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How Russia is trying to weaken Germany

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How Russia is trying to weaken Germany

When Russia publishes a confidential conversation between Bundeswehr officers, it is not about espionage, but about psychological warfare. The analysis of a model example.

A conversation without security precautions conducted by Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz of the German Air Force (left) now puts Chancellor Olaf Scholz in an unpleasant situation.

Morris Macmatzen / Getty Images

Germany is in turmoil. A few days ago, the Kremlin’s chief propagandist, Margarita Simonjan, published a recording of a conversation between Bundeswehr officers. Now the question arises as to how such an interception operation could succeed. And whether Chancellor Olaf Scholz told the truth in the debate about the delivery of Taurus cruise missiles.

The Russian action achieved the desired success. The intercepted conversation was not primarily about espionage, but rather about a clever information operation. The goal is to influence politics and public opinion – in Germany, in the West and in Russia. The case is a prime example of a psychological warfare operation.

The recording does not come from a complex espionage operation

It is not clear who is behind the wiretapping. However, it can be assumed that a Russian intelligence service had a hand in it. Based on current knowledge, an internal leak in the Bundeswehr is unlikely. Action by a Western country can also be practically ruled out because there is no clear advantage for the British or Americans.

Russia regularly carries out such influence operations, also known as “active measures” or hack-and-leak in combination with cyber attacks. Information captured through covert operations is made public. The fact that Simonyan, as editor-in-chief of the propaganda broadcaster RT, published such an audio document without the Kremlin’s involvement does not fit with the authoritarian character of the Russian regime.

According to German authorities, it is now clear that the recording was made in Singapore, where a participant in the conversation, Brigadier General Gräfe, was connected from a hotel. Initial investigations by the Bundeswehr have shown that the head of the department for operations and exercises in the Air Force Command used an unsecured connection. This negligence made eavesdropping easier because the conferencing software used usually has end-to-end encryption.

The airshow took place in Singapore from February 19th, the day of the talks. This is the largest aviation trade fair in Asia and is attended by numerous high-ranking politicians, military officials and representatives of the defense industry. It is quite possible that some of them stayed in the same hotel as Gräfe.

Such a collection of interesting espionage targets is an ideal opportunity for any intelligence service to spy on them with a team on site, for example using cyber attacks or fake cell phone cells. The recorded conversation may be a coincidence because a Bundeswehr officer communicated over an insecure line at a location to which Russian agents had access.

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What seems clear: The recording was not the result of an elaborate espionage operation in which Russia, for example, had access to Brigadier General Gräfe’s cell phone or computer. In this case the conversation would hardly have been published. Exposing such a valuable backdoor for a simple information operation would be senseless from an intelligence perspective. Since the recording was published, the Bundeswehr has now been closely checking all systems and devices for possible spy software.

The content is not particularly explosive

The conversation itself provides an insight into the leadership culture of the Bundeswehr. The officers involved are talking about possible options for how the Taurus cruise missile could be delivered to Ukraine without any clear agenda, objectives or structure. The Air Force inspector, Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz, is the big Zampano with the wise sayings. In the background, a captain may have tried to create a formally correct protocol.

If the handling of security measures is as flippant as the reporting, then the Bundeswehr actually has a security problem. During their conversation, the officers simply do not adhere to the simple rule of thumb that every recruit learns in general basic training: information about troops, places, times, numbers and intentions is not to be given – especially if the connections are unsecured.

Nevertheless, no groundbreaking military news emerged from the conversation – perhaps with the exception of the specific scattering effect of the Taurus guided missile. The audio file of the conversation therefore has little intelligence value, but is instead suitable as a means of disinformation based on the reinterpretation and alternative reading of facts. The debate about the Taurus deliveries is the ideal projection surface for this.

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The Air Force officers are discussing an attack on the Kerch Bridge, the connection between Russia and the occupied Crimean peninsula, as a case study. Former President Dmitri Medvedev derived from this the claim that Germany was preparing a war against Russia. The Russian propaganda machine uses individual statements from the conversation and uses them as slogans in hybrid warfare.

The conversation caused a storm in Germany

Depending on the audience, the narrative and reactions to the attack vary. Although the target of the grenade was German politics and the Taurus debate, the splintering effect among NATO partners is definitely welcome. Ultimately, the Kremlin wants to break down the unity of its allies in supporting Ukraine.

A wedge is deliberately being driven between Berlin, Paris and London. Germany is providing large amounts of military aid to Ukraine. However, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is leaving the defensive front with his positioning as “Peace Chancellor” – and has made this clear once again with his refusal to deliver the Taurus. British and French guided missiles of the same type have already been successfully fired by the Ukrainian army.

Scholz’s statements about the commitment of British soldiers to the use of the “Storm Shadow” guided missiles in Ukraine also caused anger. In London there was even talk of a “blatant misuse of intelligence information”. The fact that the Bundeswehr could now be overheard discussing the use of cruise missiles in Ukraine is further damaging Germany’s reputation.

But the information grenade is also dividing the German government coalition – was the Chancellor even lying? The Bundeswehr officers intercepted assume that the Ukrainian army could use the Taurus independently. Scholz has so far refused delivery, saying that the cruise missile would have to be programmed by German soldiers, which would amount to Germany participating in the war.

The opposition is intensifying its criticism of the Chancellor. Scholz is “increasingly becoming a security risk for Europe,” said CDU politician Roderich Kiesewetter. The wiretapping affair is likely to preoccupy German politics for a while and increase disagreement in attitudes towards Ukraine.

For the Russian Foreign Ministry, the conversation about the delivery of Taurus cruise missiles also shows “the involvement of the ‘collective West’, including Berlin, in the conflict over Ukraine.” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also said that the “war camp” in Europe was strong.

In Germany, this representation is in turn adopted by the AfD and the Left Party. You’re talking about that “Preparing for a war of aggression” by the government, which the German Basic Law expressly prohibits. Corresponding statements from Germany, such as those that the government in Berlin is risking a third world war, are in turn picked up and disseminated by the Russian state media.

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The Kremlin has recognized Germany as the weakest link

Russia has achieved a spectacular coup by publishing the confidential conversation. The information campaign is primarily aimed at Germany, where the impact currently appears to be greatest. The fact that Germany is the focus is probably no coincidence.

Russia has recognized that Germany is the weakest link in the line of European allies. Chancellor Scholz acts fearfully and cautiously. At the same time, a strong cross-front made up of the AfD, the Left and the Sahra Wagenknecht alliance has practically taken over the Russian narrative. The government’s weakness and the strengthening of the fundamental opposition make the country a suitable target for hybrid attacks.

There are also rhetorical differences between the NATO partners. These, together with the political constellation in Germany, could lead to the Russian influence operations ultimately being successful. All the more important was the word from German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius that he would not sacrifice his best officers for Putin – even though they had not complied with security regulations: a sign of resilience against Russian influence.

It is no coincidence that the Bundeswehr is currently developing an “Operations Plan for Germany” to strengthen its own defenses in the event of further escalation. This “Oplan DEU” should be available in draft form at the end of March. A key element in this is protecting Germany from cyber and information attacks.

Society is particularly challenged in influence operations because the actors and intentions are often unclear. One strength is reacting prudently to such publications. Because the domestic political scandal in Germany is the enemy’s real weapon.

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