Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 71

A political controversy began to brew in Germany over the weekend following media reports that the German government may have provided Moscow with intelligence which aided Russian military operations against Chechen rebels. According to one German newspaper report on April 7, German foreign intelligence service (BND) chief August Hanning visited Chechnya and provided the Russian side with important information on the activity of Islamic militants and international terrorists. The German television station ARD, meanwhile, said on the same day that German agents had gathered information for Moscow on Chechen guerrillas suspected of being behind the deadly series of bombing attacks which Moscow has used as justification for its war in the Caucasus. The television network carried an interview with Ernst Uhrlau, the German government’s secret service coordinators, in which he confirmed that Germany was among the countries which had been asked by Moscow to help track down the bombers.

The German government moved quickly to distance itself from such reports, however. Already on Friday the German news agency DPA quoted government sources as saying that, while Hanning had indeed visited the town of Gudermes in Chechnya, the visit had been a “normal event” aimed only at informing the German government and not at providing support for the Russian war in Chechnya. That tack continued into the weekend, as German government sources suggested that other Western intelligence agencies had in actuality been far more helpful to Moscow. The Germany news magazine Der Spiegel, for example, on Saturday quoted an unnamed German operative as saying that German and Russian agents had swapped only low-grade intelligence on whether the Chechens were being financed by international Muslim groups. “The Americans, the British and the French gave much more precise data,” the agent claimed. The Suddeutsche Zeitung, quoting government officials, likewise said that agents from Germany and other Western states–including the United States–had supplied their Russian counterparts with information about the Chechen rebels’ international links.

German government denials continued yesterday. Uhrlau was quoted by one newspaper as saying that “of course there are information exchanges with Russia in areas such as international terrorism, organized crime and money laundering.” But he added that the “BND has done nothing to support the war against the Chechen population. Instead it gained information for the government that was important for foreign and security policy.” Other sources suggested that the BND had exchanged information with the Russians not to aid the Russian war effort, but primarily because Berlin is concerned by the potential establishment of radical Islamic bastions in the Caucasus mountains.

The issue of German assistance to Russia’s Caucasus war effort is politically significant in Germany. The left-wing Green party, junior partners in Germany’s governing coalition, have repeatedly condemned Russian actions in Chechnya. Representatives of the Greens reportedly warned over the weekend of a possibly serious government row if it emerged that Germany had in fact supported the Russian war effort. Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, it is worth noting, belongs to the Greens Party. A member of the opposition Free Democratic party, meanwhile, was quoted over the weekend as saying that if this “monstrous affair” was confirmed, then it would be something “unprecedented in German post-war history” and would “plunge the Social Democrat-Greens government coalition into a deep crisis” (AFP, April 7; The Guardian, Reuters, April 8; Reuters, AP, April 9).

There was no immediate reaction to the German reports in other Western capitals. But evidence that U.S., French or British intelligence agencies had aided the Russian war effort could generate criticism in those countries as well. All of them, like Germany, have roundly criticized Russian military actions in Chechnya, and Europe’s premier human rights organization, the Council of Europe, last week moved to suspend Russia for its behavior in the Caucasus. Moreover, if true, the German reports also suggest that Moscow may actually be getting some of the cooperation from the West over Chechnya that Russian officials are constantly demanding in their public statements over the issue. Still steaming over the Council of Europe decision, Moscow too has yet to respond substantively to the German media reports.