When Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, sent a diplomat abroad as a military attaché, a small but important ritual was part of it. The king accepted an undertaking that the gentleman would not spy while on duty. Those who sealed the deal with a handshake based their high status on heroic virtues. Spying was considered immoral by them. However, it was not until the First World War that the Scout Craft industry flourished.
“In those days, diplomats were almost automatically agents,” says intelligence historian Wolfgang Krieger, professor emeritus at the University of Marburg. “Most of the intelligence work was done by embassies.
According to Krieger, it is not unusual for Russia and Germany to expel each other’s diplomats because of their second careers in espionage. “But the way it’s happening today and the decisions to expel diplomats today, as far as I know, has never happened before,” asserts the historian. According to him, what is happening now between Berlin and Moscow is a turning point in the culture of secret services.
At the end of April Moscow announced the expulsion of 20 German diplomats. The move comes in response to Berlin’s expulsion of an equal number of Russian diplomats. The government in Berlin remained silent, but the military said a Russian plane with diplomatic status landed in Berlin in the morning with special permission and flew back to Moscow a short time later. Who are his passengers? Berlin doesn’t deliver.
A week ago on Saturday, dozens of German diplomats, teachers and employees of German schools and cultural centers were informed that they had to leave Russia. Last Wednesday, the federal government announced that it had revoked the licenses of four of the five Russian consulates in Germany.
According to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the host country has influence over the personnel of foreign posts. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, visa applications for consular officers are thoroughly vetted before being issued, specifically for “activities contrary to the Vienna Convention”. The convention prohibits diplomats from spying on the country they are working in. However, in the new Secret Wars, humility is used much less.
“The novelty of the recent exodus between Russia and Germany is that they happen for no particular reason,” says Professor Krieger, who is also vice-chairman of the Germany-based Independent Intelligence Scientists Study Group. “There have always been such deportations, but then they were individuals and the deportations were related to a specific case, such as the murder of a Chechen dissident in Berlin or the poisoning of Russian fugitive Sergei Skripal in England.
In 2018, Berlin expelled all four Russian ambassadors. Western allies usually act together in such actions. Again, the US and France expelled Russian diplomats, as did Germany. And it has nothing to do with a particular incident. One thing is certain: the war in Ukraine is the main reason for the layoffs. And this is about espionage, not diplomacy.
Russian Embassy in Berlin
“A third of the diplomats in the Russian embassy in Berlin actually work in intelligence or did in the last few months before they were expelled,” says Gerhard Konrad, a former top German official. The intelligence service BND, and from 2016 to 2019, he was responsible for intelligence work in the Union as director of the EU Center for Intelligence Analysis.
In the case of the Russians, as in other countries with intelligence services, there is always a so-called resident of a given embassy with legal status, i.e. an intelligence employee reported to the German authorities, and others who are so-called illegal residents, i.e. not officially named but acting as intelligence officers with diplomatic protection. “Most Russian illegal residents in Germany can be identified either from the beginning or by their activities over time,” says Konrad.
By the way, the Germans have a different view of their spies. Konrad: – In my time, there were no German illegal residents in the world. Importantly, the Ministry of External Affairs has always been against it, citing obligations arising from the Vienna Convention.
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According to Conrad, there was an early exchange and cooperation with the Russian side in the post-Cold War period, especially since 2001 in the fight against Islamic terrorism. It’s always been clear that Moscow only has its own interests in mind,” Conrad says. “It was all about industrial intelligence, and official cooperation was just for show.
Indeed, relations between the two countries’ secret services have become increasingly strained since 2014, when Russia’s massive military escalation in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea began at a time when the Kremlin’s domestic policies became more repressive. “As you know, the Russian secret services also increased their activity in the West at that time,” Conrad says.
This increase in Russian espionage activity in the West has led to, among other things, attacks on Russian separatists and dissidents in the West. For a long time, the West watched the activities of Russian agents very carefully, knowing that the services played a special role in the political system built by former KGB officer Vladimir Putin. – But after the war broke out in Ukraine, Russia became a clear enemy. Now that pleasure is gone,” points out Conrad.
For German intelligence services, the recent expulsion of Russian diplomats has one clear advantage: the Federal Office for the Defense of the Constitution (or German counterintelligence) now has fewer spies to monitor, a more time-consuming task. However, the fact remains that structural reductions in consular staff on both sides are an “unfriendly act” in diplomatic relations. There is no doubt that Moscow will continue to actively seek ways and means to engage the West.
It is difficult to predict how far this secret war expansion will go. According to Krieger, one thing is certain: the deportations hurt the Russians: “Of course they can send new ambassadors, but the supply of competent agents is not infinite.
Krieger estimates that it will take five years or more for the Russians to hire a new agent in Germany, and Russian services need information from the West now: “Wartimes are always the height of espionage. You want to know how your enemy is doing, what his allies are suggesting, and above all, you need more technological intelligence, which is very important for the Russians, because, except for China and Iran, Moscow has no advanced technology suppliers.
On the other hand, secret services also have a stabilizing effect, especially in times of conflict. Innovations by the intelligence services at the end of the Cold War enabled mutual arms control, thus even being recognized by international law.
Konrad, who has been the BND’s top Middle East expert for many years, does not believe that deportation will lead to a dangerous peace, because intelligence has lost a communication channel with Moscow: – basically, one legal resident is enough for an exchange, it does not need 200 fake diplomats. And we talk to each other all the time. Yes, even now. Think, for example, of the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine over a prisoner exchange or the negotiations over grain exports. Who do you think prepares them? Of course, they are officially diplomats.
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