May 30, 2024

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Germany is facing a wave of espionage threats from Russia and China

Germany is facing a wave of espionage threats from Russia and China

Image source, Emanuele Contini/Noor Photo via Getty Images

Comment on the photo, Four of the six detainees are suspected of spying for China

Six suspected spies have been arrested in Germany this month alone, in what has become a torrent of allegations of Russian and Chinese espionage.

For the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, it has proven particularly embarrassing, as its two best candidates for June's European elections have been caught in the crossfire.

An aide to European Parliament member Maximilian Krah, who heads the party list, was arrested on suspicion of spying for China. Jian Jie is accused of being a “Chinese intelligence service employee.”

Prosecutors also began preliminary investigations into the politician himself regarding alleged payments from pro-Russian and Chinese sources. Mr. Krah denies any wrongdoing.

Days earlier, Peter Bystron, the second name on the AfD party's list, denied allegations that he received money from the Voice of Europe website, which European intelligence claims was a front for Russian intelligence.

But the accusations go far beyond the AfD.

Two German citizens of Russian origin have been arrested on suspicion of planning to sabotage German military aid to Ukraine, while three Germans have been detained on charges of planning to hand over advanced engine designs to Chinese intelligence.

Image source, Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Comment on the photo, European Parliament member Maximilian Krahe denied any wrongdoing and said he would fire his aide if it emerged that Jian Jie was spying.

In all three espionage cases, the efforts of the German domestic intelligence agency BfV are believed to have been decisive.

“Our security authorities… have significantly strengthened their counter-espionage efforts,” Interior Secretary Nancy Viser said.

The arrests followed the return of Chancellor Olaf Scholz from wide-ranging talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing.

“Arrest is always a political decision.”

Andrei Soldatov, an expert in the Russian security services, believes that the case of the Russian-German duo could reflect the Kremlin’s desire to escalate attacks on aid provided to Ukraine.

“It's just a whole new level of escalation,” Soldatov told the BBC. “these people [allegedly] “I collected information to help organize sabotage operations against military installations on German territory.”

Meanwhile, Roderich Kieswetter, a former German army officer and now an opposition member of parliament, has claimed that China is seeking access to advanced research that might be useful for military or other purposes.

“China sees opportunities to exploit Germany's openness to access our knowledge and technology,” he told the BBC.

However, Andrei Soldatov believes that Berlin is setting a milestone.

“Arrest is always a political decision,” he says.

He added, “Counter-espionage services in all countries prefer not to arrest people because it is better to follow them and monitor their activities to learn more about their networks and activities.”

Image source, Federal Chancellor/Instagram

Comment on the photo, The arrests of suspected spies in Germany came days after Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited President Xi Jinping in Beijing.

A particularly low point was the March leak by Russian sources of a phone call between senior generals discussing supplying Ukraine with long-range Taurus missiles.

Months earlier, a high-ranking official in the German foreign intelligence service, the BND, named Carsten L., was tried on charges of leaking classified information to the Russians in exchange for payments amounting to about 400,000 euros (£343,000).

Former British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace voiced the frustration of many allies when he said Germany was “significantly infiltrated by Russian intelligence” and “unsafe and unreliable.”

Roderich Kieswetter says he is concerned that the Allies view Germany as untrustworthy. “We need to be a partner of choice,” he told the BBC. “We cannot afford secret service cooperation without Germany.”

Public campaigns against suspected spies may be one way to send a signal to friends and foes alike that Berlin takes security seriously.

The German Federal Intelligence Agency (BND) and the German Intelligence Service (BfV) said they did not comment on ongoing operations. The Ministry of Interior did not respond to a request for comment.

Heritage of history

German intelligence agencies have long been frustrated by more extensive restrictions on how they can act than many of their counterparts in other Western countries.

This is partly due to the legacy of communist rule in former East Germany, widely considered one of the most surveilled societies in history. It is estimated that one in 6.5 East Germans was an informant for the secret police, known as the Stasi.

Image source, Thierry Monaci/Getty Images

Comment on the photo, Revelers at the Brandenburg Gate mark the first New Year in a reunited Berlin since World War II

These restrictions largely remain in place, although some have since been weakened.

Human rights advocates believe that these restrictions are a good thing that protects citizens' right to privacy. But intelligence services have long complained that they are unable to act effectively because of controls on their behavior.

Last year, two former heads of the BND wrote: “German intelligence services, especially the BND, now suffer from excessive censorship.”

Some intelligence workers see the recent arrests of prominent figures as a way to highlight the extent of hostile foreign infiltration into Germany – and an opportunity to strengthen their case for more power.

The extent of this penetration, Kieswetter says, is in part a legacy of the political “naivety” that followed the end of the Cold War.

“Since 1990, there has been an idea that Germany is surrounded by friends.”

He explained that the leaders focused on trade deals, including with authoritarian countries such as Russia, and took their eyes off national security.

“I'm not sleeping anymore”

Rafael Luce of the European Council on Foreign Relations is more specific about what went wrong.

German intelligence dismantled a dedicated counterintelligence unit in 2002 under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

“It is remarkable that this entire unit of about 60 people has been completely disbanded,” Luce says.

But things are changing. The number of BfV employees has doubled in the past ten years. The recent wave of arrests shows that the intelligence services have become more assertive in a country whose political culture has traditionally been wary of them.

“All the arrests at once send a good signal to the countries that spy on us,” said Felix Neumann of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

“Germany is awake and no longer asleep.”