German leaks putting British troops at risk are ‘tip of the iceberg’

Olaf Scholz
Olaf Scholz is under major pressure after the German air force accidentally leaked details of British 'troops on the ground' in Ukraine - Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

German military leaks that have put British troops at risk could be the tip of the iceberg, Berlin’s former intelligence chief warned on Monday night.

August Hanning said more Nato secrets may have been compromised after Russia intercepted and published a video call disclosing military information, telling Bild newspaper: “This leak could have been just the tip of the iceberg.”

On Monday, sources claimed that Russia had identified Germany as the “weakest link” in Nato and was using Olaf Scholz as a “useful idiot”.

The German chancellor was under major pressure on Monday after the German air force accidentally leaked details of British “troops on the ground” in Ukraine in an unsecure video conference call.

Lord Cameron, the Foreign Secretary, will travel to Berlin on Thursday for a meeting with his German counterpart at which the leaks are expected to be raised.

The Foreign Office sought to play down a possible clash, saying: “There will be detailed discussions about both the big issues of the moment: Ukraine and Gaza.”

Last week, Mr Scholz suggested that British troops were helping to fire cruise missiles, leading to the Kremlin claiming Western allies were entering the war with Russia.

In the leaked video call, the head of the German air force said Britain “have a few people on the ground [operating] in reachback” – a military term that suggests units deployed deep into Ukraine.

Military experts warned that the revelations put British troops at risk, as their role on the ground was previously assumed to be limited.

Russian propagandists broadcast the intercepted video conference call between German air force officers, which took place using off-the-shelf WebEx commercial software.

Meanwhile, security experts warned that Britain was not ready for a “high-casualty scenario” if a wider conflict broke out in Europe.

Experts from the Rusi think tank said contingency plans were “ill-suited” to dealing with returning injured soldiers and the possibility of attacks closer to British soil.

On Monday, the video leak was described as a “wake-up call” for Germany by Christian Lindner, Mr Scholz’s coalition partner. The Free Democrat Party leader said Vladimir Putin was targeting Germany.

Downing Street described the German leak of British military secrets as a “very serious matter”. A diplomatic source said: “More worryingly, Russia has identified Germany as the weakest link in the alliance and Scholz as a useful idiot to take Germany out of the equation.

“And they [Russia] might not be wrong, given the way he positions Germany and his party in this debate.”

Ben Wallace, the former defence secretary, has previously warned that Russian agents have a foothold within the country’s security services.

The leaked audio was released amid a mounting political row in Berlin over the deliveries of Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine.

Mr Scholz is under pressure at home and abroad to match Britain and France’s donations of Storm Shadow missiles. He has insisted such a move would drag his country into a direct war with Moscow.

The leaked audio clip contained discussions on whether German troops would be needed on the ground to help Ukrainian forces operate the missiles.

The officials on the conference call also appeared to discuss whether Kyiv could use the precision weapon to strike the Kerch bridge, which connects occupied Crimea with mainland Russia.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said the leak “confirms once again that the countries of the collective West are being drawn into the conflict around Ukraine”.

He said it also demonstrated that it was “more than obvious” that Germany was “discussing substantive and specific plans to strike Russian territory”.

Germany dismissed Moscow’s claim that it was preparing a strike on Russia as “absurd propaganda”.

A spokesman for Rishi Sunak said the leak would not deter Britain’s support for Ukraine and its work with Germany.

Asked about the security breach – one of the worst by Berlin since the Cold War – the Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “It’s obviously a matter for Germany to investigate, and you’ve got Chancellor Scholz’s words on this.

“I think he said that it’s clearly a very serious matter, and that’s why it’s now being investigated very carefully. The UK was the first on our part to provide long-range precision strike missiles to Ukraine, and we would encourage our allies to do the same.

“We’ve been clear from the outset that the UK will provide Ukraine with the necessary aid, including lethal support, to defend itself and reclaim its sovereign territory.”

The spokesman declined to be drawn on whether there were any plans to restrict intelligence-sharing with Berlin, and said the incident was “one for Germany to investigate”.

“More broadly, we’ve got a long-standing and very close defence relationship with Germany, we’re two of the biggest providers of military aid to Ukraine, and we will continue to work together to support Ukraine in its defence against Russia,” he added.

EU sources said the bloc’s intelligence practices were under constant review because of the threat of Russian attacks. A Nato official said: “We don’t comment on intelligence matters.”

Warnings were also issued on Monday night that the NHS must prepare for a “high-casualty scenario” in case war breaks out in Europe.

Colonel Si Horne, who served as an emergency doctor in Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and South Sudan, said the health service and Ministry of Defence’s plans to deal with military casualties were insufficient and “Afghanistan-era”.

Gen Sir Patrick Sanders, the head of the British Army, had previously said it was time to consider conscription and suggested that Britain “train and equip” a “citizen army”, with the number of fully trained soldiers set to fall to 72,500 by 2025. Downing Street ruled out such a move and insisted the Army would remain voluntary.

Now military medical experts have raised further concerns about Britain’s capacity for war. Col Horne, the Chief of the General Staff’s visiting fellow at Rusi, and Ed Arnold, a European security research fellow at the think tank, said the Government must increase the UK’s resilience ahead of a possible conflict in a way that it failed to do for the pandemic.

“Recent warnings on the potential of war have focused on the military’s fighting capability and physical component, rather than the arguably more critical enablers and moral component needed to win a war,” the pair wrote in an editorial.

In recent conflicts, including Afghanistan, most Army personnel were treated at bases nearer to the warzone because of “air supremacy” allowing helicopter extraction of the injured, the “minimal, long-range threat” to attack bases and a “negligible” cyber threat.

However, the editorial said a future conflict was likely to present very different challenges to the military and the NHS, which was already “increasingly strained”.