Russia spins German military leak but chances of escalation slim: Analysis | Russia-Ukraine war News

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Russian propagandists made sure the German military’s most embarrassing leak in years would look like an episode of the 1941-1945 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.

“Comrades in uniforms,” or Russian intelligence services, intercepted a 38-minute-long conversation between German Air Force chief Lieutenant-General Ingo Gerhartz with his officers, Margarita Simonyan, the head of the Kremlin-funded RT television network, wrote on social media on Friday.

“The bridge in the east is hard to hit, it’s a rather small target, but [German-made] Taurus [missiles] can do it, can also hit the ammunition depots,” one of the officers told Gerhartz, according to the leak Simonyan posted online.

The bridge in question, the Kerch Bridge, is a $4bn, 19km long (12 miles) lacework of steel and concrete that links Crimea to mainland Russia.

To the Kremlin, the link is both geographic and metaphoric and epitomised the success of Crimea’s 2014 takeover from Ukraine that skyrocketed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings and paved the way for the ongoing war.

To Ukraine, the bridge’s destruction would mean the disruption of a key supply route and a symbolic blow to the Kremlin’s determination to win the war.

And the Taurus missiles could help achieve just that. They are equipped with stealth technology that makes them hard to detect by Russian air defence systems.

But the scandal will not result in Germany’s involvement in the war, observers say.

“So far, this will only affect the improvement of the security system during such talks and the identification of methods the Russian intelligence services used to make the recording,” Nikolay Mitrokhin of Germany’s University of Bremen told Al Jazeera.

And no matter how much the Kremlin spins the scandal, to Germans, it “isn’t changing that much”, said Andreas Umland, a German political scientist who works for the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.

“It’s a big topic in Russia, but in Germany, it’s mainly a topic in terms of how this leak was possible and how the Russians were able to get this recording. The content is a secondary issue, actually,” Umland told Al Jazeera.

German officials said the audio was intercepted from a call happening on Cisco’s WebEx platform that has security flaws allowing potential hackers to join conversations as “ghosts”.

The leak makes German Chancellor Olaf Scholz look weak, said Umland.

“The conversation is undermining the Scholz narrative that the Taurus missile can only be used with assistance from Germany, and that’s why Germany cannot give them over to Ukraine,” he said.

It also makes Germany look careless and untrustworthy to its Western allies, says a former Russian diplomat.

“This may decrease the coordination of Europe’s efforts, the Germans will be less trusted,” Boris Bondarev, who quit his job as a member of Russia’s delegation to the United Nations in Geneva to protest the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, told Al Jazeera. 

“[Scholz] most likely will hide his head in the sand even deeper,” he said. “I hardly believe in Berlin’s determination.”

INTERACTIVE-WHO CONTROLS WHAT IN UKRAINE-1709044724

Kyiv has long been urging Berlin, Ukraine’s second-largest provider of military aid after Washington, to supply the missiles that have a range of up to 500km (310 miles).

With this range, the missiles could hit targets deep within Russia, but Berlin has adamantly refused to supply them as it is also worried that Russia could get hold of a missile or two to steal its stealth technology.

But the officers in the leaked conversation discussed the possibility of providing Kyiv with the missiles – and training Ukrainian servicemen to operate them.

The training “may take three or four months”, one of the Germans said in the leak that she claimed took place on February 19. “This part of training may take place in Germany.”

They also mentioned “many people in civilian clothes that speak with an American accent”, making the open secret about the presence of US instructors in Ukraine even more open.

‘We don’t want a war between Russia and NATO’: Scholz

Germany’s Ministry of Defence confirmed the conversation was indeed “intercepted”, but could not say “whether changes have been made to the recorded or written version that is circulating on social media”.

“It’s part of an information war Putin is waging” against the West, German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said on Saturday.

“It’s a hybrid attack aimed at disinformation. It’s about division. It’s about undermining our resolve,” he said.

And when bristling at Berlin, propagandist Simonyan referred to its 1945 takeover by Soviet troops that was followed by the division of Germany into the pro-Soviet East and the capitalist West that ended only in 1990.

“Is this a high time for Russia to actively remind Germany how the blowing-up of Russian bridges ended for Germany last time?” quipped Simonyan, who has been blacklisted in the West for backing the annexation and the war.

Other Russian public figures eagerly followed her rhetoric.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said NATO was “caught red-handed”.

“If nothing is done, and the German people do not stop this, then there will be dire consequences first and foremost for Germany itself,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.

Her words touched a nerve.

The USSR lost 27 million people during the war, and many residents of former Soviet republics still associate the term for German air forces, Luftwaffe, with the harrowing and indiscriminate bombing of Soviet cities (including those in today’s Ukraine).

Scholz’s reluctance to send the troops – let alone advanced weapons – echoes the feeling of guilt towards the Soviet Union and Russia that generations of Germans have been raised with.

“We will not send European soldiers to Ukraine. We don’t want a war between Russia and NATO. And we will do all we can to prevent it,” Scholz said on Saturday.

He responded to the suggestion of French President Emmanuel Macron, who on February 26 said the possible deployment of NATO troops to Ukraine was not “ruled out”.

When Scholz said that a thorough check should be conducted, Simonyan immediately responded with a sarcastic: “You can turn to us, we can help with the check.”

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