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

While I was a foreign correspondent in West Berlin during the final 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. “The next morning it will be on every desk in the Politburo.”

Clearly little has changed in the intervening years.

On Friday, the Russians announced that they had overheard a discussion between the head of the Luftwaffe and three top air force colleagues on the highly contentious issue of donating Germany’s Taurus long-range missiles to Ukraine.

Such weaponry would help that country attack Russian logistics depots and supply lines, such as the Kerch Strait bridge that connects Crimea with Russia itself.

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

But the silly Germans used Webex, a conference call system similar to Zoom.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz shake hands after signing a security deal last month

One participant called from Singapore using his standard phone. This also applied to the Russian invaders. Incredibly, no one noticed the extra, silent participant.

Nothing was decided during the call. The delivery of the missiles is still blocked by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. But the 38-minute recording released by the Kremlin did reveal that he 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, he said, would be an impossibly provocative step.

But the worst damage was not to reputation, but to Allied security.

‘When asked about delivery methods, I know how the British do it. They always transport them in armored Ridgeback 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 we donated to Ukraine.

Discussing military secrets over an open telephone line is a criminal offense. But you can’t plunder an entire country. Western allies are confronted with the reality that our largest and richest European ally is a terrible burden.

No. 10 yesterday described the leak as ‘a very serious matter’, but declined to know whether there are plans to limit our intelligence exchange 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 as well.

Just last Monday he announced that British soldiers were on the ground in Ukraine to assist in the use of our Storm Shadow missile system.

This would not be a surprise to Moscow. But it’s still embarrassing when a sensitive detail is blurted out by the leader of a supposedly reliable partner.

Alicia Kearns, chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, did not hold back, describing the blunder as ‘wrong, irresponsible and a slap in the face’.

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

And no branch of the security organization is in a more precarious state than the ignorant, leaky secret services. A senior German foreign intelligence official, 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 dedication, 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 hesitates to send weapons. The high expectations of the Zeitenwende – ‘change of eras’ – that he announced after Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 have withered.

Located on the Northern European Plain, Germany and its supply lines would be crucial in bringing aid and ammunition to the front

Located on the Northern European Plain, Germany and its supply lines would be crucial in bringing aid and ammunition to the front

The meager German army is still inadequately equipped, poorly led and short of cash. Berlin’s aversion to hard thinking about security lies partly in its two catastrophic defeats in the past century, and in its role as a potential nuclear battlefield during the Cold War.

This past fuels anti-Americanism and anti-militarism. “Even the worst peace is better than the best war,” said a leading German think tanker as Ukraine began its struggle for survival.

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

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

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

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

Worse still, German spymasters stole their secrets. As I revealed in my book Deception, the German BND – the equivalent of our MI6 – recruited a senior defense official in Estonia, Herman Simm, to monitor American influence there.

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

I’m not a Germanophobe. I lived and worked there for many years. I tried to warn the Germans of the danger posed by the emerging and now revived Russian imperialism. The responses were condescending and incredulous.

Meanwhile, Russian spies, criminals and thugs rioted under the noses of the bureaucracy-bound German police and security services.

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

Ultra-strict data protection and privacy laws prevent German authorities from carrying out the simplest security checks.

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

She lived under a false identity in Berlin, despite being on Germany’s most wanted list. A simple search for photos on the Internet led to her hasty arrest by the previously unwitting German police.

German policy makes the country the weakest link in European defense. What if Russia, boosted by its success in Ukraine, tests NATO’s resolve in Poland or the Baltic states?

These states would respond with stubborn and furious resistance. We and other allies will want to help them. But what if Germany shouts “Diplomaten statt Grenaten” – “Diplomats instead of grenades” – and demands that the crisis be resolved through talks and not war?

Located on the Northern European plain, Germany and its supply lines would be crucial in bringing aid and ammunition to the front. Yet Berlin might shudder at direct involvement and close its borders and airspace to Allied reinforcements.

This nightmarish prospect is not fiction. At the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Germany closed its airspace to reinforcement flights. The uncomfortable truth is that Germany slumbers while 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