Confessed Russian spy in German military sentenced to 3.5 years

The defendant (L, front) stands next to his lawyer Marvin Schroth (R) in the courtroom of Duesseldorf Higher Regional Court. A 54-year-old German army officer who confessed to spying for Russia has been sentenced to three and a half years in prison by a court in Dusseldorf. Oliver Berg/dpa
The defendant (L, front) stands next to his lawyer Marvin Schroth (R) in the courtroom of Duesseldorf Higher Regional Court. A 54-year-old German army officer who confessed to spying for Russia has been sentenced to three and a half years in prison by a court in Dusseldorf. Oliver Berg/dpa

A 54-year-old German army officer who confessed to spying for Russia has been sentenced to three and a half years in prison by a court in Dusseldorf.

The man, a captain, had acknowledged betraying sensitive military information to the Russian secret services. He also joined the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) political party around the same time he offered himself up to Russian intelligence.

He also wrote to a politician with the far-left Die Linke party and made contact with a pro-Russian social media activist around the same time, expressing vehement opposition to German support for Ukraine in its war against the ongoing Russian invasion.

The verdict is not yet final and could still be appealed.

Prosecutors accused him of trying to serve as an agent for a hostile, ruthlessly aggressive foreign power.

German police officers arrested the man in Koblenz on August 9, and he has been held in custody since then. The incident was one of several Russian spy scandals that have rocked Germany in recent months and heightened concerns about security in the country.

The officer burned 123 documents - including 1,400 pages of classified material - onto a CD on May 3, 2023 and printed out a few excerpts on paper. He was then photographed dropping an envelope into the letter box of the Russian Consulate General in Bonn the next day.

He contended that the CD was not in the envelope, but the court found that claim implausible.

The captain was employed in a military office responsible for the development of military equipment and information technology.

The documents likely contained classified details of German military procurement projects for electronic reconnaissance and combat management. Prosecutors argued that, in the hands of a foreign power, that information would have disadvantages for Germany's defence capabilities.

The defendant himself advertised the value of the information in an accompanying letter to the Russians, saying that it could mean "a considerable plus for the Russian armed forces and the Russian Federation."

He included his name and a telephone number, but did not hear back from Russian officials.

He did not give up, however, and also wrote to the Russian embassy in Berlin to offer information.

"What in God's name caused the defendant to do what he did?" asked presiding judge Lars Bachler during the sentencing hearing.

He faced a shorter prison sentence because the information he offered to the Russians was classified as official secrets. If he had also betrayed more sensitive state secrets, he could have faced more severe punishments up to a life sentence.

The court also considered it a mitigating factor that the man would lose his position in the German military, as well as his civil service pension, as a result of the verdict.

The captain had claimed that he was driven by fear of a nuclear escalation during Russia's invasion of Ukraine. His defence lawyer argued that he began consuming fake news, propaganda and conspiracies on the social media platforms Telegram and TikTok during a difficult stretch of professional work.

"It's the biggest cock-up I've ever made in my life," the defendant said in a closing statement to the court. He said that depression caused by chronic overwork had impaired his rational thinking.

His defence lawyer said that the decision came during a four-day period in which he destroyed everything he had built over a years-long career as a professional soldier: "Four days of betrayal in which he crossed red lines. Four days of complete failure."

At times, he was far removed from reality, his defence lawyer said. He also noted that the man has since quit the AfD party.

According to the court, he also claimed to be suffering from health problems which he blamed on a coronavirus vaccination.

A series of other espionage cases in Germany involving alleged Russian agents have attracted widespread attention.

In April, two Russian-German dual nationals were arrested for allegedly scouting potential targets for sabotage attacks on Gemran soil.

A high-ranking officer in Germany's BND foreign intelligence agency, meanwhile, remains on trial in Berlin on charges of treason for allegedly passing top secret information to Russian spies with the help of a co-defendant.