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For years, Germany was a soft target for Russian spies. Things are changing fast.

The case of an alleged Russian mole inside Germany’s intelligence service has raised alarms in Berlin, where Russia has long spied aggressively and may have assassinated a foe.
A computer scientist and hacker is interviewed in the server room of the German Federal Intelligence Service
A computer scientist and hacker is interviewed in the server room of the German Federal Intelligence Service in Berlin on Feb. 25, 2021.Kay Nietfeld / picture-alliance/dpa/AP file

A widening investigation into alleged Russian spying inside Germany’s state intelligence service, the BND, has set off alarm bells in Western capitals and prompted calls for a major overhaul of the agency to shore up its defenses against Russian espionage.

Coming at a crucial moment in the war in Ukraine when the United States and its allies are sharing intelligence with Kyiv, the case has raised questions about how much potential damage may have been inflicted by a senior employee of the German spy service who allegedly passed secrets to Russia.

A vital partner in the Western effort to counter the Kremlin in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine, Germany has long proven a soft target for Russian spies, who allegedly orchestrated the 2019 murder of one of Moscow's opponents in the heart of Berlin. 

The revelations about a possible Russian mole inside the BND are just the latest in a string of worrisome reports of suspected Russian espionage in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Intelligence experts say there are likely more Russian agents yet to be uncovered, and German lawmakers say there is a growing consensus that Berlin needs to revamp its security services and take a harder line against Russian spying.

People walk past the center for advanced education at the Federal Intelligence Service in Berlin
People walk past the center for advanced education at the Federal Intelligence Service in Berlin on Nov. 12, 2019.Michael Sohn / AP file

“The government is annoyed and frightened that Russia had a spy at such a high position,” said one member of the German parliament, who spoke on the ondition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the case. 

The employee under investigation, identified only as “Carsten L.,” worked in the BND’s technical division, or Abteilung Technische Aufklärung, a crucial arm of the agency that oversees sensitive eavesdropping and other information gathered through technical means — not by human informants.

German authorities announced a second arrest in the case Thursday, saying a German citizen, who is not a BND employee, had been taken into custody on suspicion of helping the BND officer pass information to the Russians.

The second suspect, identified only as Arthur E. by German authorities, was arrested Sunday at Munich airport as he arrived on a flight from the U.S.

“Arthur E. took the information to Russia and handed it over to the intelligence service there,” prosecutors said in a statement. 

German authorities said the FBI provided assistance in the investigation. 

Revelations of a possible turncoat inside the country’s spy service have coincided with a major political shift in Germany since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, with the German government dropping its long-standing conciliatory policy toward Moscow. The case is being cited by commentators and some parliament members as yet more proof that Berlin must take a tougher stance when it comes to countering Russia’s aggressive espionage and political warfare.

“If the allegations are substantiated, a clear signal is needed in the direction of Russia. Unfortunately, there has been a lack of such signals in the past,” said Greens lawmaker Konstantin von Notz, the chairman of the parliamentary committee that oversees the intelligence services. ”Other countries have reacted much more clearly to similar incidents.”

President of the Federal Intelligence Service at Bruno Kahl.
Bruno Kahl, president of the Federal Intelligence Service.Fabian Sommer / picture-alliance/dpa/AP file

The BND employee under investigation, who had the military rank of a colonel, worked in the technical division, but his precise position and responsibilities remain unclear. Given his senior status, it’s likely he “had access not only to information collected by the BND, but also information from partner services,” said Wolfgang Krieger, a professor at the University of Marburg who has specialized in the intelligence services and has testified in previous espionage cases as an expert witness.

The case is potentially “harmful for relations between the BND and partner services” from allied countries, he said. “Less information could be given to the BND as a result and partner services could now be more cautious, because a spy is a risk for the services’ own people and for their methods.”

A spokesperson for the BND declined to comment on the case, saying it is an ongoing investigation. U.S. intelligence officials also declined to comment. German media first reported details of the case.

The courtroom during the "Tiergarten" murder trial against suspected Russian assassin Vadim K. at the Berlin Tribunal
The courtroom during the "Tiergarten" murder trial of suspected Russian assassin Vadim K. at the Berlin Tribunal in 2021.Mika Savolainen / Pool/Getty Images file

In his statement on the case in December, the president of the BND, Bruno Kahl, said the success of the investigation would depend on ensuring as little information as possible became public. 

“Restraint and discretion are very important in this particular case. With Russia, we are dealing with an actor on the other side whose unscrupulousness and willingness to use violence we have to reckon with,” he said. “Every detail of this operation that becomes public means an advantage for this adversary in his intention to harm Germany.”

