Angela Merkel, who has been chancellor for 14 years, is no different from Germany’s political class, which seeks to stay in Putin’s good graces at seemingly any cost. Berlin’s preachy pontifications about democracy, decency, and human rights are customarily aimed at NATO allies, seldom at Moscow.
For years, German intelligence higher-ups have chafed at this situation, viewing the Kremlin as a threat to NATO, the European Union, and German security, while Merkel and her ilk pretend otherwise. The spies finally had enough this August when Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Georgian of Chechen background living in Germany as a political exile, was assassinated in a Berlin park in broad daylight. His killer was a Russian thug with easily detectable ties to the Kremlin.
This was a step too far. When the Merkel government showed its customary inability to confront Moscow over anything, German spies – with backing from U.S. intelligence, which valued Khangoshvili – privately made plain that this brazen crime could not be ignored. Once the case was in the hands of prosecutors, following months of delay, Berlin two weeks ago expelled two Russian diplomats – in reality, spies.
That was just the beginning of pushback by German spies against Merkel and her giving Putin carte blanche to do whatever he likes in Germany. A firehose of leaks just burst into public view in Bild, a populist-conservative tabloid that’s Europe’s biggest-circulation newspaper, which takes a hard line on the Kremlin, a rarity in Germany.
Yesterday, Bild ran the sensational story “Former spy chiefs settle accounts with Merkel,” which revealed to the public for the first time just how subservient Germany’s chancellor has been to Moscow. Several retired spy bosses took Merkel to task, denouncing her conduct towards the Kremlin with harsh words: “Obsequiousness” and “Cowardice” were cited, while one former spy chief stated that the chancellor “blamed her own intelligence services” rather than Putin for problems in the bilateral relationship.
Bernd Schmidbauer, who served as the cabinet-level coordinator of Germany’s intelligence and security agencies (a position roughly equivalent to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence), denounced Merkel’s handling of German security vis-à-vis Russia as “worse than bad,” adding it is “a disgrace to our country” how weakly Berlin responded to Khangoshvili’s brazen assassination. This cannot be dismissed as partisan grousing. Schmidbauer, a lifelong member of Merkel’s own party, termed the expulsion of two Russian spies “laughable” given the gravity of the crime perpetrated by the Kremlin in Berlin.
Another former German intelligence chief who did not wished to be named told Bild that Merkel’s conduct towards the Kremlin “from many viewpoints is incomprehensible,” adding that Putin “walked all over” Merkel publicly after the Khangoshvili assassination, as Berlin stood by silently as the Kremlin maligned the murdered man. Another senior German intelligence official denounced Berlin’s handling of the case as “unprofessional…a declaration of political bankruptcy.”
This bombshell from the spooks exploded the pleasant myth, popular in certain circles, that Merkel is the “leader of the free world” now that the United States has abdicated that role with Donald Trump in the White House. The unpalatable truth is that current U.S. policies towards the Kremlin – to be distinguished from Trump’s tweets and rants – are tougher than they were under Obama, and much harsher than they have ever been in Berlin under Merkel.
Adding fuel to the fire, only a few hours after the first spy-leak salvo, Bild ran another story, “The trail of Putin’s spy leads to Parliament,” which shared tantalizing details about Evgeniy Sutskiy, a deputy military attaché at Russia’s Berlin embassy who was expelled earlier this month over the Khangoshvili hit. In reality, Sutskiy is a senior officer of Russian military intelligence or GRU, and Bild supplied details about him and his family. In particular, the story revealed that Sutskiy devoted considerable effort to penetrating Merkel’s ruling party, the Christian Democratic Union or CDU.
Sutskiy had several meetings with Salahdin Koban, a German of Kurdish background and a former CDU parliamentary candidate. Since these Berlin rendezvous smack of clandestine intelligence gathering, given known GRU tradecraft, Bild’s account raises troubling questions about Merkel’s own party and how deep its Kremlin ties really are.
Then, today, Bild ran a third piece, “How Putin’s network in German works,” a detailed counterintelligence report that clearly draws from high-level leaks in Berlin. “Espionage, influence operations, sabotage, money laundering, gun- and drug-smuggling,” are what Moscow’s spies have been doing in Germany for decades. Bild asserts that at least 3,000 Russian spies are active in Germany at present, counting “sleepers.”
The report runs though the various ways that Russian spies operate in Germany, via “legal” outposts in diplomatic missions to “illegals” operating without diplomatic cover. Bild adds the role played by the Russian diaspora in Germany in espionage, as well as a prominent part played by the Russian Orthodox Church in clandestinely serving the Kremlin abroad. Think-tanks, too, get mentioned, given their important role in disseminating Russian propaganda in Germany and beyond.
Bild likewise notes the significant part played by Russian business interests, including Gazprom, in supporting Kremlin espionage and influence operations in Germany. Neither does the piece shy away from mentioning the clandestine role of Russian intelligence behind various sports clubs, as well as Kremlin connections to drug-smuggling rings operating in Germany. Most controversially, the report states that certain German politicians, ranging from the Alternative for Germany on the right to Die Linke on the left, are handled by Russian intelligence via “traveling diplomats.”
This is all old hat to counterintelligence veterans, who understand how deeply Russian spies since the Cold War’s end have penetrated German politics, economy, and society at all levels, but this will be shocking news to average citizens. Bild’s reporting this week constitutes a direct challenge to Angela Merkel and her government about their willingness to let Vladimir Putin literally get away with murder on German soil. Germans should have questions about what’s really going on here, and why.
More is coming…watch this space.