Grounds for war

A leaked recording of senior Luftwaffe officers reveals: discussion of options for Taurus strikes on the bridge to Crimea; Germany providing targeting data would meet the “criterion of being at war” with Russia.

BERLIN/MOSCOW/LONDON (own report) - Bundeswehr officers are discussing Ukrainian attacks on targets in Russia using German weapons. This emerges from an intercept by Russian intelligence. The Russians have recorded and made public a Webex video conference recently held between four German air force officers, including the head of the Luftwaffe, Ingo Gerhartz. In their discussion they say it would be feasible to destroy the Kerch Bridge with “ten or twenty” Taurus cruise missiles. Successful strikes would, however, require German programming and targeting data to be passed on. And this act would, in turn, meet the “criterion of being at war”, in the judgement of the four officers. In other words, it would mean Germany entering into war with Russia. However, if the Taurus cruise missiles were supplied to Ukraine without also providing German data, the weapon’s effectiveness would, they agree, be significantly reduced. The officers then speculate as to whether British soldiers deployed in Ukraine could provide support for Taurus strikes. London had already reacted angrily last week to statements by Chancellor Olaf Scholz to the effect that British military personnel were already actively supporting Ukrainian missile attacks. The candid Scholz was, said Tory hawk Ben Wallace, a former UK Defence Secretary , “the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time”.

The Kerch Bridge

The recording of the Webex video conference between four German air force officers reportedly took place on 19 February.[1] Nothing said was manipulated. First of all, it reveals how concretely the Bundeswehr is looking at potential attacks on Russian targets. These include not only strikes on ammunition depots but also, quite specifically, a major missile barrage to destroy the Kerch Bridge to Crimea. “We all know” that Kyiv wants to “take out the bridge,” said air force inspector Gerhartz, but “we also know what it ultimately means.”[2] The bridge is primarily used for civilian supplies to Crimea. Most of it is located on Russian territory recognised as such by the West. Any attack on the bridge would therefore be an act of war against Russia. It was noted in the video call that the bridge had been “intensively” scrutinised. It was “difficult to reach and the pillars are relatively small”. However, the Taurus cruise missile could destroy it. One officer stated that he had “searched out routes” and come to the conclusion that the bridge was “reachable”. Another officer added that “due to its size”, “ten to twenty missiles” would be needed. A small number would probably not be enough to do the job.

Participating means at war

According to the discussion recorded, the Ukrainian armed forces could deploy the Taurus on their own but the desired destructive impact would only be achieved with active German participation. This goes beyond the training of Ukrainian military personnel in the use of such a major weapon. Deploying Taurus would also require the Bundeswehr to pass on programming and targeting data to Ukraine’s military. The officers agreed that the easiest way to transfer the data would be from Büchel Air Base via a secure line. Büchel is a Luftwaffe base for Tornados that can fire Taurus missiles.[3] The officers discussed other options: either sending military personnel from Büchel “to Schrobenhausen” where they could transmit the data from the MBDA facility, which produces guided missiles; or taking the necessary data sets “by car” to Poland and arrange a transfer to the Ukrainian authorities from there. However, the officers agreed there was no getting around the “criterion of being at war”, since the act of transferring data would make Germany a participant in an attack on Russia itself. They are aware that Germany would be actively entering the war: “participating is participating.” To avoid this problem, they thought “you’d have to train the Ukrainians a little longer”. But even so, the Ukrainians would, on their own, make only limited use of Taurus’s potential due to a lack of programming data.

Special forces in the Ukraine

The leaked discussion moved on to potential alternatives. There could, for instance, be a request for support from British armed forces. This topic is extremely sensitive. The fact that special forces from NATO countries are operating in Ukraine has long been known. The Times of London reported as early as April 2022, citing Ukrainian military sources, that not only decommissioned but also regular British special forces were active in the country, albeit primarily in training Ukrainian troops in the use of British weapons systems.[4] In April 2023, leaked US documents revealed that almost a hundred NATO special forces had been operating in Ukraine in the previous month, including fifty from the UK, 17 from Latvia, 15 from France, 14 from the US, and one from the Netherlands.[5] However, details of their activities have remained opaque. Last week, a senior European defence official commented that, “Everyone knows there are Western special forces in Ukraine – they are just not acknowledged officially.”[6]

