By Thomas Escritt
BERLIN (Reuters) – Russia paid a former soldier working for Germany’s foreign intelligence agency (BND) at least 450,000 euros in return for information about weaponry with which the West was arming Ukraine, a court was told on Wednesday.
Prosecutors have charged Carsten Linke and his accomplice, a Russian-born German diamond trader named Arthur Eller in trial documents, with high treason in a case that shines an awkward spotlight on Germany’s vulnerability to Russian espionage.
Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine was a shock to a German security establishment that had dropped its guard as Germany settled into a lucrative energy trading relationship with its giant eastern neighbour.
The Federal Intelligence Service, which four years ago moved into a 1.5 billion euro new building, the largest such headquarters in the world, was so taken off guard that its head Bruno Kahl was in Kyiv on the morning that President Vladimir Putin launched his air, sea and land invasion of the country on Feb. 22.
Barely two months later, according to prosecutors, one of Kahl’s own intelligence officials, head of a signals intelligence unit, was hatching a plan to sell secrets to Russia’s FSB intelligence service, Putin’s own former agency.
Facing the two accused, who were sitting in glass cages across the courtroom, the lead prosecutor said Linke had agreed to help a wealthy Russian businessman, an acquaintance of Eller, to get German residency while also agreeing to provide information for the FSB.
The businessman, named only as Mr Mizayev, suggested to the pair “that they could together do something good for both their countries”, the prosecutor said. Both deny the charges.
Eller, bald and dressed in a tight black t-shirt, and Linke, wearing a crumpled suit under tightly cropped military hair, ignored each other. Earlier, magazine Der Spiegel said their separate defences would involve seeking to cast doubt on each other’s testimony.
Much of the case, which raises deep questions about the resilience of Germany’s security state, was classified, with reporters required to file out of the courtroom for key passages.
“I’m old enough to remember East Germany,” said Linke’s lawyer, who said the fact that his defendant was unable to see the confidential evidence against him reminded him of Communist times and called the result “a show trial”.
Prosecutors said Eller had taken smartphone photographs of classified documents Linke had printed out, which he would then hand over to FSB offices during trips to Moscow.
Eventually, the FSB issued them with three specialised phones to use for their spying. It also gave Eller hundreds of thousands of euros in cash to pay for his and Linke’s services, prosecutors said.
Der Spiegel had earlier reported that the leaked intelligence had revealed to Moscow that the BND had access to a chat system used by the Wagner mercenary group that at the time was playing a central role in the conflict in Ukraine.
That access had been provided to the BND by another Western security agency, which had thereby in effect blown an allied agency’s operation.
In recent years, prosecutors have uncovered operations to spy on German parliamentarians while two years ago a Russian agent was convicted of murdering an exiled Chechen in broad daylight in central Berlin.
The trial is due to run until the summer. High treason is punishable with a sentence of up to life imprisonment in Germany.
(Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Nick Macfie)