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Why is German public reluctant to back UK over ‘Russian’ nerve agent attack?

While the German government has publicly backed Great Britain in the Sergei Skripal affair, the public are less willing to blame Russia for the attack. We spoke to experts to find out why.

Why is German public reluctant to back UK over ‘Russian’ nerve agent attack?
Photo: DPA

After former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal was attacked with a nerve agent last month on British soil, London soon pointed the finger at Moscow. British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that it was “highly likely” the attack originated from Russia and promptly expelled 23 Russian diplomats from the UK.

The German government appeared to agree, also telling four Russian diplomats in Berlin to pack their bags.

But the German public has been harder to convince.

A survey published by Tagesspiegel at the end of March showed that 30 percent of Germans thought the German response was “clearly excessive”, while a further 21 percent described it as “rather excessive.”

Conversely just 15 percent of respondents said the expulsions – small by comparison with those carried out by the UK and the US – were rather or clearly restrained.

Josef Janning, a leading foreign policy expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told The Local that Germans are not naive to the foreign policy antics of Moscow.

“I would expect that the German public find it quite possible that the Russians are behind the Skripal attack,” he said.

“But Germans have a bit of a guilt complex when it comes to Russia – they are still aware that Russia paid a heavy price because of Germany in the Second World War.”

This added to a general feeling that Russia “hasn’t been dealt with too cleverly” since the end of the Cold War means Germans are prone to try and pacify Moscow rather than do anything that could further escalate tensions.

Janning adds that the German public has a long memory when it comes to claims by British public figures that they have proof about the illegal methods of foreign leaders.

“They have been influenced by the absolute certainty with which Tony Blair claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction 15 years ago,” he says.

Historian Helene von Bismarck agrees that Germans tend to try and pacify Russia even if people suspect foul play.

“Germans at large are very cautious when it comes to any kind of international (albeit only diplomatic) confrontation,” she says.

I would say that there is a certain naïveté when it comes to the harsh realities of international affairs. For most, the wish not to make things worse trumps the willingness to oppose the things they know are going wrong in Russia.

Blaming Brexit

When British scientists who examined the nerve agent stated earlier this week that they could not definitely say where the agent originated from it was headline news in Germany, despite the Porton Down experts making clear that it was not their job to say where the agent was produced.

A lack of context to some of the German coverage has led to accusations that sections of the German media are spreading Russian propaganda and thus feeding general public scepticism about the British version of events.

But Janning points out that the broadsheet press in Germany has “generally had good coverage, which is balanced and conscious not to fall into the trap of spreading fake news.”

“Typical of the German coverage has been a call for Britain to do more to substantiate its claim [on Russian culpability].”

He also adds that there is general confusion in the German media as to why Britain has not accepted Russia’s request to become involved in the investigation into the attack on Skripal.

“The German media position is that you shouldn’t give Russia and easy point by allowing them to say that they were not allowed to check up on the evidence.”

According to von Bismarck some German commentators have cited Brexit as a reason for not wanting to back Britain.

“There are voices like the left-wing journalist Jakob Augstein who call Brexit their reason for why we should not back the UK over Skripal,” she says. “They claim that the British have chosen to desert the EU so there is no reason to help them. But that argument is just a convenient smokescreen. Brexit or not, Augstein would be in favour of cozying up to Putin rather than confronting him.”

A reliable partner in Berlin?

Populists on the right and left of the political divide in Germany have seized on the lack of a smoking gun in recent days to portray western governments as the aggressors in the Skripal affair.

“There is no proof that Russia was behind the attempted murder of Skripal,” Alexander Gauland, leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany, said on Wednesday.

“That means that it was hasty and unwise to expel Russian diplomats and take other political measures against Russia,” he said.

Die Linke (The Left Party) have described the official German position as “the opposite of a responsible foreign policy.”

“This extremely dangerous and misplaced strategy of escalation must urgently be ended. It is leading to a new Cold War and puts our security at risk,” said Die Linke MP Sevim Dagdelen.

Von Bismarck points out though that “there are also several senior figures in the mainstream parties who have called for a “rapprochement” with Russia. Not to mention the prominent retired SPD politicians like [Gerhard] Schröder and [Matthias] Platzeck who are paid-up lobbyists for Putin‘s Russia.”

But Janning is clear in his belief that the populist fringes will have no impact on German government policy.

“No one needs to be afraid that they will give in to the voices of the AfD and Die Linke,” he says, before adding that the German expulsion of Russian diplomats “should not be overread as Germany giving a carte blanche to the British government to do what it wants.”

Based on the current evidence Britain has provided about Russian culpability “Berlin will not cover for additional British action,” he says.



Germany arrests Russian scientist for spying for Moscow

German police arrested a Russian scientist working at an unidentified university, accusing him of spying for Moscow, prosecutors said on Monday, in a case that risks further inflaming bilateral tensions.

Germany arrests Russian scientist for spying for Moscow
Vladimir Putin. Photo: dpa/AP | Patrick Semansky

Federal prosecutors said in a statement that the suspect, identified only as Ilnur N., had been taken into custody on Friday on suspicion of “working for a Russian secret service since early October 2020 at the latest”.

Ilnur N. was employed until the time of his arrest as a research assistant for a natural sciences and technology department at the unnamed German university.

German investigators believe he met at least three times with a member of Russian intelligence between October 2020 and this month. On two occasions he allegedly “passed on information from the university’s domain”.

He is suspected of accepting cash in exchange for his services.

German authorities searched his home and workplace in the course of the arrest.

The suspect appeared before a judge on Saturday who remanded him in custody.

‘Completely unacceptable’

Neither the German nor the Russian government made any immediate comment on the case.

However Moscow is at loggerheads with a number of Western capitals after a Russian troop build-up on Ukraine’s borders and a series of espionage scandals that have resulted in diplomatic expulsions.

Italy this month said it had created a national cybersecurity agency following warnings by Prime Minister Mario Draghi that Europe needed to
protect itself from Russian “interference”. 

The move came after an Italian navy captain was caught red-handed by police while selling confidential military documents leaked from his computer to a Russian embassy official.


The leaders of nine eastern European nations last month condemned what they termed Russian “aggressive acts” citing operations in Ukraine and “sabotage” allegedly targeted at the Czech Republic.

Several central and eastern European countries have expelled Russian diplomats in solidarity with Prague but Russia has branded accusations of its involvement as “absurd” and responded with tit-for-tat expulsions.

The latest espionage case also comes at a time of highly strained relations between Russia and Germany on a number of fronts including the ongoing detention of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who received treatment in Berlin after a near-fatal poisoning.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has moreover worked to maintain a sanctions regime over Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, the scene of ongoing fighting between pro-Russia separatists and local forces.

And Germany has repeatedly accused Russia of cyberattacks on its soil.

The most high-profile incident blamed on Russian hackers to date was a cyberattack in 2015 that completely paralysed the computer network of the Bundestag lower house of parliament, forcing the entire institution offline for days while it was fixed.

German prosecutors in February filed espionage charges against a German man suspected of having passed the floor plans of parliament to Russian secret services in 2017.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas last week said Germany was expecting to be the target of Russian disinformation in the run-up to its general election in September, calling it “completely unacceptable”.

Russia denies being behind such activities.

Despite international criticism, Berlin has forged ahead with plans to finish the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, set to double natural gas supplies from Russia to Germany.