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How significant is Russia’s apparent interception of military talks on Ukraine?

<span>A Taurus missile in flight during a drill in South Korea. German chancellor Olaf Scholz has so far held back sending the long-range cruise missiles to Ukraine.</span><span>Photograph: AP</span>
A Taurus missile in flight during a drill in South Korea. German chancellor Olaf Scholz has so far held back sending the long-range cruise missiles to Ukraine.Photograph: AP

An extraordinary leak of an online call involving Germany’s air force chief and three subordinates emerged on Friday, in which they discussed whether it might be possible to persuade a reluctant chancellor to approve giving the long-range Taurus missile to Ukraine, and whether the munition could blow up the strategic Kerch Bridge that connects Russia to occupied Crimea.

How did the leak get into the public domain?

A 38-minute recording was gleefully released on Friday on social media by the high-profile Kremlin propagandist Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the international TV network RT. A day later she offered to help Olaf Scholz get to the bottom of the leak, after the chancellor announced an inquiry to find out how a recording of the top secret conversation, accepted by Berlin to be genuine, had entered the public domain.

Related: British soldiers ‘on the ground’ in Ukraine, says German military leak

The overt nature of the leak represents a departure from Moscow’s previous operations, where hacked information has passed through non-Russian intermediaries such as WikiLeaks or dumped online. Significantly, it comes at a time of growing focus on Scholz’s continuing refusal to give Taurus to Ukraine, a missile with an operational range of a little more than 300 miles (480km) compared with Kyiv’s most effective long-range missile, the Franco-British Scalp/Storm Shadow, with a range of half that.

“In the bowels of the Bundeswehr [German army] plans for strikes on Russian territory are being discussed in a substantive and concrete manner,” said the Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, on Monday. “Death to the German-Nazi occupiers!” said the less restrained figure of the former president Dmitry Medvedev.

How embarrassing is this for Berlin?

Very. Secret conversations between military chiefs are simply not supposed to emerge at all. The dialogue involves Lt Gen Ingo Gerhartz, the head of the Luftwaffe, and three subordinates discussing the capabilities of Taurus ahead of a half hour meeting the air force chief had scheduled with the German defence minister, Boris Pistorius, to get “deep into” Taurus and perhaps change Scholz’s mind.

Unusually, however, the discussion is said to have taken place not on a secure military system, but on commercial standard Webex video conference software. One of the participants dialled in from Singapore, which may have been the weak link. In any event the call was intercepted and recorded, or a recording obtained and handed to RT, and some of the conversation was potentially embarrassing to the UK.

What did the German officers say about Britain in Ukraine?

Gerhartz and his team discuss how far Germany might go in its support of Taurus, and whether Berlin would need to provide accurate targeting and programming information for the missiles it would be willing to give. They reference France and in particular the UK, and note that in the latter’s case there appear to be soldiers on the ground helping receive and advise the Ukrainians on bombing decisions.

“When it comes to mission planning, I know how the English do it,” the German commander tells his subordinates on the call. As well as working with advisers back home, the British “also have a few people on the ground, they do that, the French don’t” – a rare occasion that the presence of UK troops in Ukraine has been discussed.

Are British troops secretly in Ukraine? How significant is that?

The Ministry of Defence would not confirm specifically whether British troops were helping Ukraine with the use of Storm Shadow missiles, although there have been rumours this was the case for some time. If it is true, and they are still present after the leak, the numbers are likely to be relatively small, although any help provided with targeting is a step closer to being involved in the conflict.

A week ago, Scholz himself referred to the presence of British troops in Ukraine helping with “target control” and said he could not accept similar for Germany whether inside or outside the country because he felt it risked making Berlin a “participant in the war”. It is likely that Russia was already aware of the UK presence, because of comments and leaks from Britain as well as its own intelligence – and it has not yet led to a significant escalation from Moscow.

A careful reading of parliamentary statements shows that the UK reopened its defence section in Ukraine in April 2022. A minister said in July 2023 Britain had troops in the country “to support the UK’s diplomatic presence in the country, and our training offer to the armed forces of Ukraine”, while leaks revealed that the UK had as many as 50 special forces in the country and that Royal Marines had supported “discreet operations” there, such as restoring the British embassy in Kyiv.

What happens next?

Former Whitehall insiders said they believed the MoD would be irritated but the leaks were too general to be damaging. Interestingly, at lunchtime, Downing Street’s main emphasis was not to complain but to press Scholz again. “The UK was the first country to provide long-range precision strike missiles to Ukraine, and we would encourage our allies to do the same,” a No 10 spokesperson said.

The main benefit to Moscow is to try to publicly exploit the leaks against the German chancellor, who will nevertheless continue to come under western and Ukrainian pressure to donate the Taurus missiles, not least because in the leaked call the German experts say they believe 10-20 might be able to blow up the Kerch Bridge.