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Intelligence

From Russia - with love?

Germany's domestic intelligence service has reported that Russian secret services have been stepping up spying in political and economic circles in Berlin. But though it may have caused a stir, the news is not new.

What seems like a throwback to the Cold War has caused an uproar in the German media in recent days: According to Germany's domestic intelligence service, the German Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), Russian agents in Berlin have been spying on targets linked to German political, economic and scientific spheres on a massive scale.

Hans-Georg Maaßen, the president of the German Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), the domestic intelligence service, told German newspaper Welt am Sonntag: "There is no secret service that is as interested in gathering intelligence in Germany as Russia is."

The agents usually work in Berlin's Russian embassy, their diplomatic status protecting them from persecution under German law. BfV told the media that up to a third of Russian embassy employees in Berlin have a secret services background.

Green party politician Hans-Christian Ströbele, who has become known for his vocal criticism of massive NSA data collection by the US in recent months, has now called for a special session of the Parliamentary Control Panel in charge of scrutinizing the work of intelligence services.

Ströbele, who is one of the members of the panel, told DW that he "would like to have more concrete details on the information that was in the newspapers."

Information is key

Hans-Christian Ströbele with Edward Snowden
(Photo: Irina Oho/dpa)

Hans-Christian Ströbele (r.), a vocal critic of the NSA, visited whistleblower Edward Snowden in Moscow

Reports detail the Russian tactic known as "half-open procurement," which is used alongside more traditional double agents. The tactic sees members of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Services, who claim to work at the Russian embassy, befriend their targets and then arrange regular meetings with them in order to tap them for information about Germany. According to Welt am Sonntag, Russian targets can include scientists, NGO employees, as well as politicians and Members of the Bundestag and their employees.

Ströbele explained that though he is not naïve about spying, it was news to him that "this service is so interested in members of parliament and politicians."

He added: "I would like to know whether the Parliament was informed in any way about this danger or about incidents like these. But I also want to know what the German counter-espionage operations have done in order to protect German politics, German politicians and German members of the Bundestag."

Reports have suggested that every year there are over 100 attempts by Russian agents to covertly target German experts and that their efforts have increased since 229 new members of parliament were elected to the Bundestag in September 2013.

According to the most recent yearly report by the German domestic intelligence service, the Russian secret services are after political and economic information and are particularly interested in the "German energy industry" and how the prices of fossil fuels might develop.

A long-standing tradition

Klaus Segbers, an Eastern Europe expert at the Freie Universität Berlin, agrees with Ströbele that knowledge is key when it comes to counteracting Russian spying. "I think it is a good idea to make it public that there are allegedly indications that spying and intelligence activities from the Russian Federation in Western Europe and in Germany are increasing," he told DW.

However, Segbers emphasizes that "this news as such is not new," since many countries - including, unsurprisingly, Russia - have included intelligence forces in their embassies for "decades." He adds: "Spying, as some people say, is the second-oldest trade in the world. So we shouldn't be traumatized by this. But we should be careful - maybe a little bit more than in the past."

A session of the Bundestag this year in Berlin
(Photo: Tim Brakemeier/dpa)

Russian spies have been targeting Berlin's political circles including members of the Bundestag

His colleague at the Freie Universität agrees. Jochen Staadt, an expert on East German history, points out that there is a historical dimension to the latest reports. "We know from pre-1989 documents that there was always a large proportion of secret service employees working in every embassy of the Eastern bloc," he explains.

"I don't think we should kid ourselves. Of course intelligence services are embedded in embassies - and not only in Russian ones. I think that is undisputed. And all the historical documents available show that that has been the case since before WWI," he told DW.

Even friends do it

Historical analogies to the Cold War have also become commonplace in describing Russia's behavior in Ukraine. So it is hard not to feel that revelations of Russian spying in Berlin are a storm in a teacup - especially in contrast to some of the revelations that emerged in the context of the NSA scandal. In October 2013, there were reports that the US embassy in Berlin is used as a listening station to spy on Germany, while the UK was revealed to be using its embassy for the same purpose the following month.

Despite his current surprise at the scope of Russian spying, Ströbele pointed out that "especially in light of the NSA scandal - internationally and regarding German communications - people have always emphasized, just as I have emphasized, that we can assume other countries are doing the same thing."

"Russia and many other states that have embassies here in Germany have always been known objects of counter-espionage efforts by the German Bundesverfassungsschutz," he added.

An aerial view of the British embassy in Berlin
(Photo: REUTERS/Euroluftbild.de/Robert Grahn)

The Berlin British embassy (pictured) and the US embassy are thought to have listening stations on their roofs

A need for dialogue

Indeed, the most recent annual report by the Bundesverfassungsschutz, which was published in 2012, includes a section on the spying activities by Russian security services. When DW asked for further comment from the BfV, the intelligence service pointed out that most of the details recently revealed in the media were already in the 2012 report.

The Welt am Sonntag report detailing these tactics could foster distrust toward Russia and Russians in Berlin. But considering Russia's increasing international isolation, Eastern Europe expert Klaus Segbers thinks people should push in the opposite direction. "We shouldn't avoid contacts with Russians, by any means. It is more important than ever before to build up civil society connections from German society and Russian society, to talk about current issues," he said.

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