A former senior BND officer, Gerhard Conrad, said until the precise nature of the suspect’s job at the intelligence service is revealed publicly, it was too soon to assess any potential fallout from the alleged spying. “To have a reliable picture here, we would have to know the specific function of the accused employee,” said Conrad, now a visiting professor in intelligence studies at King’s College London.

Apart from the BND case, a German man was found guilty in November of passing information to Russia while working as a reserve officer in the German military.

German authorities are also examining whether two officials in Germany’s federal ministry of economics were spying for Russia, according to the newspaper Die Zeit. The officials under investigation worked on energy supply issues, possibly placing them at the center of pivotal decisions on the now-suspended Russian Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline to Germany. 

Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, BfV, which is the rough equivalent of the FBI, declined to comment on the case.

The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action said it could not comment directly on any specific case but said it works in close coordination with federal law enforcement authorities. On energy, the ministry has “completely overhauled the previous government’s Russia-friendly policy” to reduce Germany’s dependence on Russian natural gas, it said.

Angela Merkel, a Christian Democrat considered wary of friction with Russia, had served 16 years as chancellor before leaving office in 2021. Olaf Scholz of the left-leaning Social Democrats succeeded her as Germany’s leader, forming a coalition with the Greens and the Free Democrats.

'The Russian services are relentless'

For more than two decades, Russia has waged an incessant and often successful campaign of spying and political warfare against Germany, infiltrating the country’s political elites and security services, according to former U.S. intelligence officers, current Western officials and members of Germany’s parliament.

“The Russians have invested massive time and effort into penetrating German institutions at all levels. The Russian services are relentless and have benefited from a weak counterintelligence atmosphere in Germany,” said John Sipher, a former CIA intelligence officer who worked for the agency’s clandestine service for 28 years and had postings in Europe, Asia and elsewhere.

“So, when you have a weak defense combined with a focused and relentless offense, you can expect that there are numerous sources inside the German government and business elite that are doing Moscow’s bidding,” he said.

In 2019, a former Chechen separatist fighter was gunned down in Berlin’s Tiergarten park; a German court eventually convicted a Russian national who authorities said was an officer of the Russian FSB domestic intelligence service acting on orders from Moscow.

Forensic experts work at the site of a crime scene of the assassination of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili
Forensics experts work at the crime scene after the assassination of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin in 2019.Christoph Soeder / DPA/AFP via Getty Images

Russia denied the allegations. In his trial, the convicted assassin, Vadim Kraskikov, denied he was acting on Moscow’s orders.

“The murder in the Tiergarten shows that Russia has the impression that Germany is so weak that they can commit a contract killing in broad daylight in the government quarter in Berlin,” said a member of the German parliament. “That tells you something.”

Germany consistently underestimated the Russian threat and gave counterintelligence work a low priority, but that is changing now in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, experts and Western officials said.

“It is clear that we must also take a completely different approach to counterintelligence than we have in the past,” von Notz said. “We have been drawing attention to this for a long time. In view of the sharp increase in security threats following Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, which violated international law, we must act very decisively.”

Conrad, the former BND officer, said decision-makers in Germany failed to heed concerns repeatedly raised by the security services about Berlin’s approach to Russia in the past, including relying on Russian natural gas imports.

The services have been the unheard admonishers here for years,” Conrad said.

The German government has proposed plans to overhaul the intelligence service to give it more funding and clearer legal authority to carry out its mission.

The BND has been hampered by a lack of resources, with its technology lagging behind many of its partners, and a cumbersome legal framework that makes countering adversaries inside Germany extremely difficult, according to Conrad and other experts.

“The BND law does not meet the current needs,” Krieger said.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.Tobias Schwarz / AFP via Getty Images file

Given the country’s Nazi past and the totalitarian legacy of Soviet-controlled East Germany, politicians have been reluctant to empower German security services and have sought tough safeguards for privacy and civil liberties. German leaders, painfully aware that Germany invaded Russia in World War II, have also tried to avoid confrontation and hoped economic ties could reduce tensions. But the invasion of Ukraine has triggered a political sea change, with Berlin now providing artillery and tanks to Kyiv while backing sanctions on Russia’s economy.

Last April, Berlin expelled 40 Russian Embassy employees for allegedly working for Russian intelligence services. In announcing the move, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said the employees “have worked every day against our freedom and against the cohesion of our society here in Germany." 

Western officials and former U.S. intelligence officers called the expulsions and the current investigation of the BND employee a positive sign that shows Berlin’s attitude has shifted. 

“This government is serious about dealing with it,” a Western official familiar with the issue said. 

Germany’s intelligence services failed to anticipate that Russia would invade Ukraine, a failure that has yet to be the subject of any publicly released “lessons learned” review. Such a review would show Germany is serious about altering its approach, the Western official said.

“There’s definitely a change. The question is, how far do they take it?”