Foreign intelligence services are increasingly targeting Germany, its domestic intelligence agency said on Tuesday, warning that espionage, cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns, particularly from China and Russia, “pose a serious threat” to the country.
Though such assessments are issued annually, this year’s report was exceptional both for the strength of the warnings and as a measure of just how much Germany’s security environment had changed in a year.
Earlier this month, the government issued a comprehensive national security strategy for the first time, part of an expanding effort to confront Germany’s vulnerability to new military, economic and geopolitical threats.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rising global tensions with China served as a backdrop to the country’s increased exposure to foreign interference, given its position both in NATO and as one of the most powerful countries in the European Union, the agency said.
“Russia’s war against Ukraine also means a turning point for internal security,” Germany’s interior minister, Nancy Faeser, said at the news conference presenting the report from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, as the agency is known.
Yet the report’s strongest warning was reserved for China, which the agency described as “the greatest threat in terms of economic and scientific espionage.”
The publication of the harsh assessment of Chinese intelligence activities came at an awkward moment for Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who on the same day was hosting the Chinese premier, Li Qiang, as part of the annual Germany-China government consultations.
The talks — meant to renew relations between the two nations after a three-year hiatus from in-person talks during the pandemic — come in a changed world of increasing geopolitical tensions with China over its relationship with Russia, and growing efforts by Washington and other Western governments to “de-risk” economic ties with Beijing.
The report notied that Germany in 2022 was one of China’s most important targets in Europe for legal investment.
“Direct investments not only offer China the opportunity to make up for innovation deficits and achieve a technological lead, but also open the door to political influence, espionage and sabotage,” the report said, warning that it could also pose risks for national security.
“The extent of these activities can also jeopardize Germany’s competitiveness as an industrial and technology location and undermine the laws of the market economy,” the report added. “Ultimately, this threatens to result in a loss of prosperity and, as a consequence, risks to democracy, social cohesion and Germany’s independence.”
The Chinese delegation, which is also meeting with German business leaders, is expected to try to persuade the government not to impose stricter restrictions on Chinese companies operating in the country.
The Chinese delegation was also likely to push against restrictions on the telecommunications firm Huawei expanding its 5G network in Germany, as the government is widely expected to do under recent laws that limit foreign investments in critical infrastructure.
Germany’s political establishment remains deeply divided over the government’s decision to allow the Chinese state-owned shipping company Cosco to purchase a minority stake in a terminal at the Hamburg port. Intelligence services and several ministries had advised against it.
But in two other recent cases, the government blocked Chinese purchases of two German companies involved in the semiconductor industry.
Three other countries named by the agency for increased intelligence operations were Iran, Turkey and North Korea, although much of that seemed focused on their domestic rivals based in Germany.
Thomas Haldenwang, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, said that Germany and Europe had successfully intensified efforts to expel members of Russia’s diplomatic corps suspected of being intelligence agents — Germany deported 40 suspected clandestine agents from the Russian embassy last year, while overall in Europe some 400 were expelled.
More had been expelled in 2023, he noted, saying those efforts have limited Russia’s espionage capacity.
Russia is likely to “act more clandestinely and aggressively in the future,” Mr. Haldenwang said. “This could include the use of so-called illegals— intelligence officers smuggled in with false identities — as well as increased cyberattacks and even sabotage operations.”
Several “illegals” have been exposed across Europe since the war in Ukraine began, though no major cases have been found in Germany so far. However, last year, Germany discovered a Russian mole in its own foreign intelligence services.
Ms. Faeser, the interior minister, said cybersecurity was “an even more acute risk for Germany.”
She added that Russia would focus on “hybrid attacks,” including disinformation campaigns that encouraged conspiracy theories and support for far-right groups.
The agency has for several years described the far-right as the biggest threat to German democracy, including the Alternative for Germany, known as the AfD. The agency estimated that some 10,000 of the party’s 28,500 members were suspected extremists.
Even so, the party has been on the rise, reaching 20 percent in some national polls.
The rise of conspiracy theories in the wake of the pandemic has added to the potency of the far-right threat, according to analysts.
Last year, security raids foiled a planned coup attempt by a group of right-wing conspiracy theorists — among them AfD members — who had concocted a fantastical plot to instate a prince as the country’s leader.
The plot had no known links to Russia but shows the reason for authorities’ concern. The conspirators were unlikely a serious threat to Germany’s government, but they were collecting weapons and planned to attack the Parliament.
At the news conference, Mr. Haldenwang was asked to describe the difference in his assessment of the intelligence risks from Russia and China.
He declined to say directly which country was a greater threat, but said: “The Russian services’ approach is more robust, more visible. They work in a classical way, actually with all means known to the espionage sector. Sometimes even with means one knows only from films. Russian services do not restrain themselves in extreme consequence — also from the killing of persons.”
“This very robust way of doing something like that, we don’t see that with the Chinese,” he said.