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German ex-soldier stands trial in Russian spying case

By AFP - Apr 30,2024 - Last updated at Apr 30,2024

DÜSSELDORF, Germany — A German former soldier went on trial on Monday accused of spying for Russia, as Berlin faces a surge in Moscow-linked espionage cases amid the Ukraine war.

The suspect, identified only as Thomas H. in line with German privacy laws, was arrested in August last year in the western city of Koblenz.

He is accused of passing information to Russian intelligence services that he obtained while working in the procurement unit of the German military, or Bundeswehr.

The defendant indicated at the start of the hearing that he wanted to make a statement on the allegations against him.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, Germany — the second-largest supplier of military aid to Kyiv — has seen a jump in alleged spying cases.

Thomas H. had been a career soldier, working at the army’s Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service Support Department.

The department, which has about 12,000 employees, has seen its workload increase substantially since the outbreak of the Ukraine war, as the government stages a wide-ranging overhaul of the Bundeswehr after years of neglect.

In May 2023, the suspect “approached the Russian general consulate in Bonn and the Russian embassy in Berlin and offered his cooperation”, prosecutors said in a statement when he was arrested.

“In the process, he passed on information he had obtained in the course of his professional activities for it to be passed on to a Russian intelligence service.”

After his arrest, media reports suggested he had access to sensitive information as the department he worked in counted among its tasks the procurement of modern systems for electronic warfare.

These included technology for the surveillance and disruption of opponents’ radio systems and the shutting down of enemy radio or airshield systems.

Surging spy cases 

Thomas H. faces charges of being an intelligence agent and violating rules on official secrecy. He is standing trial in the western city of Duesseldorf, with hearings set to last until late June.

Germany’s domestic security agency, the BfV, warned last year of the risk of an “aggressive Russian espionage operation” against the backdrop of soaring tensions between the West and Moscow.

The latest example came just this month, when investigators arrested two German-Russian men on suspicion of spying for Russia and planning attacks in Germany — including on US army targets — to undermine military support for Ukraine.

A former German intelligence officer is on trial in Berlin, accused of handing information to Moscow that showed Germany had access to details of Russian mercenary operations in Ukraine. He denies the charges.

In November 2022, a German man was handed a suspended sentence for passing information to Russian intelligence while serving as a German army reserve officer.

German officials have pledged to take a hard line as spying cases surge. Chancellor Olaf Scholz said this month that “we can never accept that espionage activities in Germany take place”.

Last year, Berlin expelled several Russian diplomats for espionage, prompting the tit-for-tat expulsion of 20 German diplomats from Moscow.

Russian authorities for their part have levelled treason charges against dozens of people accused of aiding Ukraine and the West since the invasion.

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