The suspect identified only as David S., who worked until the time of his arrest as local staff at the British embassy, “on at least one occasion passed on documents he acquired as part of his professional activities to a representative of Russian intelligence”.
“The accused received a cash payment in an unspecified amount in return,” the federal prosecutor’s office said in a statement.
It said David S., who was taken into custody Tuesday in the eastern city of Potsdam on an arrest warrant issued on August 4, was believed to have been spying since November 2020 “at the latest”.
The Metropolitan Police in London said the suspect was a 57-year-old British national and that the investigation was conducted by the Met’s Counter Terrorism Command and German counterparts.
It said his alleged offences were related to being engaged in “Intelligence Agent activity” under German law and that the German authorities would retain primacy over the probe.
Germany has arrested a number of people in recent years accused of spying for Russia, but the capture of a suspect from a close ally is highly unusual.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Berlin was taking the case “extraordinarily seriously” as the “selection by an intelligence service of a close alliance partner is absolutely unacceptable”.
He added that “full solidarity” with Britain and would provide any assistance necessary to aid the prosecutors’ probe.
‘Like Le Carre’
Security specialist Edward Lucas likened the arrest to an early spy novel by the British writer John le Carre.
“The fact that the arrest has been made in Berlin suggests it’s a non-diplomatic member of the embassy, that’s why the German judicial system has been brought to bear on it,” he told Times Radio.
A scene from the film adaptation of John Le Carre’s espionage thriller, ‘A Most Wanted Man’. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/rbb/ARD | Kerry Brown
Lucas, who formerly covered eastern and central European affairs for The Economist, said the arrest was “a reminder of how much effort the Russians put in to trying to find out what Western alliances are up to”.
In June, German police arrested a Russian scientist at a German university accused of working for Russian secret service since October 2020 at the latest.
And 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.
Series of scandals
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.
In June, Italy said it had created a national cybersecurity agency following warnings by Prime Minister Mario Draghi that Europe needs to protect itself from Russian “interference”.
Tensions between Europe and Moscow have been escalating in recent years. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP | Vladimir Voronin
The move came after an Italian navy captain was caught red-handed by police selling confidential military documents from his computer to a Russian embassy official.
The leaders of nine eastern European nations in May 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 expelled Russian diplomats in solidarity with Prague, but Russia has branded accusations of its involvement as “absurd” and responded with tit-for-tat expulsions.
Last month, Russian security forces said they had detained Estonia’s consul to Saint Petersburg for allegedly receiving classified documents.
A ‘low point’ in German-Russian relations
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
Relations between London and Moscow have been at a low point since the attempted poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal in British Salisbury in 2018.
Viktoria Skripal, the daughter of former spy Sergei Skripal, was poisoned in Salisbury in 2018 along with her father. Russia has been blamed for the attack. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Pavel Golovkin
The Kremlin has denied any involvement in either case.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has moreover worked to maintain a sanctions regime over Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
And Germany has repeatedly accused Russia of cyberattacks and cyberespionage on its soil.
Despite the frictions, Berlin has pressed ahead with plans to finish the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, set to double natural gas supplies from Russia to Germany.