BERLIN — Intelligence officials here are on high alert, bracing for a wave of cyberattacks, embarrassing information leaks and fake news stories spread on social media as part of an expected Russian campaign to sow political discord ahead of next month’s German federal elections.
The nation’s domestic intelligence agency says Moscow would like to see Chancellor Angela Merkel, a backer of sanctions against Russia, lose in September, but since that outcome is unlikely, the Kremlin can be expected to settle for any shenanigans that weaken the public’s “faith in democracy.”
Many fear the Russian subversion effort will get fuel from the U.S. presidential vote while even contested charges of Russian hacking and meddling in the campaign have become a consuming political and legal distraction for the Trump administration.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has pointed to Russian influence on the recent U.S. and French elections, warning “it cannot be ruled out that there will be similar attempts on the election in Germany.”
But for some here, particularly in East Germany, where Russian President Vladimir Putin once honed his skills as a KGB operative, there is little question that a Kremlin-backed subversion campaign is already well underway — and that its aim may be even more pervasive than German intelligence wants to admit.
There are as many as 3 million Russian speakers in Germany and, according to Dmitri Geidel, a local city council member in the heavily Russian-German Marzahn-Hellersdorf district of East Berlin, Moscow’s aim is to agitate them and draw international attention to their presence.
“One of the Russian government’s interests is to stir up the Russian-German population,” Mr. Geidel told The Washington Times on a recent visit to the district, where he says the most notorious example of “fake news” promotion by “Russian state propaganda outlets” unfolded in January 2016.
The so-called Lisa Case began when the satellite news channel RT, the website Sputnik International and various Russian-language social media platforms suddenly bannered scandalous headlines about the alleged abduction and rape by three Arab Muslim men of a 13-year-old Russian-German girl from Marzahn-Hellersdorf.
What came next was like a page from the KGB playbook on the art of spin: An ultranationalist, far-right German fringe party known for its alignment with Mr. Putin organized a rally in the district, replete with what Mr. Geidel says were “fake relatives” vouching for the tale of the allegedly raped girl.
The story was bogus. But German police took more than a week to determine that the girl was out with a friend on the night in question. By the time the findings were made public, hundreds of Germans of Russian descent were demonstrating in cities across Germany.
The rallies erupted just as the nation was engaged in regional election campaigns already dominated by heated debate over the Merkel government’s decision a year earlier to welcome in more than 1 million refugees from Syria and other Middle East war zones.
Analysts have described the Lisa Case as a wake-up call over the potential impact of Russian meddling. But Mr. Geidel says the most significant aspect of the incident was the ease with which Moscow was able to incite and mobilize the nation’s Russian-German population.
“For us, it was shocking because Russians in Germany are really quiet and calm and are just not known for participating in politics,” he said. “It was very symbolic. The Russian government wanted to see the protests spiral and go to Brandenburg Gate or to the Bundestag, so that it would make better pictures to spread around the international media.”
The goal appears to have been to “show that there are Russian-Germans here in Berlin,” said Mr. Geidel, who added that “it would be a very big pleasure for Putin if he could mention to Merkel that, if she’s not careful, there could be 100,000 Russian-Germans in the street.”
Fighting over ‘fake news’
A NATO analysis on the “Lisa Case” last year focused on the role played by Russian government-owned media in a classic “disinformation” operation to hurt Ms. Merkel. The German chancellor was sharply critical of the Kremlin’s pressure on Ukraine, and played a key role in imposing European Union sanctions after Crimea was annexed.
“Russian foreign media cooperate with system-critical journalists, pseudo experts and conspiracy media,” the analysis said, adding that outlets such as RT help amplify the relevance of fringe political groups that “promote the lifting of sanctions.”
Joerg Forbrig, a senior trans-Atlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin, said Russia will be tempted to meddle in the German election because experience suggests the rewards far outweigh the risks.
“Where [interference] succeeded, as in the United States, it has managed to wreak havoc across entire political systems,” Mr. Forbrig wrote recently in a blog for Foreign Policy.com. “Meanwhile, where it failed, as in France, Russia has had no political or other price to pay. This experience cannot but tilt the Kremlin’s cost-benefit analysis in favor of meddling.”
The Kremlin vehemently denies such activities, and RT says the claims about its operations in Germany are nonsense.
“These accusations are made without a single piece of evidence, a single example of the ‘fake news’ RT supposedly has been spreading,” Anna I. Belkina RT director of marketing and strategic development, told The Times.
“The reason for this is simple: there are none,” she said. “The mainstream media accepts these accusations by the French and German public figures at face value, without challenging them, or bothering with the most basic fact-checking.
“Those who are accusing RT of spreading fake news are themselves actually spreading fake news, namely about RT and Russia,” she said.
It’s an assertion echoed by Russia sympathizers in Germany, many of whom align themselves with contemporary causes of the far right as they take pride in the post-World War II role Moscow played in East Germany.
