As a result of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, the German security authorities’ view of Russia and its espionage activities in this country has become even more acute, says the head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Thomas Haldenwang, in an interview with WELT.
WORLD: Russian espionage in Germany is currently of particular importance to you, isn’t it?
Thomas Haldenwang: Definitely at the moment. This has been exacerbated by Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. On the one hand, there is the great interest in clarification on the part of Russian services: How is German politics positioned in all the questions that are related to this? Armaments, defense policy, arms exports, programs worth billions for future armaments projects? It is important for Russian services to clarify all of this. Then there are the big issues of propaganda and disinformation. Here, too, the services play an important role. Incidentally, cyber attacks are also used there in order to obtain the necessary data for a propaganda or disinformation campaign. Russian agents are active everywhere. And here we see in particular that all means are used. This can be the mundane tool of the agent of influence, making contacts to siphon off people. But they can also be people who then support or help arrange the murder of an opposition figure. Sometimes you get the impression that the activities are hardly ever veiled, so that it is also clear: We dare to do it!
WORLD: There was the hack on the Bundestag, various disinformation campaigns, cyber attacks against MPs, then the murder in the Kleiner Tiergarten in Berlin. Have we downplayed the aggressiveness of the Russian services in this country over the years?
Haldenwang: It may be that this phenomenon was not taken seriously enough in German politics for a long time. But I can point out that we as the Office for the Protection of the Constitution have repeatedly pointed out these activities in our annual reports for many years – and actually in very clear language. We have repeatedly given interviews or made other publications on this in the past. So: It cannot have been due to a lack of warnings from the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.
WORLD: One reaction to the Ukraine war is that 40 Russian diplomats were expelled. The federal government was very explicit: these were not just diplomats doing consular work in this country. These were actually people who worked secretly against our country. A few diplomats used to be expelled, now 40. You obviously had a list ready and are now satisfied that politicians followed what you wanted?
Haldenwang: It is of course a political decision that is made by the Federal Government as a whole in close consultation: the Chancellery, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defence. These will be well-considered decisions. But we are preparing something like that. We can also provide appropriate names and draw up lists. And of course we can also point out the risks that such people pose in Germany and for Germany. And in this respect I can say from the point of view of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution that I am of course happy about every Russian agent who is sent to Moscow these days.
WORLD: You don’t like to talk about the lists of spies. But it is clear that you have more than 40 people in mind…
Haldenwang: We know a few more. And Federal Interior Minister Faeser recently indicated that it would certainly be possible to take further steps.
WORLD: You say that Russia is interested in what Germany is doing now, what military developments look like. How will Russia line up now? After the 40 have been expelled, you will hardly say: OK, let’s not look at Germany anymore.
Haldenwang: As an intelligence service, we now know what options our counterpart has. These consist in the fact that one could first try to compensate for the knowledge deficits through further cyber attacks. It would also be conceivable to use traveling agents who are already on the road in Europe or are yet to be sent. Or: That people from abroad are trying to do more reconnaissance here in Germany – that they are working with so-called “illegals”. This is also the case here in Germany: that people with a completely false identity work for the foreign service. These are possibilities that the other person may now be considering and that we have to adjust to. But we also have the appropriate tools to track something like this.
WORLD: So it’s getting harder.
Haldenwang: Is that harder now? They’re just alternate approaches.
WORLD: The EU Coordinator for Terrorism has stated that with the increased influx of opponents of the regime, there is a risk of homicides such as those in the Kleiner Tiergarten.
Haldenwang: The case in the small zoo was not the first case. We have also experienced this in other places in Europe – the attack on the ex-spy Skripal in Great Britain was also such an event. The Russian opposition politician Alexej Navalny was very lucky that nothing similar happened to him here. Russian services have these measures in their toolbox and one has to assume without further ado that these tools will continue to be used if the situation escalates.
The interview is a transcript from the City of Spies podcast. There you can hear the entire interview with the head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Thomas Haldenwang.