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A look at Taurus missiles, the weapon at the heart of a leaked audio and Russian-German tensions

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LA Post: A look at Taurus missiles, the weapon at the heart of a leaked audio and Russian-German tensions
AP
KIRSTEN GRIESHABER, VANESSA GERA and STEPHANIE LIECHTENSTEIN
March 04, 2024

BERLIN (AP) — On the day that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was laid to rest in Moscow, Russian state media leaked an audio recording of German military officers discussing the hypothetical use of Taurus long-range missiles in Ukraine.

The conversation on a sensitive subject was never meant to be public, and the leak embarrassed Germany and raised concerns about the security of its communications.

Furious with Germany, Moscow leveled threats in response.

“If nothing is done, and the German people do not stop this, then there will be dire consequences first and foremost for Germany itself,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Monday.

In her retort, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said, “If Russia had not brutally attacked this country, Ukraine would not have to defend itself,” according to the dpa news agency.

In fact, the German officers discussed sending the Taurus missiles only in theory. Germany has not approved deploying the weapons despite months of pressure from Ukraine.

Here is a look at the fallout from what German media are calling the “wiretapping affair” and the Taurus missiles at the heart of the tensions.

WHAT ARE TAURUS MISSILES AND WHAT CAN THEY DO?

Equipped with stealth technology that makes them less visible to detection, the missiles have a range of up to 500 kilometers (310 miles), which would help Ukraine to put pressure on Russia in the Black Sea and elsewhere.

The German- and Swedish-made missiles would be able to reach targets deep in Russia from Ukrainian soil. (Taurus is shorthand for Target Adaptive Unitary and dispenser Robotic Ubiquity System.) In Latin, taurus means “bull.”

Ukraine has been asking Germany for the missiles to complement the long-range Storm Shadow missiles sent by Britain and France's nearly identical Scalp cruise missiles.

The U.K. announced last spring that it was sending Storm Shadows, which have a range of more than 250 kilometers (155 miles) and give Ukraine capacity to strike well behind the front lines, including in Russia-occupied Crimea. Ukraine pledged not to use the missiles to attack Russia itself.

France followed Britain by sending its Scalp missiles, giving assurances that they would not be capable of hitting Russian soil. Paris recently announced the delivery of 40 additional Scalp missiles.

WHAT IS GERMANY'S POSITION ON SENDING THE MISSILES TO UKRAINE?

Germany is the second-biggest supplier of military aid to Ukraine after the United States and is further stepping up support this year. But German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has refused to send the Taurus missiles. Last week, he said sending the missiles would pose a risk of his country becoming directly involved in the war.

“German soldiers must at no point and in no place be linked to targets this system reaches,” he said last week.

Some members of the conservative opposition, and even some in his socially liberal three-party coalition, want to send the missiles to Ukraine. But the idea is not popular with the public.

German media have suggested that by not allowing the Taurus weapons to be sent to Ukraine the unpopular chancellor was trying to distinguish himself domestically as “Friedenskanzler” or “peace chancellor” ahead of June elections to the European Parliament.

“Many people are afraid the war could spread. Scholz has long been aware of this sentiment,” the news magazine Der Spiegel wrote Friday. "He wants to show them: I am aware of you and your worries."

For military strategists, there are other concerns.

Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a note earlier this year that while the U.K. and France are already developing successors to their Storm Shadows and Scalps, Germany does not have yet have a successor to the Taurus.

Germans fear that their stocks of Taurus missiles could be depleted, he argued, and that “Russians would see the missile in operation in Ukraine and gain insights into the missile’s countermeasures and stealth characteristics.”

WHAT’S IN THE LEAKED AUDIO?

The 38-minute recording was published by Margarita Simonyan, chief editor of Russian state-funded television channel RT, on social media Friday, the same day Navalny was laid to rest after his still-unexplained death two weeks earlier in an Arctic penal colony. It surfaced just weeks before Russia’s presidential election.

In the audio, the head of Germany’s air force, Ingo Gerhartz, can be heard discussing deployment scenarios for Taurus missiles in Ukraine with three colleagues ahead of a meeting with Defense Minister Boris Pistorius.

The conversation took place Feb. 19, according to Simonyan.

The four military officers discuss how Taurus missiles could be used by Kyiv against invading Russian forces and how Germany would need to support Ukraine technically.

At the start of the WebEx conversation, there is a lot of small talk. One participant connected from Singapore. “It is quite humid here,” he says.

The four then start preparing a briefing on the Taurus weapon system for Pistorius, seeking to coordinate their messages and agreeing to prepare some slides to better visualize the situation.

“If we ever decide politically to support Ukraine with it (the Taurus missiles), how would all of this work?" one officer asked. “We should not only talk about problems but also about solutions.”

The four then discuss various issues that would need to be taken into consideration, including delivery, training and timing. They go into detail about what Ukraine would theoretically need the system for, such as targeting “a bridge in the east” or an “ammunition depot.”

In the course of the discussion, it becomes clear that they are referring to the Kerch bridge linking Russia and occupied Crimea. One of the officials says that training to target the bridge, which is “as big as an airfield,” would likely take longer.

They also discuss potential red lines for German politicians, including a desire to avoid the military being seen as directly involved.

The officers say the rapid deployment of Taurus missiles would only be possible with the participation of German soldiers — and that training Ukrainian soldiers to deploy the Taurus on their own would be possible, but would take months.

The recording makes clear that the German government has not given its OK for the delivery of the cruise missiles sought by Ukraine.

HOW HAS GERMANY REACTED?

German officials have not claimed that the audio is fabricated, which has widely been taken to mean that the recording is authentic.

For hours after the audio was published Friday by Russian media, German officials did not react at all. Then on Saturday, the Defense Ministry said it was investigating, and Scholz called it a “very serious matter” that required quick clarification.

Defense Minister Pistorius followed up Sunday by denouncing the leak as an act of “information warfare” against the West and said the aim was to sow discord within Germany. He said it was no coincidence that the recording leaked on the day of Navalny's funeral.

“It is a hybrid attack aimed at disinformation," Pistorius said. "This is clearly about undermining our unity.”

___

Gera reported from Warsaw and Liechtenstein from Vienna.

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