“I love Russia. East Germany was occupied by Russia. They gave Germany freedom again,” said one 53-year-old man, who waved a Russian flag at a recent anti-immigration protest in downtown Berlin.
“At the moment, the Americans, the Brits and the West Europeans still occupy Germany,” said the man, who asked to be identified only as Werner and said he grew up in East Germany. “I don’t believe the Russians meddled in the American election, and I don’t believe it’s happening here either.”
‘Champagne in the Kremlin’
Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the BfV, has sought to draw attention to the Kremlin-backed “fake news” campaign. But the agency’s biggest warnings focus on the threat of politically driven cyberattacks from Russia.
The agency claims a group backed by Russia hacked the computer systems of Germany’s parliament in 2015 and targeted Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party in May 2016.
A BfV report last month said German politicians and parties targeted by hacking of “confidential emails or other sensitive data must assume that explosive or compromising facts could be made public” ahead of the Sept. 24 election in which Ms. Merkel seeks a fourth term.
The chancellor’s allies say Mr. Putin doesn’t care that the German chancellor grew up behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany, speaks fluent Russian and may represent the Kremlin’s best diplomatic channel to the West.
“In the event Merkel would fail in the coming election, Putin might open a bottle of champagne in the Kremlin because he might think sanctions the EU has against Russia may be lifted more easily if Merkel wasn’t around,” said Jurgen Hardt, a CDU member and chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee.
Mr. Hardt said in an interview that he doesn’t “so much see a [structured] campaign to disrupt our elections,” but rather “a disinformation campaign to convince people that the German government is not as good and strong as they believe.”
That fits, he said, within wider Russian efforts to undermine NATO and the EU with various cyberoperations. “We have information that trolls in St. Petersburg have personally put fake messages into social media and that ‘cyberbots’ are amplifying it,” Mr. Hardt said, asserting that Russia’s aim is to “make it appear there is a huge movement” critical of Western institutions seen as hostile to Moscow.
NATO sources have briefed him, Mr. Hardt added, on instances in which officials posted facts on the alliance’s social media feed only to find that, within seconds, thousands of decisive “countercomments” had appeared online. “This is not possibly done by people; it can only be done by robots,” he said.
It is in no way surprising, he added, that Moscow would be trying to stir up ethnic Russian Germans in Berlin.
“The biggest number of double-passport holders in Germany are actually Russians — or Germans with Russian passports — and the Kremlin wants to exploit that,” said Mr. Hardt. “We have families from Russia in Germany who are probably better in the Russian language than in German and therefore are poisoned by the propaganda.”
A ‘Soviet mindset’
The most notable feature of Marzahn-Hellersdorf may be the vast Soviet-style apartment blocks that line the district’s wide avenues.
Russian signs adorn the aisles of several markets in the district, where vodka can be found on sale in smart green cases that hold shot glasses and special bottles shaped like Russian-made Kalashnikov rifles.
Mr. Geidel, the local council member, who is running for a seat in German parliament for the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), was excited to discuss politics.
The 27-year-old said he is not entirely sure whether Russia has a clear strategy for its activities in Germany. The goal may be to “stir instability by pushing negative messaging about a refugee crisis,” Mr. Geidel said, adding that far-right parties — the most popular being the Alternative for Germany (AfD) — are “feeding on such messaging.”
“Maybe the whole project can shift some votes to the far right,” he said, speculating that if the AfD grows strong enough, then it could destabilize the long-standing parliamentary “grand coalition” between the moderate CDU and SPD, a coalition that has helped keep Ms. Merkel in power for more than a decade.
“If that happens, the more radical parties suddenly become viable coalition partners to rule the government,” said Mr. Geidel. “This would be bad for German democracy because it would lead to the weakness of the big parties.”
Mr. Forbrig said the solidity of German political institutions and sophistication of the mainstream press make it unlikely any Kremlin plan to interfere in the campaign will have a significant impact.
“At most, Russian interference can make the campaign rhetoric more virulent, add complexity to the party landscape, and complicate coalition building,” he wrote. “But if decades of German postwar politics are anything to go by, the end result will, nevertheless, be a functioning government. And, judging by her ratings, Merkel will be at the helm.”
But Mr. Putin may for now be satisfying himself simply with keeping the pot boiling in the Russian-German population and seeing what happens down the road.
“That’s his hope, but even that, I don’t think is realistic,” said Mr. Geidel. “The Russian-speaking population would have to be far more active here to truly have an impact. The typical Russian-German citizen may have a Soviet mindset, but he does not protest here. There is no such culture of political activism among that population.
“Maybe Moscow’s strategy is just to make it appear as if Russia is strong and has influence,” he said. “If it appears to have the ability to meddle in elections, it makes them appear powerful. Maybe that’s the strategy at a moment when Russia itself, in reality, is unstable.”