Germany braced for Russian cyber-attack as election looms
Every evening, German newscasters compete to deride this Sunday’s general election as the most boring yet. But behind the scenes in the glass-and-concrete cube of the federal chancellery, Angela Merkel’s aides heave a sigh of relief that another day has passed without Russia launching a cyber-attack on the vote.
A vast amount of data was stolen from the German parliament in 2015 by a hacker group associated with the Kremlin’s intelligence services and which was also linked to interference in the US election and the cyber-assault on French President Emmanuel Macron. German officials fear the stolen data, which exceeds 16 gigabytes and contains email details of MPs including Merkel, could be leaked to one of Russia’s propaganda platforms.
The torpidity of the election campaign is because the result is seen as a foregone conclusion: Merkel is almost certain to win a fourth term and the only question is who will become her junior coalition partner.
Beneath the surface, however, unprecedented measures have been taken to secure the poll from Russian meddling: Dieter Sarreither, the official who oversees the election, has replaced software on electoral commission computers and introduced procedures involving “analog” backups — communication by handwriting and voice.
Sarreither, whose office handles data in a closed network without a link to the internet, will monitor the media and social networks for any attempts at “manipulation”.
The interior ministry has set up a taskforce to protect the election process. The US Army, whose European HQ is in Germany, is providing cyber-warfare support. Nearly 50 per cent of America’s intelligence assets here are focused on Russian activities, according to sources.
“There is great tension. The hack of the Bundestag was clearly attributed to Russian entities ... but there has not been a great leaking action yet. Every evening we say, ‘Phew, it did not happen today’,” a Merkel aide said.
The official said the Chancellor “does not use email” and handles personal communications via text from a secure phone. The Russians could therefore not manage to do “something like they did to Hillary Clinton”, whose emails were hacked and leaked.
Concern remains, said the official, that the Russians could “take information out of context” and mix it with “forgeries” as part of a campaign against the Chancellor that already includes fake news and negative media coverage of issues such as migration.
“Russian meddling is evident. It’s unclear whether it’s always directed from the Kremlin, or whether there are also private actors ... it’s not always easy to find the smoking gun but this is part of Moscow’s foreign policy,” the official said.
The German government is understood to have sent the Kremlin “clear warnings” against trying to replicate what happened in the US and France. The latest was delivered by Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of BfV, the country’s equivalent of MI5.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was reportedly even warned that Merkel could kill Nord Stream 2, the controversial pipeline project that is set to channel Russian gas to Germany.
Last year a fake news campaign spread by Russian state television, and echoed by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, wrongly reported that an ethnic Russian teenager living in Berlin had been gangraped by refugees.
After the incident, Merkel commissioned the German secret services to investigate Russian activities in the country. The result is the so-called Sputnik report, an exhaustive document seen only by a small cadre of top officials. A 70page summary was disseminated more broadly but not published.
According to people familiar with the document, it identifies RT television and Sputnik — both Russian state media with German-language services — as well as the WikiLeaks whistleblower website, as tools of the Kremlin’s hybrid warfare. Ivan Rodionov, the editor of RT’s German service, declined to be interviewed.
The report also details how the Kremlin is trying to turn the estimated one million Germans who originate from the former Soviet Union into a fifth column; and it describes how a dense network of Russian-linked think tanks, journalists and politicians works to advance Moscow’s interests in Germany.
Gerhard Schroder, the popular former Social Democratic chancellor, is a friend of Putin and socialises with former officers of the East German Stasi secret service. He was recently appointed to the board of Rosneft, Russia’s biggest oil company, which is controlled by the Kremlin.
While Schroder’s Social Democrats, Merkel’s current coalition partners, conduct a more cautious Kremlin-friendly policy, the radical Left Party and the far-right Alternative for Germany are entirely supportive of Putin. AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland told a rally last week that Germany needed Russia “as a Christian bulwark against an Islamic invasion”.
Professor Simon Hegelich, of the Technical University in Munich, an expert on cyber-propaganda, has found links between Russian media and far-right groups in Germany — as well as the alt-right movement in America. Merkel invited Hegelich to brief top Christian Democrats on how Russian-linked groups set up online databases of propaganda, including viral memes presenting the Chancellor in unfavourable light. According to Hegelich, an attack aimed at weakening Merkel would be likely happen “shortly before” Sunday. “But the long-term goal is more dangerous. They want to erode trust in mainstream politicians and our democratic institutions.”
NATO officials suspect the number of troops who will be deployed in the war game begun last week by Russia and Belarus will exceed 100,000. General Ben Hodges, commander of US forces in Europe, said Russia could use it to station troops and hardware permanently in Belarus, close to the NATO border.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel with Volkswagen executives at the opening of the Frankfurt Motor Show at the weekend