Strategic advice for Kyiv

It is also known that leading generals from NATO countries have been “advising” and even guiding the Ukrainian military leadership in its operational planning. For example, the commander of the US forces in Europe, Christopher Cavoli, has reportedly held extensive discussions on Ukrainian war strategy. In December 2023, it was reported that the Ukrainian army’s plans were being tested for feasibility in “war games” at the American military base in Wiesbaden-Erbenheim.[7] Last week, the Times of London reported, citing internal sources, that British Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Tony Radakin, had been a reliable mediator between Washington and Kyiv through the summer of 2023. His shuttle diplomacy helped the US to shape Ukrainian strategy without appearing to be overtly planning Ukrainian operations. Radakin himself was particularly helpful to Zelensky in Kyiv’s successful attacks on Russia’s Black Sea fleet. He had, wrote the Times, also coordinated the support provided by other top NATO military officers.[8]

Diplomatic crisis

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz sparked intense annoyance in London by referring to the alleged activities of British soldiers in Ukraine. In order to explain why he was still rejecting the supply of Germany’s Taurus missiles to Ukraine, Scholz stated that “what is being done in terms of target programming and targeting assistance by the British and French” could “not be done in Germany”.[9] In making this point, he implied that the British military were actively involved in conducting Ukrainian missile strikes on Russian targets – and that would make the UK a party to the war. This was “wrong, irresponsible and a slap in the face for the allies,” complained Alicia Kearns, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the House of Commons, speaking in response. Former British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who during his ministerial term had managed to push through the supply of Storm Shadow missiles to Ukraine, even angrily declared that Scholz was “the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time”.[10] François Heisbourg, an expert from the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), judged that Scholz was apparently as indifferent to the UK as he was to France. Meanwhile, Benjamin Haddad, a French member of parliament from Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party, diagnosed a “diplomatic crisis” between Germany and the UK, saying, “Berlin is very isolated.”[11]

“A few people on the ground”

What comes to light from the intercepted discussion among Luftwaffe officers on Webex is unlikely to improve matters for Berlin. In the leaked recording we can hear the suggestion that, in the event of Taurus deliveries, “the British” could be asked for support in “planning” attacks. Luftwaffe general Ingo Gerhartz literally says that “the English [have in any case] a few people on the ground” to do this, adding, “they’ve already told me.” Those people would, Gerhartz claims, be happy to “look over the shoulders of the Ukrainians” if needed for “Taurus loading” operations. Rumour has it that Gerhartz will be appointed to a senior post in NATO next year.


[1] Georg Ismar: Eine verhängnisvolle Schalte. 02.03.2024.

[2] Audiodatei und Transkript beispielsweise hier: Taurus-Leak – Russland veröffentlicht abgehörtes Telefongespräch. 03.03.2024.

[3] Georg Ismar: Eine verhängnisvolle Schalte. 02.03.2024.

[4] Catherine Philp: British special forces ‘are training local troops in Ukraine’. 15.04.2022.

[5] Paul Adams, George Wright: Ukraine war: Leak shows Western special forces on the ground. 11.04.2023.

[6] Guy Chazan, Henry Foy: Germany rebuffs Emmanuel Macron on troops for Ukraine and tells Paris to ‘supply more weapons’. 27.02.2024.

[7] Julian E. Barnes, Eric Schmitt, David E. Sanger, Thomas Gibbons-Neff: U.S. and Ukraine Search for a New Strategy After Failed Counteroffensive. 11.12.2023. See also: Durchhalteparolen aus Berlin (II).

[8] Larisa Brown: British military chief helped Zelensky destroy Russian war ships. 28.02.2024.

[9] „Kann zu Kriegsbeteiligung kommen”: Scholz bekräftigt Nein zu Taurus-Lieferungen. 27.02.2024.

[10], [11] Joshua Posaner, Laura Kayali, Henry Donovan: UK slams Scholz over claims Britain, France are helping Ukraine target missiles. 29.02.2024.