BERLIN — Long before the CIA and FBI came to the public conclusion last week that the Kremlin had interfered in the U.S. presidential election with the aim of helping Donald Trump, a senior German intelligence official told colleagues that Russia was interfering in German politics.
The federal security agency had observed “active measures” from Russia to influence public opinion, Thomas Haldenwang, the deputy president of the domestic security agency BfV, warned senior German security officials at a conference in Berlin in June.
With elections due for next year, government officials now fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin has trained his sights on Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of the most visible critics of Russia’s involvement in Syria and Ukraine, as the next target for a Kremlin misinformation campaign.
During a press conference earlier this month, Merkel, who will run for office again next year, said that cyberattacks and a misinformation campaign during the election were “possible.”
Konstantin von Notz, the Green party’s spokesperson on internet policy in the German parliament, was blunter. “There’s a real danger that the bitter experience of the U.S. election could be repeated here,” he said.
A history of cyberattacks
Already, there have been several, apparently politically motivated cyberattacks. In January 2015, a pro-Russian group hacked German parliament websites, including Merkel’s, bringing them down during a visit of Ukraine’s then-prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, in what the group said was retaliation for German support of Kiev.
Later in the year, news broke that a group identified as APT28 or Fancy Bear — the group that also reportedly penetrated the networks of the Democratic National Committee in the U.S. — had gained access to the servers of the Bundestag, according to Germany’s Federal Office for Information Security, and had been able to roam around undetected for several months, collecting information.
“To use Russia as a tool in an election campaign is something we hate … It’s fake information” — Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov
In the spring of this year, hackers tried to gain access to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The party declined to comment on the damage caused by the attack; however, a spokesperson confirmed that “in the past, there have been repeated cyberattacks on us.”
By fall, there were reports of another attack on the Bundestag, also suspected to be originating with APT28, which was fended off before they could access servers, according to the Bundestag.
German officials, including the MP von Notz, are doubtful about media reports that the Bundestag files released by WikiLeaks earlier this month originated from one of those attacks. The released files were a lot larger than what the intruders in 2015 had gotten, according to official estimates.
Officials, however, are concerned that the hackers may be holding onto any potentially damaging material to release it close to the election for maximum disruption.
The head of the federal security agency, Hans-Georg Maaßen, said earlier this month that “information obtained through cyberattacks could emerge in the election campaign to discredit German politicians.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow did not reply to a request for comment by POLITICO. Russian officials have denied that Moscow interfered in the U.S. election and was planning to do the same in Germany.
“It’s nonsense,” said Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Russia Today last week. “To use Russia as a tool in an election campaign is something we hate … It’s fake information.”
German authorities have signaled that they’re observing the Russians closely. But they are clearly concerned that Moscow could mobilize a wide network of pro-Kremlin allies to spread misinformation.
A broad campaign of misinformation and leaks of stolen information, observers say, could be used to weaken trust in government institutions and strengthen pro-Russian, anti-establishment parties such as The Left (Die Linke) on the far Left, and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
A circle of friends
Germans are divided in their views on Russia. In a survey this spring, 53 percent of respondents in the west of the country said they see Russia as a threat compared to 33 percent in the formerly Communist east.
Russians, for their part, have historically seen Germany as a partner with which to divide up control over Central Europe, and not an adversary. And during the Cold War, of course, Moscow controlled the east of Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when Putin, who is fluent in German, was stationed in Dresden as a KGB officer.
Since then, the Kremlin has leveraged its power in other ways, building up a network of influencers, including former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder who, weeks after leaving office in 2005, joined the board of pipeline consortium Nord Stream, becoming a lobbyist for Russian energy interests in Berlin. (The CEO of Nord Stream is Matthias Warnig, a former Stasi officer, who is reported to have worked with Putin in Dresden, though Warnig denies this.)
Another high-profile ex-politician with ties to Russia is former state premier Matthias Platzeck, who chairs the German-Russian Forum, a lobbying group, and who in 2014 urged the West to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Both are members of Germany’s second-largest party, the Social Democrats (SPD). Currently part of Merkel’s “grand coalition,” the SPD will challenge her for the chancellorship next year.
Like much of the rest of his party, SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel, the deputy chancellor and economy minister, also favors a much friendlier approach to the Kremlin, and the party has spoken out in favor of relaxing the economic sanctions on Russia, unlike Merkel, who wants to extend them.
“The influence of Russian foreign media outlets and their activity on social networks has increased — and it’s crucial” — Stefan Meister, German Council on Foreign Relations
Like elsewhere in Europe, anti-establishment parties have sprung up in Germany in recent years, and as trust in the government erodes, Moscow’s star shines brighter. The anti-Islam movement Pegida, for example, touts Moscow as an alternative to the poles of Washington and Brussels.
“In growing segments of the German population, people have this vaguely positive image of the Russians as people who stand up to the political mainstream, to the U.S.,” said Stefan Meister of the German Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.
It’s not just covert campaigns such as cyberattacks that concern German officials, Meister said, but also overt attempts to influence the public debate in the country.
“When it comes to Russian attempts to steer public opinion in Germany, the influence of Russian foreign media outlets and their activity on social networks has increased — and it’s crucial.”
A wide range of tools and instruments
Russia began escalating its information efforts in Europe after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, said a report from the European Parliament in 2016, describing Moscow’s aim as “to distort the truth, incite fear, provoke doubt and divide the EU.”
In the same time period, according to German security officials, there has since been an increase in Russian-funded media coverage criticizing the German government. In 2014, the Russian state-funded broadcasting service Russia Today launched a German-language website and a YouTube channel called RT Deutsch. The Russian state-controlled news agency Rossiya Segodnya has also started news website called Sputnik, which includes German among its 30 languages.
Both RT and Sputnik are decidedly pro-Russian and go out of their way to provide what they say is a counterpoint to Western propaganda.
The Kremlin employs “a wide range of tools and instruments,” including think tanks, television stations such as Russia Today, “pseudo news agencies,” multimedia services such as Sputnik as well as social media and internet trolls, said the report from the European Parliament.
The report also suggested that, in addition to funding pro-Russian media outlets, Moscow is involved in deliberately spreading “fake news” in comment sections and elsewhere on the web.
The case of Lisa
“Lisa” was the alias of a 13-year-old girl, the daughter of two German-Russians in Berlin, who said she had been kidnapped for 30 hours and raped by migrants. After the claims were reported by Russian media in January, Moscow accused Berlin of “sweeping problems under the rug” and thousands of people in Germany took to the streets, protesting the alleged cover-up.
Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, later denied that the Kremlin had sought to use the rape case to stir up tensions around immigration in Germany. But by the time a German police investigation concluded that “Lisa” had lied and there had been no rape, public trust in the political institutions had already been damaged.
At the Berlin conference in June, Emily Haber, one of the highest-ranking civil servants in the interior ministry, called the “Lisa” case an “effective” campaign that had polarized Germans, showing she said, “the limits of what the state can do against disinformation.”