This commentary is part of a new CSIS project exploring the impact of Russian and Chinese information operations in democratic states. Part I of the project examines Russian disinformation campaigns in the United Kingdom and Germany and Chinese disinformation campaigns in Australia and Japan. Read the piece on the United Kingdom here and on Japan here.
As Europe’s unquestioned heavyweight and a country with deep political, economic, and cultural ties to Russia, Germany has been a frequent target of Russian information operations. Compared to other target countries though, Germany has proven relatively resilient. Much of this resilience is the product of features unique to Germany that will be hard for other states to replicate. The German experience nonetheless provides some lessons about both the nature of Russian information operations and ways for democratic states to counter them.
Germany has been a focal point for Russian and Soviet information operations since the Cold War. KGB active measures in 1950s West Germany included efforts to emphasize the threat of a Nazi resurgence to encourage support for pro-Soviet parties. In response to the threatened deployment of U.S. intermediate-range missiles to West Germany, Moscow organized what Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s government called a “massive propaganda campaign of interference in West German affairs” to force his ouster in the country’s March 1983 election. Based on what can be gauged in hindsight, most of these efforts were unsuccessful or had at most a marginal impact; Soviet tactics were crude and public suspicion was high throughout the Cold War era.
Russian information operations in Germany have focused on specific vulnerabilities, notably Germany’s history of political and economic ties to Russia, the backlash to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome large numbers of Middle Eastern refugees, and strands of nostalgia associated with both Russian-Germans (ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union who immigrated to Germany) and inhabitants of the former East Germany. While Russian tactics and operational art have become more sophisticated since the Cold War, Germany remains a comparatively difficult target because of its consolidated political and media landscape even as the extensive web of political, economic, and social relationships between the two countries provides a more direct path of influence.
Targets of Opportunity
Germany maintains a different relationship with Russia than its European counterparts: it has deep ties to Russia compared to its neighbors to the west, and the fear of Russia that pervades much of Central and Eastern Europe is absent from German debates due to Germany’s relative strength. Russia itself also regards Germany as more of a partner than a target for domination. Since the launch of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik in the 1970s, Germany has pursued a cautious, pragmatic approach designed to gradually bring Russia onto a more European path (sometimes termedWandel durch Annäherung, or “change through rapprochement”). The Ostpolitik tradition continues to influence political and economic elites’ views of Russia. For much of the post-Cold War era, Germany has been the leading “advocate of Russian interests in the European Union and strategic partner with regard to energy and economic cooperation,” though views have hardened since the onset of the Ukraine crisis in 2014.
The numerous Russlandversteher (“Russia understanders”) in the German elite are one obvious target for Russian information operations. Moscow attempts to cultivate influential supporters through business deals and support for non-centrist political parties like the right-wing populistAlternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the post-Communist Die Linke, as well as pro-Russian voices within established parties like the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). Subjects are rewarded with lucrative positions and opportunities to participate in “informal and non-transparent networks [and] exchanges” such as the German-Russia Forum that promote better relations with Moscow.
Many of Germany’s largest companies also have extensive business ties to Russia. Moscow has cultivated support from the German business community for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will bring more Russian gas to Europe and strengthen Germany’s role as a distribution hub. The consortium building Nord Stream 2 also includes German companies Uniper and Wintershall. The influence of big business within Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has limited the center-right’s appetite among for a confrontational approach to Moscow even though the chancellor herself is comparatively hawkish. Business connections also cross party lines: former SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder is the chairman of the board for both the Nord Stream 2 consortium and Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft.
The combination of coalition politics and business support for the project are among the reasons Merkel has continued backing it even in the face of threatened U.S. sanctions and opposition from many EU member states.
Apart from the business sector, Russia has been particularly active in seeking to co-opt figures associated with non-mainstream political parties. The AfD has been the most important target, with Moscow using financial and political assistance to promote Russia-sympathetic views among party leadership with the longer-term goal of promoting German policies that are more favorable to Russia, such as sanctions relief and potentially strengthening the role of anti-establishment parties like the AfD within the German political landscape. In 2019, AfD member Markus Frohnmaier came under scrutiny after leaked documents revealed that Russia planned to provide financial and public relations assistance to his campaign for the Bundestag. Frohnmaier was already known to have cultivated ties with Russian businessmen and pro-Kremlin figures and had spoken out in favor of ending sanctions and recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Russia also directs considerable effort into influencing the 2.5-3 million Russian immigrants living in Germany. Many of these Russian-Germans remain socially isolated and have limited German language skills. Their social and linguistic isolation leaves them heavily reliant on Kremlin-affiliated media for information, particularly as the number and quality of independent Russian-language media platforms in Germany are limited. In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, Russian-German opinion moved strongly in the direction of the AfD, whose narratives around migration, sanctions, and other topics largely coincide with those of the Kremlin.
In addition to immigrants from Russia and other post-Soviet states, Kremlin-backed media focuses on inhabitants of the former East Germany. Many former East Germans speak Russian as a second language. Communist rule, moreover, left eastern Germany with distinct institutional and cultural legacies that overlap in certain ways with the rest of the post-Communist world, including Russia. Salaries, education levels, and other status markers in eastern Germany remain behind those in the former West Germany. As expressed in surveys and votes for non-mainstream political parties like AfD and Die Linke, easterners have higher levels of dissatisfaction with the status quo than their western counterparts. Their ‘left behind’ status and consumption of Russian information sources make them another important target for Moscow’s influence campaigns.
Germany is also a target for classical Russian disinformation campaigns, although the effects have been somewhat muted by the nature of Germany’s media landscape and party financing laws.
