Russia pulls a classic hack-and-leak on Germany


If you’re wondering where the German military is keeping its tail these days, the answer is firmly between its legs. On Friday, the head of Russian state-controlled news outlet ‘RT’ published a 38-minute recording of a conversation among senior German air force (Luftwaffe) officers.

In response, German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius accused Russia of waging an “information war” and Chancellor Olaf Scholz has ordered a probe, though we’re happy to save everyone the trouble and just let you in on what happened.

The German officials were using a non-encrypted videoconferencing service (by WebEx), making it easier for Russian intelligence to intercept their chat – the culprit was most likely Russia’s military intelligence outfit, the GRU.

Of course, there’s a fine line between analysing information warfare, and amplifying it. So join us as we tread that tightrope.

What did the German military folks discuss on their leaked call?

It was a chat between Lt Gen Ingo Gerhartz (the head of the Luftwaffe) and three officers, preparing for a meeting with the German defence minister last month.

Their main topic was hypothetical – if German leaders were to authorise sending Taurus missiles to Ukraine, how would this work?

To understand why this matters, it’s worth looking quickly at the Taurus, which is a German-Swedish missile also used by Spain and South Korea:

  • Taurus is one of those excellent acronyms (Target Adaptive Unitary and dispenser Robotic Ubiquity System), which also means ‘bull’ in Latin
  • It has stealth tech and flies just above ground, making it hard to detect
  • When it finds a target, it climbs then plummets in a vertical nosedive, and
  • Its charges break through protective walls, before a full detonation inside

So it’s an advanced weapon and – crucially – has a range of 500km (310 miles). That’s roughly the distance between Paris and London, or LA and San Francisco.

This means it’s almost custom-built to destroy Russia’s Kerch Bridge, the critical link between Russia and its occupying forces on the strategic peninsula of Crimea, where Russia maintains five airfields to attack Ukraine. That’s why Ukraine has been asking for Taurus missiles for months.

But German leader Olaf Scholz has consistently declined for a few reasons: the weapon’s range means it could also strike targets in Moscow; its sophistication means it needs German troops to help with training and targeting; and Scholz says this all raises the risk of Germany becoming more directly involved in a war with Russia.

So then, why did Russia intercept and leak this conversation? The technical term is ‘shit-stirring’, with a few specific objectives here.

First, there are Russian domestic factors at play: the leak could’ve been timed to distract from Alexei Navalny’s funeral the same day. And it came ahead of Vladimir Putin’s re-election bid against token opposition later this month, playing into Putin’s branding as a national protector against a hostile West.

Second, there are also German domestic factors: a leak like this can undermine leaders’ trust in officials, and the public’s trust in its leaders, while flaring up divisions within the ruling coalition: eg, Scholz and his foreign minister (from different parties) have since reiterated their divergent views on the Taurus.

And third, there are international factors: a leak like this can irritate allies, whether through a sense that Germany isn’t pulling its weight, or that Germany can’t keep a secret – eg, the leak seemed to suggest that British troops are (in small numbers) more involved on the ground in Ukraine than initially thought.

But our favourite revelation from this leak? It shows that Germany’s military isn’t immune to McKinsey speak. One of the officers on the call says, “we should not only talk about problems but also about solutions.” Give that guy a raise.

INTRIGUE’S TAKE

So what does this all really mean?

First, the decision to drop this leak probably reflects an implicit acknowledgement by Russia that the Taurus missile in Ukrainian hands would do some damage. The leak aimed to prevent that from happening.

Second, while the leak has already led to further allied pressure on Germany to share the Taurus, it’s bolstering domestic opposition at the same time. Scholz is unpopular, the economy is in recession, and this isn’t a fight he wants right now, particularly ahead of EU parliamentary elections.

But third, after decades of relatively cordial if not codependent ties, this whole saga might further nudge Germany to reassess any notion that its relationship with Russia could be – or should be – salvaged any time soon.

Also worth noting:

  • Russian spooks pulled a similar stunt in 2014, leaking a conversation between two US officials frustrated at the EU’s approach to Ukraine. One of the US officials infamously said “f**k the EU”, though we can confirm we’ve heard much worse language in the halls of diplomacy.
  • In total, Germany is now the second-largest supplier of military aid to Ukraine after the US (at $19B and $47B respectively).
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