America and the rest of the world are still struggling to understand what led to the outcome of the U.S. presidential election of 2016. It is almost dangerous, at least surprising, that the influence of Russian cyberattacks and disinformation are not a major subject within current discussions. In terms of the U.S. election, Trump was certainly the pro-Kremlin candidate. At least the short-term reason for the Russian efforts can be explained through the possible advantages a president Trump means for Russian strategies.
After all, the email hack of the Democratic National Convention, the cyberattacks on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and reports of hacks at The New York Times and other media organizations, should be enough of evidence for a sophisticated Russian strategy to interfere with the U.S. election – successfully.
This development was reason enough for the German chancellor Angela Merkel to announce concern and worries. Germany is already being the target of Russian hacker attacks and disinformation.
With a view to the upcoming elections in September 2017, Merkel warned of a possible increase of Russian interference, especially during the election campaigns.
Russian Propaganda is more and more focused on Germany and German society. Its main goal: triggering and establishing a feeling of insecurity within the German population and weakening Germany’s position on Russia.
The reason for the recent interest in Germany is most likely linked to the politics of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Following the annexation of Crimea by Russia, Merkel successfully pushed through sanctions against Russia by mutual European agreement.
Presumably Russia wants to weaken Merkel’s standing, thereby Germany’s role in the European Union, i.e., hoping the European front for sanctions will crumble and back down. In times of domestic political challenges in Germany and a fundamental crisis of the EU, Russia aims at using this momentum to successfully implement its disinformation.
Why is Russian disinformation frequently successful in targeting Germany?
Influencing the German public opinion, Russia has strategically chosen to exert its influence by addressing German vulnerabilities. That is to say Russia has studied the German society, its sentiments and fragmentations as well as the fears and worries concerning (parts of) the society.
The following are eight reasons Germany is particularly susceptible to Russian disinformation.
Russian disinformation tries to promote anti-capitalism, nationalism and anti-Western resentments. Experts conclude Putin’s worldview of the Decadent West is broadly shared within parts of the German society. Russian propaganda concentrates on the right and left margins of society, knowing the breeding ground for their messages is especially promising.
There are several million Russian-Germans within Germany. A proportion of them has been partly socialized in the former Soviet Union, making them more vulnerable and open to Russian propaganda. The results of a survey one were particularly striking: 19 percent indicated they trust German media, whereas 30 percent trust the Russian media. Conditions like these invite to particularly tailor information for these groups. The right-wing populist party AfD used flyers in Russian during their campaign, targeting those minorities successfully.
One historical connection is the historical sense of guilt following the criminally aggressive war against the Soviet Union. Another is gratitude for German reunification as a gift from the former Soviet President Michail Gorbatschow and the narrative of politics towards the East since the seventies, stating one has to keep the dialogue and the door open. This pattern has anchored itself in many peoples’ mind, establishing some kind of moral obligation to ensure peaceful relations with the Russian neighbor. It might be one reason why elderly statesman, like Gerhard Schröder, are so-called Putin-sympathisers.
Germany is in the crucial and important role of being a communicator between the East and West.
As powerful this role is, it can put the country in the horns of a dilemma, making it vulnerable for external forces trying to influence the fragmented public opinion.
Germany has taken in most of refugees in Europe. The welcome-culture at the beginning of the crisis has faded slowly away, followed by a change in public opinion. The terror attacks in Europe, including those in Germany, made extreme parties and organizations stronger. Russia not only supports these groups financially, but its media (Sputnik and RT are both active in Germany) produce stories putting refugees in a bad light, triggering further rejection of them and thereby in the end a rejection of Merkel and her politics.
As many other democracies, Germany is struggling with a part of its society feeling lost and disconnected. Some Germans are tired of traditional politics based on compromise; the politicians and the media are not trustworthy anymore – a perception that is enormously used by the Russians. Their disinformation strategy does not only provide wrong or misleading information, but in the end aims at causing a general mistrust in media.
Russia has succeeded in recruiting German politicians for important economic projects, like the Nord Stream pipeline. Former chancellor Gerhard Schröder is probably the best known example, being the board chairman of the Russian-German pipeline. He might be the most prominent case, but by far not the only one. Next to these individual cases, Russia has built up a broad influential network through civil society connections, including experts, journalists and lobby institutions.
Germany is still in the process of changing its narrative concerning foreign policy and defense leadership. Not only needs the narrative to transform into real policies, but also it needs to gain sufficient public support. In this contested period of change, Germany is especially vulnerable to foreign interference and disinformation campaigns.
Russia will play a prominent role in the campaign for the upcoming federal elections in Germany. This should be a chance, or even an obligation, to address the issues lined out in this post.