In perhaps the most famous instance of Russian disinformation in Germany, media outlets in 2016 circulated a fabricated story about a Russian-German girl named Lisa who was supposedly raped by migrants. The “Lisa case” sought to inflame xenophobia, galvanize the Russian-German community, and undermine support for Merkel’s immigration policy. Before it could be fully discredited, the story spread from Russian state television to Russian foreign language outlets in Germany (RT and Sputnik) and thence to social media and right-wing movements who seized on it to criticize immigrants and Merkel’s government. It was also referenced on two occasions by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, who criticized the role of the German police and intelligence services for allegedly allowing the crime to happen. The “Lisa case” gained traction in the German information ecosystem in part because of the speed with which it spread on social media, but also because it was picked up and repeated by mainstream networks before it was eventually shown to be a fabrication.
Russia also sowed disinformation during Germany’s 2017 federal elections. Russian-backed media outlets promoted tailored disinformation for far right, far left, and Russian-German audiences. Russian-backed narratives criticized German authorities’ handling of the refugee issue. They also sought to portray the AfD in particular as a mainstream party while downplaying scandals surrounding its leaders.
The ideological promiscuity of Russia’s political appeals suggests the extent to which the Kremlin’s information operations are driven not by an ideological alignment with the far right so much as by pragmatic considerations. During the 2017 election campaign, Russian information operations used foreign-language media broadcasts and online activity to target both ends of the German political extreme. The St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA, Russia’s leading ‘troll farm’) infiltrated online partisan networks and spread disinformation to exacerbate political divisions. The far right, specifically AfD supporters, was targeted by German-language broadcast media outlets, including RT Deutsch and Sputnik, as well as Russian, pro-AfD Twitter accounts. In conducting the disinformation campaign surround the 2017 federal elections, the IRA did not rely heavily on bots. According to Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Research Project, IRA bot activity was both less extensive and less effective than in the 2016 U.S. election.
Despite these efforts, the impact of Russian disinformation on the election outcome appears low. Though the AfD’s share of the vote increased by almost 8 percent, it remains frozen out of federal and state governments and has seen its rise stall. More broadly, Russia has struggled, as Constanze Stelzenmüller notes, to find German politicians who simultaneously “fit the Kremlin mold and show a remote chance of winning elections.”
Sources of Resilience and Lessons from Germany
Overall, the effects of Russian information and influence operations appear less pronounced in Germany than in many other states, including the United States. While Russia has pursued elite capture, cultivation of fringe groups, and disinformation tactics, German political cohesion is comparatively high, while support for non-mainstream groups is comparatively low. At the same time, support for good relations with Russia remains more widespread within the German political and business elite as well as the general public.
Observers suggest a couple of explanations for Germany’s seeming resilience in the face of Russian influence operations. The dominance of mainstream media outlets, especially the state-run television networks ARD and ZTF, seems especially important. Close to one-third of Germans watch ARD’s evening news program Tagesschau. Most of Germany’s 16 states also have their own state-run television and radio networks. With a less fragmented and more centrist-dominated media environment, Germany is a harder target for Russian (and other) disinformation campaigns—with the important exception of groups like Russian-Germans and Turkish Gastarbeiter who get their news from non-German language sources. RT and Sputnik appear to have shelved plans to turn Berlin into a hub for their European operations in part because of the difficulty they faced gaining traction within Germany. On the whole, the continued dominance of mainstream media in Germany acts as a check on the spread of disinformation and misinformation—except when mainstream outlets themselves fall victim, as with the Lisa case.
Social media exposure, conversely, seems lower than in many other states: the percentage of Americans on Twitter is double the percentage of Germans. In 2017, the German government implemented a new regulation, the Network Enforcement Law, or Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, that obliges social media companies to cooperate in identifying and removing defamatory content and junk news and imposes fines of up to 50 million euros for non-compliance. This regulation is perhaps the most stringent of any EU member. Despite concerns around freedom of expression (which in Germany has long been regulated by anti-hate speech laws), the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetzprovides a strong incentive for social media companies to cooperate in the fight against disinformation.
Mainstream political parties and big business in Germany are also more favorably disposed to Russia than in most other central and European states. Though Merkel is famously skeptical of Vladimir Putin and inclined to view Russia as a threat to German interests and European unity, influential voices in both the CDU and the SPD continue to view Russia as at least a potential partner. The business community, which has extensive economic links to Russia, is also a voice for compromise. The prominence of Russlandversteher within the German elite may, paradoxically, help to lessen the visibility of disinformation and other overt Russian influence operations.
German observers suggest that Russian disinformation in particular appears to have subsided since the 2017 election. The one notable example in the past few years was an attempt to sow doubt about Russia’s role in the August 2019 murder of a Georgian-Chechen militant named Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin. Moscow promoted its narrative about the Khangoshvili case openly, with Putin and other Russian officials weighing in, and Russian media repeated the Kremlin’s line. Disinformation in this instance was linked to a discrete event and aimed at pressuring Berlin to take a more accommodating position rather than attempting to disrupt German politics as such.
Whether this shift in Russian tactics is the result of successful deterrence on Germany’s part or a changing geopolitical landscape, most Germans do not seem to view Russian influence operations—particularly disinformation—as a significant threat. Disinformation and disruption are secondary in part because Russia has many other avenues for projecting influence in Germany. Despite tensions over Ukraine, migration, and other topics, many German officials, businesspeople, and others recognize that some degree of Russian influence is a price Berlin must pay to fulfill its economic ambitions and aspirations for stability at the heart of Europe.
This commentary was made possible by the Information Access Fund (IAF) administered by the Democracy Council of California. The opinions, conclusions, or recommendations contained herein are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies or endorsements, either express or implied, of the IAF or the U.S. government.
Jeffrey Mankoff is a senior fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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