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Germany accuses Russia of "hybrid attack" with leaked audio of military officials discussing Ukraine

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Berlin — The Kremlin said Monday that a leaked audio recording broadcast over the weekend by Russian media, of a meeting between high-ranking German military officers discussing the hypothetical provision of long-range missiles to Ukraine, showed "the direct involvement of the collective West" in the Ukraine war. Germany's government has been thrown into convulsions by the embarrassing leak of the detailed, top-level military discussion. It called the leak a Russian "hybrid attack" aimed at destabilizing the European country.

A Russian state broadcaster published the 38-minute recording of a conversation between four German army officers about how Ukraine's military might use Taurus cruise missiles if Germany were to provide the weapons. 

Although no shipment of the missiles has been approved, the recording broadcast on Friday afternoon revealed detailed discussions among German officials about what Ukraine could do with the weapon system if it were delivered. Specific targets, including ammunition depots and strategic bridges, were discussed.

"The recording itself says that within the Bundeswehr [German military], plans to launch strikes on Russian territory are being discussed substantively and concretely," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Monday, misrepresenting the discussion.

Russia's Foreign Ministry summoned Germany's ambassador in Moscow for a dressing down over the conversation.

Russia Foreign Ministry summons German ambassador Alexander Graf Lambsdorff
German Ambassador to Russia Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, is seen outside of Russian Foreign Ministry building in Moscow after being summoned to appear following the publication by Russian media of an audio recording of a meeting between senior German military officials discussing weapons for Ukraine, March 4, 2024. Sefa Karacan/Anadolu/Getty

Another topic of the conversation, which took place last month, according to Russia, was whether Ukrainian forces could use the Taurus missiles without hands-on help from German personnel, and how long it might take to train Ukrainian troops to do it themselves.

The Ukrainian government requested the delivery of Taurus missiles in May 2023, saying it needed the long-range weapons to enable it to target Russian supply lines in occupied territory behind the front lines. The missiles would give Kyiv the ability to attack much deeper inside Russia, however, even to reach Moscow, and in October, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz decided not to send the weapons to Ukraine.

Over the past few days, Scholz has reiterated his concern that providing them could risk Germany becoming directly involved in the war with Russia.

The intercepted conversation shows that a rapid deployment of the complex weapon system would only be possible with the direct participation of German soldiers. The German officers noted that Ukraine could eventually train its soldiers and deploy the missiles unilaterally, but that would require more time.

South Korean Air Force Conducts Taurus Air-To-Surface Missile Exercise
A handout image provided by the South Korean Defense Ministry shows a Taurus long-range air-to-surface missile fired from a South Korean Air Force F-15K fighter jet during an exercise on Sept. 12, 2017 in Taean-gun, South Korea. South Korean Defense Ministry/Getty

"German soldiers must not be linked to the goals that this system achieves at any point and in any place," Scholz said last week, noting that any public deployment of German troops to help operate the Taurus missiles could be deemed by Russia as active participation in the war.

Some members of Scholz's government, as well as opposition politicians, are in favor of Germany delivering Taurus missiles to Ukraine quickly, and he was already coming under criticism for his reluctance before the audio leak.

This ordeal has brought even more intense scrutiny on Scholz, raising questions about his repeated insistence that German soldiers would be needed to operate Taurus missiles in Ukraine, when the officers on the call made it clear that would not necessarily be the case. 

Germany's Military Counter-Intelligence Service immediately launched an investigation into the leak of the audio, and at a hastily called news conference on Sunday afternoon, Defense Minister Boris Pistorius called it "a hybrid attack" by Russia.

Pistorius called it "disinformation" and said it was "about division — it's about undermining our unity."

The German Air Force officers involved in the conversation appeared to have been relatively careless in conducting the conference call. The virtual meeting did not take place on a secure line, but via the WebEx platform, which is known to be relatively easy to intercept. An encrypted line should have been used for the discussion of confidential military matters, per Bundeswehr regulations.

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