German leaks that left British troops at risk are ‘tip of iceberg’

Berlin’s former intelligence chief August Hanning told Germany’s Bild newspaper: ‘This leak could have been just the tip of the iceberg.’

Archie Mitchell
Tuesday 05 March 2024 10:18 GMT
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Zelensky warns Ukraine will not exist if Russia wins war

German military leaks which left British troops at risk may be just the “tip of the iceberg”, according to Berlin’s former intelligence chief.

August Hanning warned that more Nato secrets could have been obtained by Russia after it published a video call between German military officers discussing support for Ukraine.

A recording of the call was leaked by Russian state media on Friday in which they discussed the details of British troops on the ground in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin has previously claimed Russia’s war is against the ‘collective West’, not just Ukraine
Vladimir Putin has previously claimed Russia’s war is against the ‘collective West’, not just Ukraine (via REUTERS)

On Monday, Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman declined to comment on UK operations in Ukraine, beyond saying there was a “small number of troops” providing protection for British diplomats and training for Ukrainian forces.

But on the call, the head of the German air force said Britain had people operating “on the ground” in Ukraine helping Kyiv’s forces fire long-range Storm Shadow missiles.

During the conversation, Lt Gen Ingo Gerhartz, the head of the German air force, describes how the UK and Ukraine work to deploy Storm Shadow missiles against targets behind Russian lines.

“When it comes to mission planning,” the German commander says, “I know how the English do it, they do it completely in reachback. They also have a few people on the ground, they do that, the French don’t.”

Reachback is military jargon for obtaining equipment that is not on the battlefront.

Berlin has launched an investigation and military experts warned the leaks put British troops at risk.

But on Monday night, Mr Hanning told Germany’s Bild newspaper: “This leak could have been just the tip of the iceberg.”

Russia had already seized on the leaks as a further example confirming “once again that the countries of the collective West are being drawn into the conflict around Ukraine”, a key point of the country’s justification for the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin has previously claimed Russia is fighting against the “collective West”, not just Ukraine.

The prime minister’s spokesman told reporters “it is clearly in the Kremlin’s interest to propagate misinformation” and “we should not fall into that trap”.

Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman declined to comment on UK operations in Ukraine beyond saying there is ‘a small number of troops’ on the ground
Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman declined to comment on UK operations in Ukraine beyond saying there is ‘a small number of troops’ on the ground (AP)

“We do have to treat anything coming out of the Kremlin with caution. As we know, Russia has a tendency to spread misinformation and disinformation and clearly it is in their interests to sow disunity amongst allies who are seeking to support the armed forces of Ukraine.”

While No 10 was keen to stress Western unity, it is likely that stern conversations will take place with Berlin behind the scenes.

The spokesman declined to comment on UK operations in Ukraine, beyond saying there was a “small number of troops” providing protection for British diplomats and training for Ukrainian forces.

Former chairman of the defence committee Tobias Ellwood said “many aspects” of the leak were concerning.

He told the BBC: “Firstly, why weren’t basic concept protocols followed? But it also revealed a tension, I think, between senior German military who want to see Taurus dispatched and the German Chancellor, who seems increasingly focused on his political survival rather than what’s best for the continent. And it’s also how this plays out in Germany.”

He added: “You can see the tensions that are playing out in capital cities as to what we should do next in Ukraine because the tide does seem to be turning unless they receive greater support. They’ve not received the F-16s, they’re not receiving artillery shells that they need, and they’re not receiving the long range weapon systems.”

He said that Germany “did respond well” after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, but now “we’re seeing other factors coming into play”.

Tobias Ellwood raised concerns over the apparent leak (Jordan Pettitt/PA)
Tobias Ellwood raised concerns over the apparent leak (Jordan Pettitt/PA) (PA Archive)

Mr Ellwood added: “Unlike here, where the longer term strategic dangers to our economy and our security of Putin winning are constantly spelled out by the Prime Minister by the UK Government, and that helps retain public support for the scale of military systems, in Germany, in contrast, it’s still seen by the German public as a war in Ukraine, not part of a wider confrontation that Putin is seeking to have with the West as Putin moves his economy to a war footing and actually becomes arguably more powerful than Stalin.”

Mr Ellwood added that “given the intensity of Russia’s spying on Germany and others, they probably have not learned anything that they didn’t already guess”.

But that “does not prevent some serious conversations taking place in the diplomatic corridors between Germany and Britain and indeed Nato, as well as to why this happened in the first place”.

Meanwhile, former Army chief Lord Dannatt has said the German air force officers who were caught talking on the unencrypted call should be “censured pretty heavily”.

He told Times Radio: “I was very disappointed to read that story. I think the German air force officers who were talking on an open line, frankly, should be censured pretty heavily.

“They are suggesting that there are British people in Ukraine. It’s not for you or me to comment on that. We have provided a lot of equipment to them. We provided a lot of training.

“As far as I’m concerned, I think what they were talking about was whether they would or wouldn’t supply a German system akin to our Storm Shadow. I suspect that we do our training on Storm Shadow, either in this country or in Poland or elsewhere. It’s not for you or I to confirm or deny whether there are British military in Ukraine.”

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