thrown out – such as a person who is said to have been involved in the Nord Stream pipeline project in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Others, however, were allowed to stay, such as the Russian contact for the mole convicted in London.

The defense attaché is considered a so-called resident along with a few other representatives at the embassy. This is how those secret service employees are called who are officially registered as such and who, for example, maintain exchanges with German intelligence services. Even if they are directly involved in spies, German security circles usually attach great importance to maintaining such channels of communication. For this reason, a proven Russian expert in influence operations was apparently allowed to remain in Germany, despite the great skepticism of the local authorities.

A total of around 400 Russian spies were declared “undesirable persons” in Europe last year. The exchange between the countries should be close. The main platform for this is the so-called Bern Club, an informal association of European domestic secret services. The EU countries are included, Switzerland, Norway and Great Britain.

Tracker on weapon systems

What other countries, but also Germany, have been observing since the outbreak of war: The pressure on the Russian side to produce results is obviously very high. Information related to the military, the war in Ukraine, and energy supply should be of particular interest. In any case, German security authorities are observing a lot of activity around military facilities of the Bundeswehr and NATO.

There are concerns, for example, about tracking transmitters on western weapon systems with which they could later be located in Ukraine. With drones and so-called IMSI catchers, Russian spies could try to spy on the cell phones of Ukrainian soldiers who are being trained in this country. A Russian diplomatic vehicle is said to have appeared in the immediate vicinity of a barracks. This, in turn, is so striking that it is more likely to be a deliberate provocation or a diversionary tactic. The Russian side knows very well, according to constitutional protection officials, that the local counter-espionage team only has limited staff at its disposal.

Beware of defectors

A forecast by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution was already last year that the Russian services will probably increasingly rely on spies who will travel to and from the EU in disguise and on so-called “sleeper agents”, i.e. secret service agents who act without diplomatic camouflage, and often living for years in a host country with a fake identity and a bourgeois facade. Such spies were exposed several times in the past year: in the Netherlands, in Slovenia, Norway and most recently in Greece.

In the Russian embassy in Berlin, some staff are said to have been exchanged shortly after the start of the war last year. Concern about defectors also seems to be great: Moscow’s diplomats are therefore said to be traveling in groups of two or three. However, the pressure to succeed in the Russian services seems so great that unusual risks are being accepted.

An example of this could be the alleged “mole” at the Federal Intelligence Service (BND): At a meeting in Moscow last year, Russian secret service agents are said to have urged BND man Carsten L. to quickly provide information about the war in Ukraine. The best thing would be the location data from American rocket launchers. The Russians are said to have paid the alleged traitor around 400,000 euros, the money was later secured in a safe deposit box.

German security circles are amazed at the Russians’ robust approach. A source as high-quality as L., who worked in a central position in the BND, would probably have been built up slowly in the past, “cultivated” as the jargon of the services calls it, in order to use it for years without squeezing it.

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